Part Two: Strategies for Change
6. Moving Into Struggle
Historically women have moved into struggle in many different ways and working-class women, because of the double oppression which they face, are potentially some of the most determined fighters. In the textile mills, for example, in the 19th century, super-exploited women workers joined together with male workers in the trade unions to fight for their rights. In some sectors, women were excluded from the trade unions by male workers who feared competition for their jobs and the depression of wages and conditions, or believed that a woman’s place was in the home and not in the factory. Unable to join existing unions, female workers organised their own, while at the same time fighting for unity with men.
Even the most exploited and downtrodden women workers, those who were not organised in unions and were considered ‘unorganisable’ by the trade union bureaucracy, waged heroic struggles. It was the ‘match girls’ in the East End of London, for example, who ‘sparked off’ the massive wave of struggle known as ‘new unionism’ at the end of the 19th century in Britain, when tens of thousands of previously unorganised workers formed new, combative trade unions. These match workers toiled in the most horrendous conditions, working 11 hours a day for a pittance from which draconian fines were deducted for minor offences. Defying the pessimists, they took strike action and, with the help of socialists, won most of their demands, including the right to organise a trade union.
The period of the ‘Great Unrest’, from 1910-1911, also drew super-exploited women workers into action, especially in the East End and South London: “ Jam and pickle workers, rag-pickers, biscuit makers, bottle-washers, tin-box makers, cocoa makers, distillery workers, all sweated factory workers…… came out on strike for wage increases…… and most were successful.”1
Today, in the ex-colonial countries we see similar examples of women workers, often very young, bravely challenging the near slave-like conditions which capitalism forces them to toil and live in. In the ‘advanced’ industrialised countries as well, there have been significant strikes by super-oppressed workers such as the cleaners, mainly female and immigrant, in the USA, fighting for union organisation.
Historically, women have also moved into struggle in their ‘traditional’ role as mothers and carers in the home, and as consumers. Through the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Britain, for example, at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, they waged campaigns against the adulteration of food and for better care for mothers during pregnancy and childbirth. Although, in general, they did not challenge the historical division of labour between men and women in the home, they did fight for an alternative way of organising working-class lives through cooperative childcare, shopping, laundries, restaurants, etc. Most of the women involved in these struggles did not work outside the home but were nevertheless part of the labour movement, and campaigned around ‘workplace’ issues such as equal pay. Women’s sexual health was also an important issue for them.
Today, women are often at the forefront of campaigns to defend community facilities against privatisation, cuts and closures. If a local hospital is faced with closure everyone suffers, but women can be particularly affected. They are often frequent users of health facilities because of giving birth to, and caring for, children, and many women are themselves employed in the public (and increasingly former public) sector. As economic crisis and its aftermath force governments to slash public spending, it is inevitable that women will play a crucial role in resisting these attacks. Education, childcare, housing, transport, local environment, welfare benefits – these are all areas in which women have battled, and will continue to do so in the future.
Sometimes women have mobilised as ‘auxiliaries’ to working-class men who have taken strike action. It was the vital role that women played in the 1984-85 miners’ strike in Britain – organising soup kitchens, speaking at meetings, raising finance, picketing – which enabled the miners to hold out for so long. ‘Miners’ wives’ and other working-class women have movingly explained how being involved in that struggle changed their lives. It opened up new horizons and gave them confidence; nothing in their lives would ever be the same again.
Today, because of their increased numerical strength in the workforce, working-class women are much more likely to move into action as workers in their own right. This is particularly true in the public sector where they are often in a majority and where nursery nurses, teachers and teaching assistants, local authority and health workers and many others have fought determined battles against cuts, privatisation and deteriorating working conditions. As governments unleash even more draconian attacks on public spending in order to reduce deficits and make workers pay for the economic crisis, women will be to the forefront of bitter battles in defence of jobs, wages and services.
Campaigning amongst women
As in the past, women will also mobilise around issues of special concern to them because of their gender, whether through the trade unions and workers’ organisations or through specific and autonomous organisations and campaigns. Sometimes it has been as a consequence of struggle around issues such as low pay or fighting against cuts and privatisation that women workers have gained the confidence to raise, and campaign around, questions of specific concern to them, such as sexual harassment and reproductive rights. At other times it has been as a consequence of campaigning around gender issues that they have been spurred into a broader struggle for economic and social change. Involvement in campaigning on single issues, such as for democratic rights, to protect the environment or against racism or war, can also awaken awareness of both gender and wider social oppression. In fact, in recent years women, and in particular young women, have been extremely active in these kinds of single-issue campaigns.
In many countries attacks on abortion and reproductive rights have been a catalyst for women to get organised and fight back. Sometimes this has been in response to attempts by governments to restrict access to abortion or other services, through legislative change, sometimes to prevent cuts in health care and other facilities undermining reproductive rights, and also to counter an ideological offensive by reactionary and religious forces.
Socialists and Marxists fight for the right of all women to be able to choose when and whether to have children: the right to free access to contraception to prevent pregnancy, the right to free abortion as early and as safely as possible in order to end an unwanted pregnancy, the right to free treatment for all those who want children and have fertility problems and the right to a decent wage, childcare, housing and other services, so that nobody is prevented from having children due to economic factors.
