March 8 is International Women’s Day. The first was proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Working Women . It is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of working-class women.
The nearly 100-year-old holiday is a day of global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women and a reminder of the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. This year, rallies and demonstrations were held in Cameroon, India, Cuba, Palestine, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Trinidad, the United States and elsewhere around the world.
Origin of Women’s Oppression
Throughout the history of class society, women have been oppressed. Their lives and interests have been subjugated by the ownership of private property and the thirst of the ruling class to increase profits and maintain domination.
But it hasn’t always been this way, and it won’t always be this way. As long as women have been oppressed, there has been vibrant struggle to combat this oppression.
Women in the United States have made substantial gains in the past 100 years. Through struggle, women conquered the right to vote. They have made great strides toward securing equal pay, the right to abortion and control of their bodies, and more. They have engaged in fierce labor struggles, anti-racist struggles and the fight for same-sex marriage rights.
For the vast majority of human history, archeological and anthropological research indicates that women were not specially oppressed as women. Women and men may have done different work in early human society based on the demands of childbearing, but all people were valued for their contributions to the survival of the group. Women were held in the highest esteem.
The oppression of women arose with the emergence of private property and the parallel development of the first class societies, those based on slavery. Under these systems, women became the property of their husbands in the same way that slaves were the property of their owners. Women, enslaved and “free,” became valued for the children they produced and the free work they did, not for their intrinsic value as human beings.
Women’s oppression has changed over time along with the mode of economic exploitation, with slavery giving way to feudalism and feudalism to capitalism. Capitalist production needs the employment of male and female laborers. Ever-changing technology has made the differences in physical strength between men and women increasingly irrelevant. How much strength is required to push a button or use a keyboard?
Since the inception of capitalism, working-class women have been drawn out of the isolated atmosphere of the home and brought into collective production. Some of the earliest factory workers were women. They operated automatic looms or made clothing.
More women have entered the workforce, but they are paid less than men. The capitalist system profits directly from sexism: Owners can realize super-profits by paying women less than men for work of equal value.
On average, a woman in the United States earns about 75 cents to every dollar that a man earns for the same work. The wage gap is widest for women of color, dipping below 50 cents to each dollar that white men earn in the United States today. Globally, women earn on average about half of what men earn. Capitalists also profit indirectly from the unpaid labor of women in the home to maintain and reproduce the working class.
Women in struggle
Women have always played an important role in the labor movement. In fact, in 1910, the Socialist International established International Women’s Day to commemorate a March 8, 1857, protest staged by women from clothing and textile factories in New York City. The garment workers, who were struggling against very poor conditions and low wages, were attacked and dispersed by the police. Those women established their first labor union in the same month two years later.
In 1860, a low-paid, mostly female workforce of shoe workers in Lynn, Mass., initiated one of the first successful strikes in the United States. The great labor organizer and socialist Mary Harris “Mother” Jones organized mineworkers and children working in mills in the 1800s. During the Detroit sit-down strikes in the 1930s, women handed food through the windows of auto factories to the striking men inside. Women immigrant farm workers struggled for contracts in the 1960s and 1970s.
Women’s participation in the labor movement is more prevalent now than ever. Around 425,000 women joined the U.S. labor movement between 1997 and 2001. Today, women are 42 percent of all union members and 46 percent of the entire U.S. workforce. Those percentages are growing every year.
Legal equality not enough
The struggle for women’s rights has made some concrete gains. But even if women had complete legal equality with men, women’s oppression cannot be eradicated under capitalism. The legal right to equal pay has not closed the wage gap. The legal right to an abortion has not made them affordable and accessible to all working women.
The system profits from the super-exploitation of women all around the globe. Discrimination, denial of access to resources, and the acceptance of gender-based violence are all attempts to keep women from organizing and asserting their rights.
Socialist society can codify equality between men and women into law. It is the starting place for true equality. Cuba has made important strides in attempting to eliminate sexism. The constitution outlaws discrimination based on gender, race or sexual orientation. Reproductive rights are guaranteed. Women have access to contraceptives and abortion. They have access to top-quality pre-natal and obstetric care as well as maternity leave. Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the rate in the United States. All Cubans have access to education, and the majority of doctors, teachers, researchers and scientists are women. Women are 47 percent of the workforce. (Federation of Cuban Women Report, Beijing 2000)
Socialists stand with the most determined fighters for women’s rights in every battle, whether for equal rights, reproductive rights, maternity benefits or paid parental leave, as essential components in the class struggle.
Eliminating the capitalist market and guaranteeing all workers the basic right to a job, health care, housing and education lay the foundation for ending sexism and women’s oppression. But the struggle to end sexism, male chauvinism and inequality will not happen overnight. It will require a profound commitment of a revolutionary leadership to overcome all vestiges of the past. This will be a struggle that will last generations, even after a socialist revolution.