the struggle for women’s emancipation today

Liz Leicester, chair of Camden UNISON, spoke to our 9th March London forum on the meaning of International Women’s Day:

First of all, as a socialist I would always say that the struggles of women and the self-activity of women is very much a part of the struggle for the self-emancipation of the whole working class, and I’ve always seen it in that context. That’s where we have to place the issues that are called ‘women’s issues’.

A small quote I think is good, which I think The Commune has published on its website, by Francois Chesnais is “Inequalities and oppression do not exist separately from each other. They translate into concrete realities the way in which this mode of production, capitalism, functions.” For me that’s at the centre of this discussion about women’s issues.

There are some very real and concrete things. There is an estimate, for instance, that women internationally do twice as much unpaid work in the home than they do paid work. That is not unimportant. But women in paid work are still dominated by a patriarchal system as well as class domination, even in countries where some progress has been made, such as this one, in reducing women’s dependence on men.

However now we see in the oldest capitalist countries – again, such as this one -major attacks coming up on childcare, abortion rights and other services, on the so-called ‘social wage’ which women have won through their struggles. But of course in larger areas of the world, there is extreme poverty, exploitation, violence, rape, semi-slavery or even slavery of women and children – and I think children are an important part of this discussion. According to UNICEF, in the world’s least developed countries, many of which are at war, women are three hundred times more likely to die during childbirth than in developed countries, and the highest rates of maternal deaths are – no surprise – in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These figures remind us of the extreme situation of the majority of women in the world.

I have reflected somewhat on what the origins of International Women’s Day were, which this audience may well know. But for me as someone from the United States it’s quite interesting, because that’s a crucial part of the world and the American working class is a crucial part of whatever we’re trying to do. Actually its origins go back to big strikes by women garment workers in the United States. At the turn of the century in New York there were 65,000 women employed in the garment trade, more women employed than in any other city in the United States. They were mostly young, single immigrant women working very long hours, and on 8th March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. Their slogan was ‘bread and roses’ – bread for food, roses for a better quality of life. Still, a hundred years on, you could say for most women in the world, that would be what they’d fight for and what they’d want.

There was a big strike a year later which was called the ‘uprising of the 20,000′ where, again, women in the garment trade, mostly aged between 16 and 25, struck for thirteen weeks in the face of violence, intimidation and arrests. But it did give rise to the designation of a Sunday – the last Sunday in February, at that point – as a National Women’s Day, and then this was taken up by Clara Zetkin and the Second International, and at a conference in 1910 with a hundred women from seventeen countries, an International Women’s Day was declared. I quote from the resolution,
“In agreement with class conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the socialist women of all countries will hold a women’s day each year. The women’s day must have an international character”.

This spread most dramatically in Russia, where women workers staged a strike – against the advice of the Bolshevik Party – walking out of their Petrograd factories and calling on workers to join them. At the end of it around 20-30% of the workforce were on strike by March 23rd 1917, which marked March 8th in our calendar. And then, interestingly, down through the years, in 1977 the UN General Assembly picked this up. In all kinds of places – many former Stalinist countries – this is an official day, a holiday where men give flowers to women et cetera… so it’s become something very different in a lot of places. But I think there are still some very genuine celebrations and struggles. Celebration by fighting, in some countries in the world.

In terms of the British working class and women in Britain, we can say the law has not done us too many favours. If we look at the figures, women now outnumber men in trade unions – just – in Britain. 29.7% of women workers are in unions, 27.2% of men, so we’ve passed… but a lot of that is due to the decline of the manufacturing industry and traditional male-dominated industries and the rise of the service sector. Thirty years of the Equal Pay Act, outlawing sex discrimination at work, and yet women’s inequality is still fully prevalent in the workplace: full time women workers’ wages are 81% of men’s. The gender pay gap is even wider, men working longer hours more likely to get overtime, and part-time women workers only earn 59% of the average hourly male earnings. This hasn’t changed, in over thirty years.

Lone parents make up a quarter of families, 90% of lone parents are women, and there are an increasing number of women in the workforce. But, in the current situation, which is interesting, women are more likely to face redundancies under the recession, almost double the male increase in redundancy rates over the last year. And of course, although the law outlaws direct discrimination, victimization and harassment, the number of cases brought to tribunal continues to rise, with one harassment case brought to an employment tribunal every week over the last five years. So what I’m saying is that the law really hasn’t done it, and what we’re talking about is organizing, struggling and fighting. Whatever that may mean – I don’t have any easy answers – but the law certainly isn’t doing it for women in Britain.

In the public sector, which is where I work, employment is highly gendered, with extreme patterns of both horizontal and vertical segregation. Horizontal in the sense that women tend to be school cooks, supervisors, home care workers – that level of people – but also vertical in the sense that the low paid in the same job categories tend to be women. So headteachers tend to be men, teaching assistants tend to be women.

