Published on Thursday, 08 March 2012 18:46
Written by Radical Socialist
We Make Our Road by Walking and We win Our Rights by Struggling
International Women’s Day was initiated by Socialist women. This is a point that needs to be stressed, not from one, but two distinct angles. It was initiated by socialist women, because they wanted to oppose the liberal and conservative women, who at best wanted to humbly request for the vote from the German emperor. In a number of other countries, the position was very clear. The liberal or bourgeois feminists wanted a property based vote, so that equality between bourgeois men and bourgeois women would be established. In Russia, Alexandra Kollontai caused a scandal by organising a delegation of 45 working class women in the first ever mass feminist conference, and raising the class question.
Socialists who ignore or reject the existence of patriarchy, or who believe that men and women have only one “real” identity, namely class, however, highlight only that dimension. The reality is, for the socialist women, while the term and hence the clear concept of patriarchy was absent, there was indeed a second dimension which necessitated a separate day of action for women. In 1896, under the pressure of women activists like Clara Zetkin, the German Social Democratic Party adopted a separate programme for women. Some of the demands related only to working class women. Other demands however related to women cutting across classes. Even before that, Zetkin had been editing a socialist periodical addressed specifically to women – Gleichheit or Equality. In Russia, socialist women like Kollontai or Armand had to overcome stiff opposition from within the party to organise women separately. Why this, one may ask. This was because on one hand there was a failure to recognise that within the working class too, women constituted a doubly oppressed category, even though August Bebel had written that a long time back. Moreover, the very act of having a separate “day” for women implied that common days of action, such as May 1, tended to see mainly men’s presence. The generalised claim, that the class struggle would ensure real equality for all, hid the discriminations and subordinations within the class.
The bourgeoisie did not invent patriarchy. We cannot speculate what capitalism would have been had it arisen in a world where there was no patriarchy. But we can see that the capitalist order exists in close alliance with patriarchy, and that patriarchy functions to on one hand hold down women and on the other ahnd therefore make class unity difficult. Real class unity is possible only by overcoming patriarchy. To push women’s liberation to after the revolution, or to hide the necessity of autonomous women’s struggle under the guise of everyone’s concern, ends by de-prioritising the struggle against patriarchy and therefore makes real class unity based on equality within the class impossible. Zetkin and Kollontai may not have known what patriarchy was, but they well realised this last point.
"In order to fulfil this task [of drawing in more women] two things are necessary. The male workers must stop viewing the female worker primarily as a woman to be courted if she is young, beautiful, pleasant and cheerful (or not). They must stop (depending on their degree of culture or lack of it) molesting them with crude and fresh sexual advances. The workers must rather get accustomed to treat female labourers primarily as female proletarians, as working-class comrades fighting class slavery and as equal and indispensable co-fighters in the class struggle."
In opposition to this, today, we have two approaches to it. For the bourgeoisie, anything can and ought to be turned into an instrument for making profits. So on IWD men are invited to buy better goods for their wives/girl friends. Women are offered discounts for items of things allegedly of their world. This trivialises the struggles of women both past and present, and ignores the real oppressions women in their majority still face – from killing though sex-determination and subsequent abortions, through discrimination in how they are fed, educated, and treated all through life.
And there is the patronising attitude of considerable sections of today’s socialist movement, which has forgotten all that Zetkin, Kollontai and their comrades stood for. For such socialists, if there are fewer women in the movement, that is because women are backward. Such people have not seen fit to examine the different conditions in which male and female toilers live and work.
We need an autonomous women’s movement. We also need a realisation within that movement, that class and patriarchy cannot be totally delinked, in a world where capitalism does dominate.