International working women's day

Submitted by Matthew on 9 March, 2011 - 12:27

I had resolved to avoid reading the Guardian on Tuesday 8 March. I knew they would be publishing a “100 most inspiring women list” on this, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. And I had no desire to revisit the taste of my breakfast on my way into work.

The list had been trailed in the paper some weeks before and promised to include Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton. Hence the anticipation of nausea. In the event, the list was not as bad as I expected, just boring and predictable.

And the Guardian did not bother to enquire about or explain the origins of this 100-year-old tradition. That in itself is galling enough.

International Women’s Day — or rather International Working Women’s Day as it was to be called when established after 1911 — was first formally proposed by Clara Zetkin and other socialists (though the idea is said to be older than that). It was not about “celebrating” the lives of women, as is the modern “spin”. Not even about celebrating the lives of extraordinary working-class women — though we can and should do that. That is what Jill Mountford does in her column in this paper (“On Whose Shoulders We Stand”).

It was about making solidarity with the trade union and other class struggles of working-class women. It was about supporting their demands for higher wages, against sweatshop conditions, for nurseries and for the right to vote.

For many years now the “working-class” has gone out of International Women’s Day. At best it is a “celebration” of feminist (and not so) feminist women in history, the arts, politics and sport. At worst it is a day when local councils put on free aromatherapy sessions. Though in these austere times it’s probably a “how to make a cushion cover out of your old frock” session, make-do-and-mend being the latest soft-focus feminist thing among the middle class people who put on these things.

So the Guardian list was never going to be about women organising. It was always going to be about women using their power, position and celebrity status to “do for” other women.

The list includes far too many women who do charity in Africa (Emma Thompson, etc.) and elsewhere. The African women represented are not ordinary women who have organised in the communities where they live.

Of course it would be churlish to resent the inclusion of Wangari Maathai in the list. Wangari Maathai won a Nobel Prize for her campaigns against environmental destruction in Kenya.

But she is unusual. She is university educated (winning a scholarship to a US university in the 1960s). She is, now, an MP.

And that is what is really wrong with these lists. A little research could have turned up women who have done equally extraordinary things with their lives but have received little or no mainstream recognition for what they do. And who don’t do what they do “for” other women but as part of a wider struggle alongside other women.

Take a woman like Dita Sari, for example. Dita Sari helped set up and develop an independent left trade union in Indonesia which organised sweatshop workers. The recognition she got for her work she rejected! In 2002 she refused a $50,000 human rights award from Reebok as a protest against the company’s disregard for workers’ rights. For many years she lived where she worked, alongside her comrades, in the union headquarters in Jakarta.

There are very many women like Dita Sari in the world, and we value their work because they see themselves as part of collective struggles that can change the world. Women for whom the idea of doing something for “glory” or individual recognition is a ridiculous waste of life.

In the last issue of Solidarity, Jill Mountford highlighted the life of Ada Nield Chew who fought for votes for working-class women in order to give women leverage in society, to strengthen the fight to improve their conditions as workers. If she were around today she might approve, with the Guardian, of Lady Gaga and her flaunting of convention. That’s the kind of woman she was too.

Nonetheless, ultimately, she was more interested in what the exploited, undervalued and unrecognised majority of women want.

And that is what International Working Women’s Day means to me.