Class and women’s liberation

Like anti-racism, International Women’s Day has been colonised by the bourgeoisie, writes Eddie Ford.

The bourgeois media had a field day when Vladimir Putin’s Russia marked International Women’s Day by holding beauty pageants for female members of the armed forces.1 As The Sun reported in delight, one parade organised by the Black Sea fleet marked the achievements of naval personnel “of the weaker sex”. Another event, called ‘Beauty of the Airborne Forces’, was staged by paratroopers in Tula, the official description stating: “In the course of the contest girls will take part in several trials, in which they will demonstrate their beauty, aesthetic excellence, intelligence, moral and spiritual properties” - including skills in cooking and sewing. If that was not enough, there was also the ‘Omsk police lady’ contest in Siberia - the participants were required to pose in uniform to find the most “glamorous” police officer.

Of course, the anti-sexist Sun and other papers were inviting us to sneer at the terribly backward Russians. But they appear to have forgotten a certain event that was prime-time TV viewing in Britain until fairly recently and, incredibly, still exists - ie, the thoroughly demeaning Miss World, which does exactly the same thing, along with Miss Universe, Miss International and Miss Earth.

Revealingly, this year’s International Women’s Day was sponsored by, amongst others, Jeff Bezos of Amazon - as proudly displayed on the home page of its horribly corporate website, which makes you lose the will to live.2 Bezos, of course, is the man who drives his workers to suicide by treating them like robots - squeezing every last second out of them, so he can enjoy his billionaire lifestyle. One thing you can guarantee is that he does not give a damn about his female employees any more than his male ones - though he might well have to treat Amazon’s female executives differently.

Just as putrid is Amanda Milling, MP for Cannock Chase and “co-chairman” of the Tory Party. Writing in the Express - always a stalwart for equality and social justice - she argues that her party embodies the “real spirit” of International Women’s Day: the Conservative Party “has led the way in breaking down barriers for women in politics” (March 7). She reminds us that, unlike the Labour Party, the Tories have had two female leaders and can claim the first sitting woman MP, Nancy Astor - which is somewhat disingenuous, of course. But you can see why Milling would have been embarrassed to mention the actual first woman MP: Constance Markievicz, a revolutionary Irish nationalist who took part in the 1916 Easter Uprising but refused to take up her Westminster seat.

Working Women

Obviously, what Milling says is stupid and hypocritical - maybe she even believes it. She would doubtlessly be horrified to learn that the annual celebration was originally called International Working Women’s Day. The March 8 anniversary actually began as a commemoration of the 1857 strike by New York women garment workers, demanding a 10-hour working day and votes for women - viciously attacked by the police. Half a century later, on February 28 1909, the Socialist Party of America staged a ‘National Women’s Day’ demonstration in New York to commemorate the strike, and to renew its demands - for a shorter working day and votes for women.

Then the August 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference held in Copenhagen, organised by the Socialist International (which the Labour Party had joined in 1908), adopted the proposal of the German delegates, led by Clara Zetkin, for an annual commemoration. On March 19 1911 the first International Working Women’s Day was marked by millions turning out for mass rallies and demonstrations wherever the Socialist International was strong - in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, etc.

Another thing our rulers would dearly like us to forget is that the IWWD was opposed to feminism. Some sections of the suffragette movement in Britain were demanding “equality” between women and men - which meant demanding the vote only for middle class women, those with property, leaving working class women in the same boat as working class men, without a vote - on the grounds that it was a ‘realistic’ first step.

As everyone knows, International Women’s Day in 1917, on February 23 (March 8 using the Gregorian calendar), presaged the end of tsarism. The demonstrations were initiated by women textile workers in Petrograd and spread from factory to factory, city to city, their demands becoming increasing militant and revolutionary.

As Leon Trotsky wrote:

We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without a date. But in the morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support ... which led to a mass strike ... all went out into the streets.

Within seven days tsar Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

Clara Zetkin was convinced that the struggle for women’s rights had to go hand in hand with working class men - it cannot be won by women alone, it needs the active participation of men. This was not a patronising attitude, as some might think, but showed Zetkin’s determination to wage a class struggle for the liberation of all humanity regardless of sex or ethnicity.

Eventually, in 1977, the Soviet Union effectively handed over International Women’s Day to the United Nations. Since the collapse of the USSR and the weakening of the left globally, high finance and the bourgeoisie moved in to take it over – profits were to be made, and the working class origins had to be written out of the story. There is a parallel here with anti-racism, without stretching the point too much. The idea that the bourgeoisie of 2020 is the same as the bourgeoisie of 1920 or 1950 is nonsense - even if many on the left seem to think so. The bourgeoisie and bourgeois feminists have colonised International Women’s Day, making it their own. This does not mean that women have been liberated, but rather that the ruling class has adopted different methods in order to keep the working class in its place. Nothing stands still.

Placing things in a broader historical context, enfranchising women in Britain was accompanied by an extension of the vote for working class men. But it was only middle class women initially who got the vote. The Representation of the People Act 1918 enfranchised all men over 21, but only women over the age of 30 who met minimum property qualifications.3 The intention was to offset the influx of working class men into the electorate with that of middle class women. Before that the Tory Party was proposing a referendum on female suffrage, in which only the existing electorate - of middle class men - would vote. Back then, taking a healthier attitude than recently, Labour rejected referendums as a dictator’s device.

In the end, it was a Tory government which passed the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, extending the franchise to everybody over the age of 21. In 1948 the Labour government at last removed plural voting rights which had been held by about 7% of the electorate - people affiliated with a university were allowed a vote in both the university constituency and their home constituency, and property owners could vote both in the constituency where their property lay and that in which they lived, if the two were different. Some lucky people got five votes!

It was only in 1969 that Harold Wilson’s Labour government reduced the voting age from 21 to 18, while the CPGB’s Draft programme demands the vote for 16-year-olds.


  1. . . www.thesun.co.uk/news/11119828/putin-army-sexism-international-womens-day. ↩︎

  2. . . www.internationalwomensday.com. ↩︎

  3. . . Although by 1900 more than one million single women in England were registered to vote in local elections: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_ suffrage_in_the_United_Kingdom#cite_note- HoCL2013-8. ↩︎