In these and other campaigns, the challenge for socialists and Marxists is to explain how gender inequality and oppression is linked to the capitalist system itself, and to orientate these campaigns towards the force which potentially has the strength to win temporary and lasting gains for women – the organised working class. This we were able to successfully do with the Campaign Against Domestic Violence, explaining how domestic violence is a class issue in that it is rooted in the structures and ideology of class society and how the organised working class can play a key role in securing economic and other reforms, as well as in the wider struggle to change society.
In many countries in which the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) – the international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated – is active we have taken initiatives on this question, including a very successful campaign in Pakistan in very difficult conditions. Swedish CWI members were also involved in campaigning against ‘honour killings’ after the brutal death of a young Turkish woman at the hands of relatives. Because violence against women is so widespread in every country, it is likely to continue to be a major issue and one around which women will move into struggle.
Anti-sexist campaigns are also likely to develop and expand. The revival and ‘normalisation’ of sexist imagery has divided young women in particular. While some mistakenly take the view that it is not a problem, others have been spurred into action, especially in the universities, campaigning against sex-industry themed club nights, beauty contests, etc. In Sweden, in response to sexism in the schools, CWI members took the initiative in launching a very successful campaign called ‘Don’t call me a whore’, which rapidly gained broad and active support amongst young women and young men. In India, we were active in opposing the way that the beauty industry promotes a particular view of women in the pursuit of profit.
A revival of collective struggle in the workplaces and more generally in society is likely to give a further impetus to these and other campaigns around issues of concern to women. At the same time, gender and social issues could themselves become the trigger for a more generalised movement.
It cannot be taken for granted, however, that trade unions and workers’ organisations generally will automatically understand the necessity of acting on issues of concern to women. Working-class women have often had to struggle for their concerns to be recognised or to push their organisations beyond mere lip service into actively campaigning around their specific needs.
Recently there have been examples of workers’ parties and organisations resisting the demand for free abortion. In Brazil, for example, members of the CWI were involved in an important struggle around this issue in the Party of Socialism and Liberty (P-SoL), where its most prominent spokesperson, a woman, opposed abortion and refused to campaign in elections on the platform of a woman’s right to choose. Where workers’ organisations have successfully campaigned on this issue, real victories have been possible. In Britain, for example, a mass mobilisation by the labour movement in 1979 helped defeat the Corrie bill which would have cut the upper time limit for abortions at that time from 28 to 20 weeks.
The biggest social gains for women have been won precisely at times of heightened radicalisation and a rising level of class struggle. Today, women have a crucial role to play in rebuilding and strengthening the trade unions and workers’ parties and transforming them into organisations which are prepared to fight for the rights of all workers in the workplace and more widely in society.
Historically, however, women have faced many material and cultural barriers to becoming actively involved in workers’ organisations. Their ‘double burden’ of paid and unpaid work has left them little time for active participation. Hannah Mitchell, a working-class woman involved in the suffrage movement in the north of England, complained that women were fighting for the vote “with one hand tied behind us”.2 Unfortunately, workers’ organisations have not been immune from the prejudices which exist in society as a whole and sometimes women have faced blatant sexism and discrimination from male activists. It has often been through joint struggle that these prejudices have been broken down – such as in the miners’ strike in Britain in the 1980s for example, when many miners saw their attitudes transformed due to the key involvement of women in the miners’ support groups, and also because of the participation of gay and lesbian activists in supporting the strike.
Socialist women have often played a prominent role in fighting for the rights of working women and encouraging their involvement in struggle. Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, helped to organise exploited women workers in the East End of London, and it was the German socialist, Clara Zetkin, a friend and comrade of one of the most prominent female revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg, who first proposed in 1910, at an international conference of socialist women, that an international working women’s day should be celebrated every year. She had been inspired by the tens of thousands of women who had taken to the streets in the USA to fight for their rights.
Over one million people actively participated in the first International Women’s Day in 1911. One week later, more than 140 women workers were tragically burned to death in the ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York, horrifically highlighting how the capitalist pursuit of profit takes precedence over the health and safety of workers and why it was so important for working women to get organised and fight back.
In most countries, International Women’s’ Day has continued to be celebrated every year on 8 March. The Russian Revolution itself began on that day in 1917 when women rose up and demanded bread and peace. As the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, commented in 1920: “The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire.”
However, over the years the original militancy and meaning of this working women’s day have become obscured, so much so that in many countries 8 March has come increasingly to resemble Mother’s Day, when women are ‘spoiled’ for a whole day and given flowers. It will fall to the new generation of working women to retie the thread of history and transform 8 March once more into an international day of struggle for women’s rights.
The important theoretical contribution which Alexandra Kollontai made to the question of women’s oppression has already been mentioned. She also campaigned for the Bolshevik party to develop specific material aimed at working-class women and to fight for reforms which would directly benefit them. She advocated the establishment of a women’s ‘bureau’, under the general direction and programme of the party, that could organise and supervise work amongst working women and facilitate their recruitment and integration into the party.
