ON INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY, we globally celebrate the many bitter battles women have fought to change their life conditions in the face of intransigence, resistance and abuse.
Today in Britain women have access to jobs and education, financial independence and equality under the law. These rights along with access to safe abortion, divorce and the vote were won through a militant history of mass campaigns, workers’ action and even women dying. Yet while we celebrate our inspirational struggles on Women’s Day, we must reflect also on history’s lessons - both to thwart the policies of an openly misogynistic US President, and to plan the campaigns for future victories.
Socialist women led by the German socialist Clara Zetkin first declared an International Working Women’s Day in 1910. The 8th March date was chosen in tribute to women textile workers from Manhattan's Lower East Side who had struck in 1908 for decent working conditions and votes for women.
The early struggles for women’s rights and workers’ rights were intertwined. Working class women waged heroic struggles against barbaric working conditions and long working hours from the first textile workers strikes in the 1840s to the London self-organised Bryant and May Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888. The strike of the matchmakers signalled the era of New Unionism – the creation of mass industrial unions open to unskilled workers and women. The suffragists’ actions, mass strikes in 1911-14 and the rise of the Labour Party threatened the very stability of the British state before World War I.
World War I brought seven million women workers into war employment. The Women’s Workers Committee in 1915 called for training, pay equality and other rights, but it took post-war British workers’ militancy and the revolutionary struggles in Russia and Germany, shaking the British ruling class, to fully achieve women’s enfranchisement.
The post-World War II boom brought more women into education and employment. 1968 witnessed global upheavals with the anti-Vietnam War movement and increased working class militancy. In Britain 187 angry women sewing machinists went on strike at the Fords plant, calling for their ‘non-skilled’ work to be reclassified and for equal pay. Their actions sparked the ‘second wave’ of British feminism inspiring women trade unionists to found the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights (NJACCWER). Mass agitation and huge demonstrations pressured the Labour government to introduce the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
Since Thatcher and the rise of Conservative and New Labour austerity policies, women’s progress has been glacial with catastrophically reduced living standards for many people, but especially for women. The Women’s Budget Group found that 86% of the government’s so-called tax and welfare ‘savings’ have come at the expense of women. The Tory government’s ‘blame the victim’ culture has resulted in one in twelve women using food banks and one in ten using payday loans to feed and clothe their families.
50,000 women's jobs were lost in 2016; black women in the UK are up to three times more likely than their white counterparts to be unemployed. The £20bn in cuts to the NHS will impact disastrously on the working conditions of its predominantly female workforce; and black women are hit disproportionately by job losses in local authorities.
Women are 47% of the UK workforce but closing the gender pay gap will take until 2069 at the current rate – some 99 years after the 1970 Equal Pay Act. The pay gap persists because of women working part-time, and around three million UK women work in low paid sectors such as retail, administration and caring occupations. The Deloitte consultancy predicts young women starting work for the first time will be paid half the rate of men for another half a century.
Low pay is underpinned by the cultural norm that women should take the main responsibility for raising children and caring for other family members. Funding cuts in social care and the NHS leave 58% of the six million UK carers unpaid. Losing Sure Start and reductions in nursery provision have exacerbated the lack of availability and high cost of childcare.
Domestic violence, rape, and objectification continue to scar women and their families. Two women die every week at the hands of abusive partners and a woman is raped every six minutes. Yet women’s centres and refuges have been closed and support networks for women trapped in abusive relationships hardly exist, a situation exacerbated by the acute housing crisis.
Women are leading the struggle against the Tory Housing Act, winning victories at the Butterfield and New Era estates in London. Yet single women parents are still 44% of householders in temporary accommodation. Unionised women workers earn 30% higher wages, but it’s been a long struggle for women’s voices to be heard in the trade union movement. Women cleaners, shop workers and teaching assistants are now leading pay and pension disputes.
In 2016 Labour committed to achieve equal pay; to enforce stronger employment trade union rights and take on occupational segregation; and to invest sustainable resources in improving the lives of workers in health, education and childcare. Labour must now advocate a society in which resources and wealth are owned in common by the many not the few, so that resources are redirected to achieving real social, legal and financial equality for women.
Only when Labour, in the words of Jeremy Corbyn, “transforms the opportunities and life chances of women”, will we create the conditions for women to politically achieve their own liberation.
is Chair of Islington North CLP.