Cailín McCaffery looks at the radical history of International Women’s Day, arguing that the day and all it holds remains critical in the fight for real liberation.
“We were born into an unjust system; we are not prepared to grow old in it.” – Bernadette Devlin
This past year has been a rollercoaster. We have seen lockdowns, curfews, jobs lost, parents becoming teachers, deaths, sickness, and healthcare heroes that have been worked to the bone. Any crisis amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities. Gender inequality plagued society long before COVID-19, and has been exacerbated in both the experience of the pandemic and in the government responses to it.
Some argue that we shouldn’t focus on gender equality now, and it should wait until after the crisis. But this is a false choice, as it is a mistake to see gender inequality and the crises in the system – economic, social, political, environmental, or health – as wholly separate. Instead, the pandemic highlights and deepens the way we already experience gender inequality.
Yet, here we are – in the midst of a crisis – celebrating International Women’s Day. So, what are the lessons we need to learn?
Radical Roots of International Women’s Day
The roots of International Women’s Day are unquestionably radical. It was founded by female socialists organising for equal pay and better working conditions. And it has been a rallying cry, yearly, on 8 March.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were groups of women in Ireland, Britain, the United States and elsewhere organising for the right to vote, and working class women in particular fighting for the right to join trade unions.
The textile industry was at the heart of this workers rebellion by women workers. On 8th March 1908, hundreds of women workers demonstrated in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to form their own union and to demand suffrage. The next year saw 30,000 women shirtwaist factory workers demonstrate for and win the right to trade unions for women workers.
Inspired by their militancy and defiance, German socialist feminist, Clara Zetkin, proposed at the Conference of the Second International in 1910:
‘…..the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.’
And so, International Women’s Day was born – at an international conference of socialists, commemorating the heroic battles of working class women for union rights and recognition.
“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”
‘Bread and Roses’ has become the phrase synonymous with International Workers Day. In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwast Factory in NYC, and the mainly women and immigrant workforce found the doors to be locked as they desperately tried to escape to safety. 146 workers were killed, and it prompted further fury from the many women agitating for workers rights and safety.
Rose Schneiderman, a socialist labour agitator, famously said after the fire to a wealthy crowd of suffragettes and women’s rights campaigners:
What the woman who labours wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.
A year later in 1912, when a textile strike broke out in Lawrence Massachusetts, again, led by immigrant women, it became known as the bread and roses strike. This period of mass rebellion and union organising has been immortalised by James Oppenheim’s poem, Bread and Roses.
The idea is that all women — be they women of colour, trans women, queer women, disabled women, immigrant women, refugee women — shouldn’t just have access to the rudimentary items needed to survive, but they also have the right to art, culture, and dignity.
Again, women led the way in 1917 in Russia on International Women’s Day when on the 8th of March women workers held a mass strike and demonstration demanding Peace and Bread – an end to WWI and economic relief. This protest movement galvanised the revolutionary movement, leading eventually to the workers revolution in October 1917.
Women’s Work: Low paid and undervalued
Women remain over-represented in low wage work, with few benefits and little job security. We need to restart a workers movement led by women, just as our sisters were fighting for union recognition, better pay and workplace safety 100 years ago.
In the Education Sector in the north, 77% of teachers are women, but just 27% of University Chancellors or Pro/Deputy Vice Chancellors, 29% of FE College Principals and 60% of School Principals. And even more shockingly, in the Health and Social Care Sector, women make up 79% of all staff, but just 20% of Trust Chairs and 20% of Trust CEOs.
One must ask one’s self, is it a coincidence that in sectors where women make up over 75% of the workforce, they are all too often overworked and underpaid?
What’s more, the governments North and South continue to defund and run down public hospitals and funding for education. This not only impacts the users of these public services, but the workers.
Beyond the formal workplace, benefit and welfare cuts have disproportionately impacted women. The Northern Executive introduced welfare reform, cut some elements of tax credits, and introduced Universal Credit. As Goretti Horgan argued:
Drastic cuts to certain tax credit elements and the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) will penalise many women as primary carers and secondary earners. UC brings together six benefits, including all the means-tested out of work benefits plus Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credits and Child Tax Credits. UC is designed to be a monthly payment to one person in a household. This monthly payment makes budgeting more difficult and increases the risk of financial abuse for women in controlling relationships.
In the North and in Scotland, people can get their payments twice a month, but everywhere, they go to one person in the family – that is usually the man in a heterosexual couple. Even in the most equal of relationships, this is a disaster for women because she is left with no money of her own … something most of our mothers warned us never to let happen!
The 2-child policy introduced by the Tories caps child tax credits at your second child, thereby creating an economic penalty for having more than two children. If the financial burden of raising children – let alone the social, emotional, and physical work of raising children – wasn’t already laid squarely on the shoulders of women, the combination of lower pay, punitive benefits systems, and underfunded public services create a perfect storm.
