Beyond legal and formal equality

Mary Godwin looks at the origins of International Women's Day and the long struggle for women's rights

March 8, International Women's Day, is one of the most important dates in the communist calendar. It is a day to reconfirm our unity across national frontiers and rededicate ourselves to the liberation of women. It is a day to remember the heroic women of past class struggles and to call forth a new generation to the cause of communism.

Although women in Britain have formal and legal equality with men, we are often still paid less than men for doing the same jobs. The majority of part-time, low-paid and menial jobs are done by women. Fewer women than men are members of trade unions, and women are underrepresented in the best paid professions, top management and the higher ranks of the trade union bureaucracy. A report this week by the Women and Work Commission found that women in full-time employment earn 17% less than men. In addition the majority of unpaid work, such as housework, childcare, and looking after elderly and other dependents, falls on women in our society.

The subordinate position of women is not simply the fault of men, as some feminists claim. It is a result of the operation of the capitalist system. Women's emancipation is directly counterposed to the interests of capitalism. Women can only be fully liberated when capitalism is overthrown and replaced by communism. That does not mean that we just urge women to passively wait for communism. Women must insist on equality, in the workplace, in society and in the home (including the demand that men do their share of household chores). The fight for women's rights under capitalism must aim to defend gains won in past struggles and to win more. Abortion rights must be defended and extended. Free, high-quality, 24-hour crèches in the workplace and in communities should be available to all parents.

The role of communists in continuing to fight for women's rights is particularly important now, when the largest organisation in Britain claiming to be Marxist, the Socialist Workers Party, has abandoned the "shibboleth" of women's and gay rights in the name of building a party-alliance with a largely phantom section of the muslim establishment - some of whom take literally islamic texts which insist on the inferior status of women. Abortion rights were deliberately omitted from Respect's 2005 general election manifesto after George Galloway insisted to the SWP's John Rees that it would cost muslim votes. Communists, in contrast, insist that men and women must be equal in every way - in law, in the workplace, and in the family. So now more than ever communists should remember and reclaim International Women's Day.


International Women's Day was first celebrated as International Working Women's Day in 1911, at the initiative of Clara Zetkin, leader of the International Women's Socialist Organisation. At its second conference in Copenhagen in August 1910, she proposed that women throughout the world should focus on a particular day each year to press for their demands. This conference of over 100 women from 17 countries - representing unions, socialist parties, working women's clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament - greeted Zetkin's suggestion with unanimous approval and International Working Women's Day was the result.

March 8 was proposed, as it was the date of a demonstration in 1908 when striking woman machinists of New York's Lower East Side marched demanding better working conditions and the right to vote. These American working women protested against both the bosses and the bourgeois women's suffragettes - theirs was an explicitly proletarian movement. That is why Zetkin saw it as a potent symbol with which working class women would identify, a symbol of working class militancy that should be generalised worldwide through annual demonstrations with a definite proletarian political line.

The bourgeois women's movement did not support working class struggles and considered the demand for votes for working class women 'premature'. In the US at this time feminists such as Carrie Chapman Catt argued for the vote for middle class women as a counterbalance to the votes of east European migrant male workers.

Some socialists saw the demand for votes for women as being unnecessarily divisive in the working class movement. It was more important to do away with property qualifications when it came to the vote than it was to campaign for the equality of women and men, which, if successful in United Kingdom, would by implication only mean votes for women of property. But Clara Zetkin and the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, fought for votes for women to be accepted as a necessary part of a socialist programme.

The 1911 conference agreed upon the importance of women's right to vote, disassociated itself from voting systems based on property qualifications and called for universal suffrage - the right to vote for all adult women and men. The conference also called for maternity benefits which, despite an intervention by Kollontai on behalf of unmarried mothers, were to be for married women only. It also decided to oppose night work as being detrimental to the health of most working women, though Swedish and Danish working women who were present asserted that night work was essential to their livelihood.

The first International Working Women's Day mobilisation occurred in March 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and some other European countries. A million leaflets were distributed by the socialist movement calling for action in support of the vote. Alexandra Kollontai, in Germany at the time, helped to organise the day, and wrote that it "exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria ... was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere "¦ in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for the women."


In resolving that International Working Women's Day should be held on March 8, inspired by the Lower East Side women, the International Women's Socialist Organisation stated: "Socialist women must not ally themselves with bourgeois feminists, but lead the battle side by side with socialist men." This stance was supported by the Russian Bolsheviks. Unlike the Mensheviks, who wanted women-only, cross-class demonstrations, the Bolsheviks fought for working class demonstrations of both women and men demanding women's rights on a proletarian basis.

The Bolsheviks took this as their starting point in arguments with the Mensheviks during the early months of 1913 over how the first International Working Women's Day was to be celebrated in Russia. In their women's paper Rabotnitsa, they insisted that instead of an all-women affair in cooperation with the feminist movement it should actively involve male workers.

