International Women's Day (2001)

The 8th of March is celebrated worldwide as International Women's Day. That day is quite well known by people in the developed countries although its origins are not so famous. If we are not careful we could end up thinking that it was established about twenty years ago by the United Nations who have adopted it as one of its many "humanitarian activities" and now present it as a day for celebration, without any political or militant content, the main idea being that "things were terrible but now we are more or less OK".

Nothing could be further away from reality regarding the oppression of women today or the origins of International Women's Day itself.

On the last Sunday of February 1908, socialist women in the USA declared their first Women's Day holding a demonstration demanding the right to vote and other economic and political rights for women. The following year, 2,000 people participated in a rally in Manhattan.

In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, 100 delegates from different organisations in 17 countries decided to adopt the 8th of March as Women's Day internationally. They had in mind that this day should be a day of struggle, to denounce the exploitation of women, and they chose the 8th of March to commemorate the struggle of the shirtwaist workers of the Cotton factory in New York who where on strike for 13 days for higher wages and an improvement in their conditions of work. This struggle, supported by the Women's Trade Union League, ended up with the cruel murder of 119 workers through the burning of the factory where they were protesting.

So we have to take into account that the origins of International Women's Day lie in a period in which women started entering massively into the labour force, working under terrible conditions of exploitation, segregated from male workers, mainly in the textile industry and with dreadful conditions of work and payment. It was a period of major turbulence with massive industrial disputes at all levels in which women, in trade unions and unorganised, participated actively.

What is the situation 90 years later?

As a result of the struggle of the workers there has been a certain improvement in the conditions of the workers in general. However, the situation of women workers has not improved sufficiently to justify International Women Day becoming a celebration without any political meaning at all.

Women are one third of the workforce on a world scale although we work two thirds of the hours worked in the world receiving 10% of the income generated. Women also constitute 70% of the poorest people on the planet and, as an average, we receive 20-30% less in wages than men.

Class society

In Britain women make up more than 50% of the workforce and, in general, they have the worst jobs, with flexible and part time contracts, concentrated in low skilled jobs. This has nothing to do with women not being able to do the same jobs as men because of physical differences, because "it is in our genes" or because our brain is smaller, as bourgeois "scientists" try to demonstrate. Such arguments are just an attempt to divert attention from the root cause of the oppression of women: the existence of class society, in this case capitalism. As Engels explained in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, the development of agriculture and cattle breeding created a surplus which was not enough to be shared equally amongst all members of the community, and therefore a minority appropriated this surplus. This marked the beginning of class society and private property. This, in turn, made it necessary for men to pass on their private property to their offspring. Thus patrilineal hereditary rights came to dominate alongside the development of private property. Here we find the origins of the oppression of women, in the division of society into classes and the emergence of private property and the state. Physical differences and the different roles played by men and women before this division had not created inequality. Private ownership and class division turned these differences into the basis of oppression.

We could say that the capitalist system played a progressive role with the massive incorporation of women into the workforce, this is a basic point for her liberation. But at the same time this has not meant the freeing of women from the slavery of domestic work.

It is fundamental to understand the origins of the exploitation of women in order to work out a programme of action that can lead to real emancipation. Only Marxism has provided a scientific analysis of the way to achieve women's liberation. It is clear that if the exploitation of women came with the beginning of class society their emancipation can only be achieved by abolishing that class division. The capitalist system rests on that class division, therefore to end the class divide we must do away with capitalism itself. This is the only realistic solution. The real emancipation of women is something that the capitalist system cannot grant. Women have the worst and most casual jobs so when the economy enters in crisis they are the first ones to be laid off. That's why Mr Hague is proposing to give £1000 per year to married couples where one of the partners decides to stay at home looking after the kids. If women in general have the worst jobs, when a couple decides that one of them will stay at home we know which one of them is going to give up employment. By discouraging women from seeking paid work they also reduce the official unemployment statistics.

It is the capitalist system that pushes women back to the drudgery of domestic work at home, at the same time forcing women to accept the worst paid jobs with the least rights.

If we say that the only way to achieve genuine women's liberation is through the struggle for socialism then it becomes obvious that the struggle for women's liberation can only be successful as a part of the general struggle of the working class against the capitalist system.

As long as capitalism exists there will be plenty of reasons for women workers and the labour movement in general to organise a militant and fighting celebration of International Women's Day.