In many countries today workers are posed with the task of rebuilding the trade unions into a fighting force and creating workers’ parties that are capable of developing a mass base. Women could potentially be at the forefront of this process but their involvement in the struggle to defend their rights and for a transformation of society does not automatically flow from their dual oppression. On the contrary, it is this very oppression which can often hold them back from full participation. It is still the case today that women are underrepresented in the trade union movement, for example, even in countries where they make up a majority of the union’s membership.
This has led to calls for, and the implementation of, positive discrimination – quotas and reserved seats for women in the trade union structures – as a means of overcoming discrimination and advancing the position of women. A similar debate has also taken place in some new workers’ parties and formations over how to achieve equal representation of women within these organisations and as candidates in elections.
Positive discrimination can appear a very attractive means of overcoming years of discrimination and improving the involvement of women in workers’ organisations. However, there is always a danger that it can be viewed as an organisational shortcut to redressing the disadvantages which women face. As such it can fail in its objectives, be divisive and obscure the real reasons why women are underrepresented.
A programme for action
If positive discrimination is not accompanied by the involvement of women at rank-and-file level and by democratic accountability, it can also lead to the development of a female bureaucracy, interested only in maintaining its own privileged position and divorced from the real interests of working-class women.
The gender of a candidate does not necessarily ensure policies and a programme to improve the position of working-class women in society. A female election candidate for a workers’ party who supported, for example, alliances with capitalist parties which were implementing neo-liberal cuts in public spending would clearly not further the interests of working-class women as a whole.
In workers’ parties, organisational measures to enforce gender equality in the selection of election candidates could undermine rank-and-file democracy and, indeed, be used as an organisational means of defeating an alternative political point of view.
If an organisation has women in leading positions this can give confidence to other women and encourage their participation. However, the main reason why working-class women get involved in trade unions and political parties is not because there are women in leading positions but because they believe that those organisations are fighting for the interests of concern to them. They want trade unions which fight to defend jobs and working conditions, fight for a decent wage, and which have policies to challenge discrimination in all its forms. If the unions were to wage a determined struggle around these issues, backed up with militant strike action, it would be an important step to actively involving more working-class women. A trade union which fails to address these issues will not sufficiently succeed in involving women, regardless of whether they are equally represented in the structures or not.
However, it is important to recognise that despite huge social changes, working-class women still have the main responsibility for childcare and housework leaving many little time to participate in meetings and activities. Lone parents are particularly disadvantaged as they often have nobody with whom to share the burden.
It is extremely important, therefore, that workers’ organisations develop positive policies and measures to help women overcome these obstacles, such as providing or paying for childcare where possible and organising meetings and activities at a convenient time for women themselves. A sensitive approach is needed to the problems women face. Organising transport, for example, to and from meetings and activities so that women have more time, but also to ensure their safety.
A constant campaign is also necessary within organisations to raise awareness of issues of concern to women and to create an atmosphere which is welcoming to them. Although unity between working-class men and women is vital in the struggle to change society and to end oppression, this should never be used as a reason for not tackling sexist behaviour. There should be a zero tolerance attitude to all forms of sexism and educational campaigns to change the outlook of members.
Self-organisation or separatism?
Ideology can also have a negative effect on working-class women themselves. While there are undoubtedly many women who have no problems in fully participating in workers’ organisations there are many others who will be reluctant to be fully involved because they lack confidence in their own abilities or feel that activism and politics ‘are not for them’. This could be overcome by a conscious approach to developing the confidence of women, including, for example, considering the way in which meetings are structured and organised and, if necessary, organising special meetings, courses, schools, etc.
Sometimes there are objections to the idea of special meetings or bodies for women on the grounds that they are themselves discriminatory by excluding men. However, the same could be argued about any bodies which bring together any group of workers who share an experience specific to them, whether it is because of their gender, their race, their sexuality, the fact that they are disabled or indeed because they are young or work in a particular sector.
It is also argued that such initiatives will lead to separatism. This is certainly a danger, although not an inevitable development. It is important that any discussions which take place at special meetings are then taken into the workers’ organisations as a whole in order to involve all members in those discussions and to educate and raise awareness generally amongst male and female members, and to avoid women’s issues becoming ‘ghettoised’ or marginalised. While special meetings, committees, ‘commissions’, etc., can provide important forums for discussing issues of concern to women, for drawing up a programme and for developing campaigning initiatives, they should in no way substitute or bypass the general democratic structures and decision-making of organisations as a whole.
In the economic and social conditions which exist under capitalism, an end to all exploitation and oppression is impossible without the active participation of working-class women in the struggle for a radical transformation of society. Because of the material and social conditions which working-class women face they will inevitably be forced into struggle around issues which affect their class in general, as well as around those which are of special concern to them as women.
Sometimes they will ally themselves with other women who have an interest in fighting against their shared oppression. But it will be through a united struggle with working-class men against capitalism and for a socialist society that real liberation can be achieved.
However, a successful transformation of society will only be possible with a conscious understanding of how and why women are oppressed and through positive action to ensure that women are able to play a full role in their own liberation and that of the working class as a whole.
1 Sarah Boston, op. cit.