Thursday, March 08, 2012

'No Masters, No Mistresses!' - Reflections on International Women's Day from a Hetero White Male

International Women's Day used to look like this...
I am the person mentioned in the title. I am not subject to oppression based on sexual orientation, my ethnicity or - the subject of the day - gender. So I'm aware there's a very real sense in which I'm not entitled to intrude on women's attempts to overcome their oppression, and I wouldn't want to do that. Still, I also want to see the patriarchy smashed, so I will offer my reflections on International Women's Day (IWD).

Different groups of people seem to put forward two different objections. Firstly, there is the classic right wing attack also put forward by opponents of Black History Month, for example - i.e. why do 'they' get a day and 'we' don't. Whenever that 'we' is put forward, it is always by a representative of the demographic which does the oppressing of the 'other'. You can probably imagine say Jeremy Clarkson claiming that about almost every 'special' day with a 'y' in it.

The other objection - which I believe has much more validity to it - is that by assigning twenty-four hours per year for that oppressed group to have their say, it de facto concedes every other second to those that do the oppressing. It's almost as if patriarchy allows women the 8th of every March, because those who benefit from the oppression of women believe 'they'll go out, let off some steam, and then get back to normal tomorrow'.

And yet the early International Women's Days were very much insurgent happenings, which rejected the entire status quo. The very first IWD took place in the US, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland in 1911
- with tens of thousands participating. According to socialist organiser Alexandra Kollontai, it:
"...exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria .... was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere...in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask [male] workers to give up their places for the women. Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators' banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament."
Two years later IWD was unofficially honoured by the women of Russia, and its 1917 edition sparked the February Revolution. Following the October Revolution which brought the Bolshevik Party to power, Kollontai promoted it as an official holiday in Russia. Though she doubtless had honourable intentions, IWD was now wedded to the Russian state, and despite later flourishing in the Spanish revolution of the 1930s, it degenerated as fast as the "workers' state".

Today, there are many radical women keeping the spirit of a century ago alive. But even though the day is not an official holiday in the UK (or indeed in many other countries), liberal elements have co-opted it. For example, in Liverpool tonight a local women's business group is hosting an IWD event called 'Being An Empowered Business Woman'. It is difficult to imagine a sharper contrast to the revolutionary origins of the day than this celebration of capital as a means of 'empowerment' - i.e. individual women empowering themselves by enslaving others. No doubt such women derived great enjoyment from the recent Margaret Thatcher biopic.

...now it looks more like this.
And in a capitalist system, patriarchy is the mechanism by which women's labour is exploited far more than that of working class men. This economic brutality is kept in place by a dehumanising ideology, which from the cradle teaches young females and males from the cradle that they have very distinct roles to play in society. When all else fails, or out of their own sense of inadequacy, men physically hurt women to 'keep them in their place' - the place assigned to them capitalism. The statistics are still horrifying.

As the tide of implicitly anti-capitalist struggles rises globally, I hope that the women of the world will make future International Women's Days the catalyst for revolution once more.
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