As we rally and march in Toronto for this year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) it is instructive to look back at past struggles for women’s rights to see from where we have come and how far we still have to go.
International Women’s Day, March 8, was established by socialists to celebrate the struggles of working class women. It was also the beginning of the Russian Revolution of 1917, which gave the world a brief glimpse of what true liberation could mean for women and men.
Here is Alexandra Kollontai, one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, writing in 1920 about the importance of this day: “Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women. But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.”
When Kollontai was writing in 1920 it still seemed possible to move forward towards the new socialist society that promised working class and peasant women an equal place in the creation of the new society. Kollontai understood the importance of specific measures to address the questions of women’s oppression, rooted in the institution of the family.
This is why the role of the Zhenotdel (or Women’s Department) set up by Kollontai and Inessa Armand, another Bolshevik leader, in 1919 played a critical role. It was devoted to improving women’s lives throughout Russia, fighting illiteracy and educating women about the new marriage, education and workplace laws put in place by the Bolsheviks. The Zhenotdel played a critical role in persuading the party to legalize abortion in 1920. This was the first time in world history that women won the right to free abortions in state hospitals, many decades before this would be possible in Western industrial societies.
This was because questions of oppression were not “incidental” or side issues to the question of building socialism. The Bolsheviks saw the fight against women’s oppression, against anti-Semitism, against the oppression of national minorities (Lenin referred to Russia as the prison-house of nations) as integral to the fight for socialism.
The gains that were made for women, national minorities, lesbians and gays and for the whole of the Russian working class in the short period following the seizure of power by Russian workers and peasants in 1917 were rolled back under the dual forces of material impoverishment (due in part to the invasion of 14 capitalist countries siding with the reactionary forces of the old Tsarist class) and the consolidation of a new ruling class under Stalin.
Kollontai remain important because a century later women still face many of the barriers that the Bolsheviks fought to tear down in very difficult conditions. If we look around us today we can see how much women still have to win. Women still earn 2/3 of men’s salaries, still face discrimination in the workplace, still have precarious access to abortion and safe birth control. As has been made abundantly clear in the recent trial of former CBC radio host and media personality, Jian Ghomeshi, women still face prejudice, ridicule and an incredibly unequal justice system when they come forward to charge those who abuse and assault them.
Then there are so-called “men’s rights” activists who argue that measures intended to address the real inequalities women face are “unfair” and “discriminate” against men. Similar arguments are made by people who argue that affirmative action in hiring practices is “unfair” to white people or to men. These arguments prop up the status quo and the inequality that is structured into the system. Backward ideas like these also serve to divide us one from the other and to make it easier for the bosses and our rulers to pit us against each other, while they scoop up the profits of our labour.
Kollontai argued that March 8 was not a special day for women alone but for the entire Russian working class and peasantry, because the action begun by working women on that day launched a revolution that would turn the world upside down: the vast majority of society, ordinary women and men, would begin the process of making democracy a real thing, where decisions would not be made by the 1% in the interests of the 1%, but by those who created all wealth in society and hitherto had control over none of it.
She understood that it was not a question of all women being on one side and all men on the other, because of the class nature of society: “The women’s world is divided, just as is the world of men, into two camps; the interests and aspirations of one group of women bring it close to the bourgeois class, while the other group has close connections with the proletariat, and its claims for liberation encompass a full solution to the woman question. Thus although both camps follow the general slogan of the “liberation of women”, their aims and interests are different. Each of the groups unconsciously takes its starting point from the interests of its own class, which gives a specific class colouring to the targets and tasks it sets itself.”
Similarly today, it’s important to know who our real allies are. The ideas of socialism are experiencing a resurgence, even in the most unlikely of places. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination has been resonating with working class Americans in a way that hasn’t been seen for decades.
This is because he is talking about real things, about the way the banks and corporations, the ruling class, are getting rich while the vast majority of working Americans live from pay cheque to pay cheque with little or no access to healthcare, no hope of their children being able to attend college or university, no access to the so-called American Dream.
His opponent Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, is a part of the Democratic machine and clearly the choice of corporate America. Recently Clinton tried to appeal to women by appearing beside Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem, founder of Ms magazine. Albright (former Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton) chided women who were supporting Bernie Sanders, saying “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” This threat coming from the same woman who, when she was questioned about whether the death of half a million Iraqi children due to US-imposed sanctions on Iraq was worth it, replied “We think it’s worth it.” Many young women and women of colour spoke out against Albright, stating they would vote for the person they thought best represented their interests.
Just as not all men are in the same boat, neither are all women. As Kollontai pointed out almost a hundred years ago, ruling class women don’t have the same interests as the rest of us. They will invariably side with the men of their class against the rest of us. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was a woman, but she was also a ruthless class warrior who is hated to this very day—not because of her gender—but because of her attacks on British workers, both men and women.
Audre Lorde, Black lesbian feminist poet and theorist, was critical of a feminism in the 1980s which spoke too often only to the concerns of white, middle class women. She was probably one of the first in the women’s movement to talk about the intersection of race, class, gender and sexual orientation in her own life and in the lives of many around her. She couldn’t conceive of a liberation which wouldn’t include her Black sons and brothers, who were also obviously under the thumb of white capitalism.
It’s in that spirit that we should organize this International Women’s Day. It’s a day to celebrate the struggle for women’s rights but also the fight for genuine liberation for all of us from a system that constantly attempts to pit us against each other and keep us down.
This International Women’s Day in Toronto the themes speak to the many-sidedness of women’s experience: No to violence and hate | Rise to reconciliation | No to racism and Islamophobia | Black lives matter | No to poverty | Justice on the job.