International Women’s Day: A time for action, not just celebration
Today (8th March 2015) is International Women’s Day. Looking at the plethora of International Women’s Day events, from women’s cycling sessions run by my local council to the arts-focused WOW festival at London’s Southbank – which, it was announced with great fanfare this year, now has royal endorsement from the Duchess of Cornwall – one could be forgiven for thinking that International Women’s Day had little to do with trade unions or the struggles of working women around the world.
In fact, you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a warm up act for Mother’s Day: a day for celebrating our mothers, daughters, and sisters. Actually, International Women’s Day has radical roots.
The day itself has its origins in socialist, trade union movements at the beginning of the last century. The notion of an annual International Women’s Day was first tabled by the German, Marxist, trade unionist Clara Zetkin at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910. The first International Women’s Day rallies were inextricably linked to working women’s struggles for the vote, for the right to work, for decent pay and conditions, for training and for an end to discrimination.
Rather than being a “celebration of women”, which many International Women’s Day events are today, or an opportunity to flog handbags and skincare products to women, as one particularly depressing event I attended turned out to be, the history of International Women’s Day is radical and progressive and seeks to effect change rather than merely to “celebrate” women.
On the eve of the TUC Women’s Conference and the launch of a new report on the impact of recession and austerity on women, it’s clear that Zetkin’s battles have not yet been won. As the International Trade Union Congress statement for this year’s International Women’s Day points out, we still have many challenges ahead:
Women’s trade union membership stands on average at 40%, yet women occupy only 15% of the top decision-making positions in their organisations.
- Women’s labour force participation rates are stagnating at 26 percentage points lower than those of men.
- Women continue to predominate in informal, low-quality, precarious and undervalued jobs.
- Women’s average wages are between 4% and 36% less than those of men.
- Gender-based violence remains an all-too-tolerated feature of the workplace, with no comprehensive international legal standard to outlaw it.
The long shadow of austerity continues to affect women heavily, cutting jobs where women have traditionally worked, slashing public services which women tend to rely on more than men and increasing their already disproportionate share of care responsibilities. Women living in poverty are particularly vulnerable to economic policies that redistribute wealth away from the 99% to the 1%, whilst their labour subsidises global and local economies by providing the care services that governments won’t fund.
After centuries of counting on us, on this International Women’s Day working women everywhere say, “It’s time to Count Us In!”
Just a cursory glance at this year’s TUC Women’s Conference agenda shows that women in unions are fighting for their rights on many different fronts, from cuts, to attacks on employment rights, to violence against women, to attacks on their reproductive rights, to under-representation in industry and in public life.
So, by all means enjoy a cultural day out “celebrating women” at the Southbank and feel free to enjoy a women’s cycling session organised by your council, but let’s not forget the origins of this important day. Let’s celebrate our achievements but let’s also follow Zetkin’s example and use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to build solidarity, agitate, educate, and organise.