Women’s Oppression under Covid
This last year of the pandemic has been a disaster for women. Not only are women, and particularly women of colour, over-represented as “essential workers” – in other words, generally underpaid health care workers, carers, cleaners, retail workers, etc – but as society shut down many of its social functions, women bared the brunt of the extra workload.
Maeve McGrath wrote in Rebel about the unequal burden on women, as workers were all urged to work from home. Naturally, this is far easier a task when there are two or more adults who can alternate their working hours in order to facilitate childcare. Single parents, however, are primarily women, many of whom have been left in the difficult circumstance of having to work from home with no childcare to allow them to execute their working duties.
Since child care within the home is usually always unpaid, the double burden on these mothers couldn’t be clearer. Added to their load is the obligation to assist school age children who are also ‘working from home’, without direct contact with their teachers.
The Irish governments, North and South, provided inadequate provision for childcare, even for essential or key workers. Some schools remained open to facilitate key workers’ children, but given social distancing requirements, it meant that childcare could only be aided during normal school hours – hardly convenient for those working in healthcare and hospitality – during a global pandemic.
Additionally, much has been written about the increase in domestic abuse with the lockdown, as services were curtailed, support networks cut off, and economic and social stress levels increased dramatically. With the onslaught of yo-yo lockdowns in 2020, the PSNI recorded 31,848 domestic abuse incidents, the highest level in 17 years. In the South, between March-November 2020, there was an increase of 41% disclosures of domestic violence against women and children were made to Women’s Aid Ireland.
More often than not, these services were unable to meet requests for safe accommodation, as the Government starved funding to support services. And, despite these startling statistics across the island of Ireland, domestic and sexual violence continue to be under-reported and prosecutions remain low and, as noted by CEDAW, Domestic Abuse Legislation remains inadequate.
Even in the midst of a pandemic, where we are told to stay home, pregnant people across Ireland are still travelling to England to avail of abortion services. Three years after the Repeal the Eighth movement had a landslide win and one year after Westminster voted to decriminalise abortion, after decades of campaigning by organised human rights activists and trade unionists, abortion services are not accessible to women in all parts of Ireland.
There have been moves by governments North and South to delay and reverse just how many rights of autonomy women should have. As the saying goes, a right delayed is a right denied; and it is evident that the women of Ireland are being stripped of their rights after hard-fought campaigns.
A woman’s place is in the revolution
110 years on from its first utterance, what does “bread and roses” mean for feminism today?
Simply: “the struggle continues.” While women are facing different issues today than they were 100 years ago, there are also commonalities between women then and now.
Regardless of how society develops economically, or politically, or even technologically, we know that the system, capitalism, is structured in a way that uses the oppression of women to increase profitability.
That is to say that there may be more access to “roses”, but not everyone can buy them. It’s important that we create a space where we share in each other’s riches, but also recognise that we as a collective can do something about it.
What we need is an upheaval of the current system and to replace it with a fairer society, where housing, clothing, educating, and feeding people is a right. A society where we can make real decisions about the world around us, rather than the so-called democracy that gives us one vote every four years, and we are told to deal with the consequences in between. We need equality that goes beyond the basic reforms on offer.
North and South, we need to fight for this kind of society together, across the border. Eamonn McCann described the Belfast rape trial protest in a way that sums this up perfectly. The trial was like a lightning rod. #MeToo anger was already bubbling under the surface and it spilled over in a massive way.
The protests seemed spontaneous (and they were!), but only because the anger had been bubbling for some time. The protests erupted in Belfast and Derry but also in Galway, Dublin, Cork and more. The fightback that had already begun was galvanised right across the country. And as Eamonn said – ‘we weren’t protesting for a United Ireland, we were protesting as a united Ireland, for a new kind of Ireland’
If this sounds like socialism, it’s because it is. Only by diminishing the power of the ruling class and giving workers access to collectively owned social goods, can we ensure that no woman is forced to choose between sexual and economic exploitation, and poverty.
Among the hashtags and corporate slogans that flood International Women’s Day, it is easy to forget that it was first celebrated 110 years ago by socialist women.
Understanding this makes socialism even more necessary: because women cannot fight against inequality as a whole if they’re too busy trying to keep their heads above water in an economic system that exploits and oppresses them. Just as gender inequality is a necessary condition of capitalism, socialism is a necessary condition for genuine women’s liberation.
Today, let us honour the women of yesterday, the ones who fought for our rights to read, write, and vote; the ones who fed us, bathed us, clothed us; the ones who you see in the corner shop or sit beside on the bus; celebrate women, their strength and passion to keep fighting.
We need exactly that kind of fight to deliver the new Ireland that we so desperately deserve.
The fight is now to win real equality. Real liberation. Real autonomy.
For bread and roses, in a socialist, feminist Ireland.