Tomorrow is International Women’s Day – a celebration of women and feminism with radical socialist roots. Exactly one hundred years ago tomorrow, International Women’s Day brought about the first Russian revolution. Exactly one hundred years ago tomorrow, the women of Russia brought down a tyrant. So, let us celebrate women and the revolutionary history of this day. Indeed it is particularly poignant to consider the radical history of IWD now in the wake of contemporary splits among leftists following Trump’s election. What lessons can we draw from theoe brave women? What is the way forward for our movement?
I have written elsewhere that following Trump’s win, an outbreak of unhelpful blame has infected the left. Nowhere has that conflict been greater than between the #ImWithHer Clinton feminists and the #FeelTheBern Bernie socialists. Many Clinton feminists will never forgive Sanders’ supporters for rejecting the first major female Presidential candidate. Many Sanders socialists will never forgive the Clinton supporters for propping up a candidate who has a history of supporting foreign wars and neo-liberal economic policies. Both continue to blame the other for Trump’s win.
Of course in many ways this is a false debate. The majority of young Democrat women actually voted for Sanders in the primaries. It may be more ‘battle of the generations’ than ‘battle of the sexes’ within the mainstream American left. Nonetheless, the debate is symbolic of the broader debate between left of centre movements world-wide. Identity politics vs class politics. What kind of leadership does the left need? Should it focus on progressive social values or on economic equality? Unfortunately these two variants of left-wing thought can be difficult to implement simultaneously. This is because – as made perfectly clear by Trump’s win, Brexit, and the increasing popularity of One Nation – many working class people who may be sympathetic to economic populism hold regressive social views. Furthermore, many social progressives (such as Malcolm Turnbull) hold neo-liberal capitalist views. Nonetheless I truly believe that the revolutionary socialist history of IWD shows us that both identity politics and class politics can and must be simultaneously the focus of the left. It is when oppressed peoples unite together that real change takes place.
The first Women’s Day was held in 1909 in New York. It was organised by the Socialist Party of American to commemorate the one year anniversary of the strike of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union. A year later, female socialists organised an International Women’s Conference in the lead up to the Second International (a meeting of communists and socialists held in Denmark). Renowned socialist leaders Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz passed a motion there supporting an International Women’s Day to be held yearly. The aim of the day was for women to engage in radical political activism to fight for equal rights.
And only seven years later, female radical political activism was such that the Russian Tsar – the richest person on earth at the time – would be forced to end his cruel dictatorship. By early 1917, World War One had devastated Russia. Literally millions of Russians were dead, and an economic crisis had brought millions more to the brink of starvation. Real wages in the capital halved between 1914 and 1916, as wages doubled but the cost of living quadrupled (Michael Lynch, 2005). Political leadership was blind to the problems and there were no civil or political rights for the average person to have their grievances heard. Public gatherings were banned by the Russian government under punishment of death. Despite the ban, on March 8th – International Women’s Day – upwards of 50,000 Russian women came out to the streets of Petrograd to engage in radical political activism. They defied the Tsar and demanded that food be distributed to those that needed it. They marched under the banner of ‘Peace and Bread’. They demanded an end to the war that was ruining so many of their lives. By the next day, the women recruited male factory workers to join their protest and by March 10th there were a quarter of a million people protesting in Petrograd. Nearly all industry had shut down. The Tsar ordered the troops to disperse the crowds using deadly force but, partly because of how many women were in the crowds, the Petrograd Garrison refused. Many soldiers joined the protests. By March 15th the Tsar had resigned and a new more liberal government took control.
On March 19th, after 40,000 armed female suffragettes marched on parliament, the new government granted women the right to vote in the upcoming elections. Russia was at this time one of only five countries where women could vote. And the liberal reforms only increased after the second Russian revolution in October which brought the communists to power. In pre-revolutionary Russia, women couldn’t live separately from a man, inherit land, attend University or really have liberty or independence in any sense. Then, like now, many working class men were sexist and regressive. Even many left wing men who welcomed the revolution as a chance to re-structure the economy in favour of the poor, did not support women’s rights. Yet Lenin, encouraged by women like Inessa Armand and Alexandra Kollantai, saw – long before Hillary Clinton was around to tell us so – that women’s rights are human rights.
Women were not only granted formal legal equality but equal pay for equal work was legislated – more than 50 years before it was enforced in Australia. Special programs were introduced to teach women to read and write. Divorce was legalised. There was paid maternity leave – a right which American women still do not enjoy. The Soviet Union became the first country on earth to provide free abortions. To liberate women from domestic chores, public childcare was provided. Public cafeterias at workplaces and schools were provided so men could no longer demand that their wives stay home to cook. Of course we know that Soviet Russia wasn’t a utopia. The economy wasn’t prosperous enough for such proposals to be totally effective. A deadly civil war raged in the years after the revolution that undermined everything. After the rise of Stalinism in the thirties, feminist policies took a backseat alongside human rights generally. Nonetheless women clearly appreciated the Leninist reforms. Over 70,000 women volunteered to fight as soldiers in the Red Army to defend the revolution against Tsarist and foreign capitalist armies.
Furthermore, these feminist policies of the communists did make a real difference. Under the Tsar, women’s healthcare was not a priority at all. So many women died in childbirth, from domestic violence, and other causes, that the average life expectancy of women before 1917 was merely 30 years old. By 1970, the average life expectancy of a Russian woman had more than doubled to 74 years (and that is despite a famine and another world war gripping the USSR within that time frame). By 1971, women made up exactly half of all University students in the Soviet Union. Throughout most of the twentieth century female employment in the USSR was significantly higher than it was in America.
What is most important to realise, is that such amazing gains in women’s lives could not have been achieved without socialism. A strong government was required to intervene in the free market. A bold government was required to smash regressive social norms. Public healthcare, public childcare, public education were all crucial.
A contemporary Australian example shows how identity politics and class politics are intertwined. The recent penalty rate cut is a blow to young, low income shift workers. The union movement – which is about to be headed for the first time ever in Australia by two women – is rightly fighting it tooth and nail. Significant evidence shows that companies will keep the extra money they save as profits, while the wages of workers fall even further than they already are. What also needs to be said is that such a class based attack on workers is also a gender based attack on women. Women make up a sizeable majority of both the retail and hospitality industries.
So tomorrow, one hundred years after women started the Russian revolution, hopefully women and men will unite in radical activism against this proposal and on many other issues too. Because the only way forward for the left is solidarity and unity around both class politics and identity politics. That is where real change is made. It was, after all, Clara Zetkin – one of the original socialist founders of International Women’s Day at that conference in Denmark – who said that “the women’s question cannot be separated from the class question”. Happy International Women’s Day comrades.