The public sector is a very large employer of women – a third of all working women in the UK are working in the public sector – and a very high proportion of those are part time. Local government and the NHS are the two largest employers and both have a predominantly female workforce, so it’s a huge group of workers. In local government half of workers are working part-time – an enormous number of people. According to Carole Thornley at Keele University, who’s done a lot of work looking this area, the deterioration in gross pay in local government since 1992 has been enormous, and the gap between women workers and men has actually widened, according to her research. In UNISON, where I’ve been for some years, there’s no doubting the very close relationship between gender, class, part-time work, domestic labour, and under-valuation of what is seen as women’s work. Three quarters of the membership of UNISON are women, and one-third of those are working part-time. In the last few years we’ve had three fairly big disputes: the London weighting dispute, the dispute on pensions and the dispute over pay last summer. Though ACAS has just awarded us an extra 0.3% on top of our 2.45% pay rise – as someone said today, ‘don’t go booking a holiday…’ – they haven’t been enormously successful disputes.

Again, I think it’s worth thinking about the fact that such a large proportion of the union are women and what that is all about. Some thoughts: first of all, there is a low density of members in the public sector, even if it’s high in comparison with the private sector. Something like 51.8% are in unions; 69% are covered by collective agreements: so only just over half union density in the public sector. The action that was called in all three of these disputes was one or two days only. I don’t only blame the union leaders for that, as some people would: there are complex issues in the public sector now, after twenty years post-Thatcher. I think there’s a lack of experience, with a lot of young people who don’t have the continuity that some of us have. A lack of confidence. And undoubtedly an issue for some groups of people – I think particularly for women who’ve been working very closely with service users like home carers, who are very committed to the work they’re doing – is finding it very difficult to take that step out of that relationship. And then of course privatization, cuts, contracting out, all those things. We’ve got something like 1500 agency workers in a workforce of 6000. Those are temporary people, the people always at risk. Though you try and recruit them to the union, and some of them join, they are not employed by Camden but rather they are very much people to be taken on tomorrow and who, really, have no rights at all. I am sure that will be the situation across the public sector.
And then of course there’s the union itself. In UNISON there has been real witch-hunting and victimization – it may be initiated by the employers, but it’s been picked up by UNISON in some big high-profile cases. And then there’s its relationship to New Labour, and the attitude of ‘partnership’ with the employers – which you always have to fight – that ‘we’re all in it together’ and that ‘if it’s good for local government, it’s good for the workforce, it’s good for everybody…’ There is a real philosophical battle to fight on that front.

It has to be said as well, and I say this having been very active in the women’s group in Camden NALGO, that women’s self-organisation does not always work in the union to mobilize. I’m not against it – I support it – but it hasn’t worked. In my workplace it has reflected very much the social-democratic way of organizing where there’s a women workers’ unit, a gay and lesbian workers’ unit, a black workers’ unit or a disabled people’s unit. All that went in the ‘80s with big cuts and frankly the union organization which reflected that began to fall apart. The only really still-effective group among the self-organised groups in our situation was the black workers’ group. That may not be the case everywhere. Nationally in UNISON the women’s committee is very, very conservative: one of the most conservative forces. Although I support it, I have to say that it is full of contradictions, which has to be thought about in the trade union context.

So finally, I think that International Women’s Day still has got meaning. One of the things I looked for instance at was the situation Iran, where they’ve had very big, very active organised women’s demonstrations along with arrests, hunger strikes and so on, using this day to organise and to make public statements. I was quite moved when I was looking at some of the slogans from the demonstrations in 2007, where students were saying:
“We in unison, women and freedom-loving people, declare ‘no to women’s oppression’. We protest against gender apartheid, which has become institutionalised, and demand the abolition of all anti-women laws. We support people’s struggle for equal rights for men and women. We condemn any compulsory dress code and demand the abolition of capital punishment and stoning. We condemn any humiliation and violence against women. We condemn domestic and state violence. We demand the immediate release of women political prisoners” – at that point there were a lot – “We support the teachers’ and workers’ struggles. We demand an immediate end to the deportations of Afghan residents and demand that all immigrants in Iran must enjoy equal civil rights. We strongly believe and declare no to economic sanctions, no to war, and no to nuclear bombs. We declare freedom, equality and welfare for all.”

It’s a very simple list, in a sense, but if you think of where these women are and what they’re fighting for I think that has real meaning and real resonance, which is worth us thinking about in terms of the early days of the movement and how things have developed, as I have described.

The last thing I want to say is linked to what I said at the beginning and why I don’t think this is separate from the class struggle. In Istvan Meszaros’ book Socialism or Barbarism there’s an interview with him about what revolution means now – the concept – and he refers to it as “the profound and ongoing revolutionary transformation of all facets of our social life. The new mode of controlling our social metabolism must penetrate into all segments of society. It is in that sense that the concept of revolution remains valid – indeed, in the light of our historical experience, more valid than ever. A revolution in this sense not only eradicates but also implants – you have to put in place of what is being removed something capable of taking deep roots.”

I think that this discussion and the discussions that a lot of people are having – really struggling, after the experience we’ve had of the 20th century, Stalinism and all that meant – show that people are really trying to rediscover what revolution is, if it’s still valid and what it’s going to mean. And I think that the emancipation of women – the real emancipation of women, in a society of equals – is what we’re all trying to discuss and struggle for.