(The first part of this article can be seen here)
This column ended last week by arguing that women’s struggle for equality cannot be fought independent of the larger struggle for human equality. Does that imply that an independent women’s movement is not desirable? That it could actually be self-defeating in the longer run? Would celebrating the International Women’s Day (which falls tomorrow) split the unity required to struggle for human emancipation by disconnecting women’s issues from larger concerns?
As always, a look at history will help clarify some of these questions.
The idea of a specific Women’s Day was first proposed by a German woman communist Clara Zetkin to mobilise women on the political demand of the vote and make them equal partners in the larger workers’ struggles engulfing Europe at that time. At an international conference of working women organised by the Second International in 1910 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Zetkin proposed organising meetings and demonstrations in all countries on one day to highlight the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.
This proposal met with unanimous approval and 19th March 1911 was fixed as the first International Women’s Day. 19th March was chosen as Women’s Day as it was on this day in 1848 that the king of Prussia had agreed to grant woment the right to vote. It was the first time in history that a ruler had been forced to accept political equality for women and grant them the vote, even though he later reneged on his promise.
On 19th March 1911 more than a million women in Europe took a day off work to attend meetings and demonstrations demanding their political right to vote, equal pay for equal work and maternity benefits. Allexandra Kollontai, the Russain revolutionary living in exile in Germany reported, “Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings.”
Working class parties and revolutionaries in other countries too organised women’s day meetings at about the same time. In some countries it was organised on the last Sunday of February and in North America on 8th March to commemorate the 1857 strike on that day by women textile workers of New York City. By 1913 Women’s Day was being celebrated on 8th March in all countries.
Women also gave birth, literally, to the Russian revolution of 1917. It is now almost forgotten that it was the militant demonstration of over 10,000 poor women in a cold, snowy St. Petersburg on Women’s Day, demanding bread for their hungry children and peace for their weary soldiers, which started off the great Russian revolution. Women’s Day fell on 23rd February in Russia which followed the Julian calender during the days of the Tsar.
Tsar Nicholas II ordered his troops to disperse these unruly women, but when faced with this “seething, trembling sea of women”, the soldiers dropped their guns and joined their sisters and mothers demanding an end to their poverty and to the war. Rather than subsiding, this protest spread fast and wide and within four days the Tsar had been forced to abdicate power to a republican government! The rest, as they say, is history, but what is important to remember, it is history made by women! A month before these women of St. Petersburg deposed the mighty Tsar, Lenin was lamenting in his Swiss exile that he may not live long enough to see the reality of a socialist revolution.
The above history clearly shows that the history of the women’s movement was closely tied to the history of working class struggles for emancipation. It was part and parcel of the larger struggle for actualising the rights of equality and liberty which had been granted on paper to all human beings by the Enlightenment and French Revolution but had been denied in practice to most. An independent expression by women of demands specific to their requirements added to the strength of the larger movement for emancipation and liberation.
With the decline of the communist movement in the 1930s and the rise of Fascism and the War, the International Women’s Day too got neglected. It was revived again in 1960 with a very different political load when over 700 women activists from more than 70 countries met again in Copenhagen to commemorate the 50th anniverssary of the this Day and in 1975 the United Nations owned it too. Today’s International Women’s Day is very unlike what it started out as almost a century ago.
Today the international women’s day has lost its communist links so much so that multinational companies like HSBC, media groups like BBC and Governments like the United States are “official” partners of the International Women’s Day. It is a day for Parliaments to pass verbose resolutions, Governments to announce grandiloquent schemes and NGOs to dedicate themselves (yet again) to donor dollars, all for the benefit of women. In a way, this can be seen as the very success of the idea which forces political, social and economic actors, irrespective of their ideological stances, to acknowledge the importance of women’s rights. But it could also be seen as a blunting of the political edge and the co-option of the women’s movement by the privilegentia of today’s world.
Today women, individually as well as collectively, have managed to break open all the bastions of male privilege. But despite heading governments, flying planes, being CEOs of large MNCs and being counted among the rich and famous, women, who form half the world’s population, own only one percent of its wealth and earn only 10 per cent of its income. While individually women have left nothing un-achieved, collectively they remain subject to prejudice, dominated by patriarchy and excluded from power structures. Even where women enjoy political equality with men, they suffer economic inequality and social discrimination.
This gives rise to two tendencies. One tendency, which could be termed the anti-feminist reaction, claims that this proves the futility of striving for women’s equality and therefore claims that women are somehow less than men and will always remain so. They claim that while women should be respected, equality cannot be achieved. The other trend, which is a stream within the women’s movement, rejects the very desirability of equality between men and women by arguing that women are so different from men that concepts like equality can never apply to this relation. Both are united in giving an eternal tag to the political, social and cultural dissonance presently visible between men and women, even though their politics is often opposed.
Today both these tendencies are growing stronger, feeding of the despondency that the lack of substantial equality despite political rights has caused in the West. Enemies of the idea of equality are stronger than ever before in the past 100 years. So is equality between men and women really a chimera? Watch this space next week for the concluding part of this feminist thriller!
(My articles are carried every Wednesday in a column called Left~ Write in The Post, published from Lahore/Islamabad.)