International Women’s Day became an annual event at the suggestion of two socialist leaders, Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz, during the International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910.

It was part of a strategy to win equality for women, particularly the right to vote. In its early years, it was formulated as ‘International Working Women’s Day’, and was counterposed to those who sought the advancement of women only of the middle and ruling classes. This tendency was also reflected among the suffragettes, with some calling for the vote only for men and women who owned property, thus excluding working women and the most oppressed and exploited. Sylvia Pankhurst – suffragette, sister of Emmeline and a socialist feminist who insisted that working-class women must have the right to vote – was arrested on her way to speak at International Women’s Day in London in 1914.

A revolutionary spark

On International Women’s Day 1917 in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, female textile workers walked out of the factories and went on strike calling for ‘peace and bread’, and an end to World War One, which represented the mass slaughter of working-class people in the interests of capitalist elites, seeking to secure the biggest slices of the neocolonial world for themselves. Working class people in Russia and across Europe went hungry while the hoarded wealth of the rich was kept safe from the ravages of war. In the words of Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, “A continual shower of gold fell from above. “Society” held out its hands and pockets … everybody splashed about in the bloody mud”.

The textile workers, many of them in their teens, were among the poorest and most downtrodden members of Russian society, and as such had the most to gain from the overthrow of capitalism and Tsarism and their replacement by workers’ democracy and socialism, where all production could be democratically planned, and the fruits of society’s labour directed towards improving people’s living standards and technological development for the benefit of all. Prior to their reversal by the Stalinist bureaucracy, pioneering measures for women’s rights were taken in Soviet Russia, with the immediate introduction of universal suffrage, as well as laws making it easier for women to leave marriages when they wanted, plus socially-run laundries and workplace creches, aiming to free women from the crushing burden of domestic labour. In 1920, the Soviet Union became the first place in the world to decriminalise abortion. These, and others besides, are rights we are still fighting for under capitalism more than 100 years later.

A new wave of struggles

We stand in the midst of a massive upsurge in struggles against women’s oppression, as well as new movements for LGBTQ+ and racial equality. The global phenomenon of #MeToo exposed the prevalence of sexual violence and harassment, both in Hollywood where the hashtag first gained publicity, and in the everyday lives of women in particular. A silence was collectively broken and replaced by a renewed determination to fight back and question the system that normalises victim-blaming. A rape trial in Cork, where a defence barrister asked the judge to consider a teenage girl’s lacy underwear as evidence of consent, provides a glaring example. Sexual harassment is especially normalised in precarious sectors like hospitality, where workers feel pressured to either put up with it or risk losing their tips or even their jobs. The overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in the referendum to repeal the Irish State’s archaic abortion ban has sent shockwaves around the world and has inspired movements globally to fight for the right to choose and stand against the attempted rollback of abortion rights by conservative governments, such as the Trump administration.

Pull oppression out at the root

The inevitable failure of the capitalist system and neoliberal governments to deliver either social or economic equality means that a new generation of young women and men are surging into struggle. Fundamental questions arise about the relationship of oppression to the capitalist system and why our rights are perpetually under attack. Why, decades after equal pay was made law in the UK, is there still a gender pay gap? Why is abortion still criminalised in Northern Ireland? Why are movements fighting to protect what was already won in the USA? And why do pro-capitalist legislatures appear indifferent to the reality of sexual violence and harassment, and so reluctant to take meaningful measures, such as consent-based sex education in schools, to prevent it?

The answer is that, at the root, the oppression of women and others is a useful tool for the capitalist system. It permits bosses to pay women less for the same work, it pushes expectations that women will undertake care work privately and unpaid, and it helps to divide the working class, that force in society with the power to get rid of capitalism and replace it with a socialist society in which the rights of all are guaranteed and from which real liberation and equality are inseparable. We must forge a fighting movement and reconnect with the socialist-feminist roots of International Women’s Day.

by Eleanor Crossey Malone