Undoubtedly, the most memorable International Working Women's Day was in Petrograd in March 1917. Women textile workers had been urged by the Bolsheviks to refrain from striking on the day "“ they feared a state clampdown and a tragic loss of life. But on March 8 many thousands of women angrily took to the streets. They demanded proper food supplies and an end to the suffering and death caused by the years of war against imperial Germany. Gathering strength and passion, they swept through the city. Not even the tsar's armed forces could stop them. Indeed the women challenged and then broke through their lines. Rank and file soldiers refused to fire upon them, refused to cut them down. The first revolution had begun and the days of tsarism were numbered. Soon real power would pass into the hands of the soviets, the councils of workers and soldiers.

Following the Bolshevik-led second revolution in October 1917, women's equality became part of the legal code of the Soviet state, and International Working Women's Day was made a public holiday. However, the economic backwardness of Russia - labour-saving devices in the home were unavailable and there was entrenched male chauvinism - meant that this equality was largely formal. Women continued to suffer the double burden of a full-time job and domestic labour.

As Lenin said: "Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her, chains her to the kitchen and the nursery, and she wastes her labour on barbarously unproductive, petty, nerve-racking, stultifying and crushing drudgery. The real emancipation of women, real communism, will begin only where and when an all-out struggle begins (led by the proletariat wielding their state power) against this petty housekeeping, or rather when its wholesale transformation into a large-scale socialist economy begins" (On the emancipation of women).

Of course, the failure of the world revolution, crucially in Germany, and the subsequent Stalinist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union meant that such a transformation is still to be achieved. By the time the USSR collapsed 15 years ago, International Women's Day was little more than a Soviet equivalent of Mothers Day, when men did the washing up for one day in the year and children gave their mothers flowers.


In the west March 8 - renamed International Women's Day to de-emphasise its proletarian origins - was taken over from the moribund and opportunist 'official' communist movement by a resurgent feminism in the 1960s and 70s. It was characterised by women-only, cross-class events.

Communists, it has to be said, reject bourgeois feminism, and like the Bolsheviks of 1913 argue that working women can win equality by fighting alongside working class men, not bourgeois women. Communists stand firmly against all sectionalist tendencies, including cross-class women's movements.

As Alexandra Kollontai, a member of the Bolshevik central committee of 1917 and Soviet Russia's first minister of social welfare, said almost a hundred years ago:  "However good the intentions of individual groups of feminists towards the proletariat, whenever the question of class struggle has been posed they have left the battlefield in a fright. They find that they do not wish to interfere in alien causes, and prefer to retire to their bourgeois liberalism, which is so comfortably familiar."

In The social basis of the woman question she defined feminism as "the attempt of bourgeois women to stand together and pit their common strength against the enemy, against men". This definition applies equally to modern feminism. The revolutionary wing of the workers' movement has, while championing women's rights, always fought feminism. As Kollontai said, "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 ... Thus, although both camps follow the general slogan of the 'liberation of women', their aims and interests are different."

Ironically, feminism demobilises the fight against women's oppression by directing it at the wrong target and tying it either to bourgeois women or to what in the last analysis amounts to the same thing - the state. Therefore feminism cannot effectively challenge sexism among male workers. Instead of fighting to mobilise them, it seeks to police them from above. Feminism poses women's oppression as a matter for women alone and a problem which can only be solved through rules and regulations, quotas and tokenism, legislation and quangos.

The term 'feminist' was first used in the 1890s. The original feminist movement, opposed by Zetkin, Kollontai and their comrades, focused on winning the right to vote and disappeared soon after World War I. The so-called second wave of feminism emerged in the late 1960s, and was an organic part of the general upsurge of revolutionary, democratic and working class struggles witnessed at the time.

Vietnam, Czechoslovakia, Palestine, black civil rights in America, students in London, Rome, Mexico City, Istanbul and Paris, militant trade unionism, gay liberation, national liberation in Africa and the women's movement were all rebellions against the post-World War II system. Huge gains were made. But the citadel could not be conquered.

Nevertheless, the position of women was transformed. Women trade unionists at Ford's took the lead in demanding equal pay for equal work. The Wilson Labour government dragged its heels, but was forced to concede. In every sphere there were advances: contraception, divorce, legal equality, sexual choice, a degree of human dignity.

But as a sectionalist ideology feminism had to run into many and various dead ends. Bourgeois feminism sought to give women equal access to positions of power traditionally dominated by men and open up state and other such institutions to middle class professional women. They succeeded "¦ and this was largely all they wanted. Well paid careers and social standing are now the norm for them.

For all their bitter rivalries, socialist and radical feminism proved no more successful. In their own different ways they both preached division. Socialist feminists fought for women's sections in the trade unions and the Labour Party. But these became ends in themselves. Bastions for petty place-seekers. Radical feminism rejected violent male values and claimed that women are biologically and psychologically opposed to violence and war. Greenham Common was their high moment. The pit women of 1984-85 were a bitter disappointment to them. Having wallowed in the mystical deification of femaleness, radical feminism retreated into local government quangodom - that or it disappeared into ever decreasing circles of self-help groups and self-obsession.


But there remains another tradition: the tradition that seeks the liberation of women through the liberation of the working class and the whole of humanity. That is the tradition of comrades like Clara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Inessa Armand and countless other women communists.

On International Women's Day we remember the women of the 1871 Paris Commune, the Petrograd women of 1917 and the Women Against Pit Closures movement. During the miners' Great Strike it fought side by side with the men both politically and physically. We salute their memory and call upon working class women to take up their example.