This year marks a very important event – the 100th anniversary of the declaration of International Women’s Day. In 1910, at the International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Denmark, the German socialist leader Clara Zetkin had proposed the observance of an international day of struggle of women for their rights and their emancipation.
This proposal was enthusiastically accepted by the Conference. The years preceding this conference had seen many fearless and organised struggles by women workers in various sectors and different cities of the world against their exploitation. March 8 came to be chosen as International Women’s Day in commemoration of a heroic struggle by women garment workers in New York on that day in 1857.
Over the last century, the struggle for the rights and emancipation of women has grown in strength to the point where the exploiters and oppressors of women themselves have had to make a show of celebrating March 8 as International Women’s Day. In the process, the real character and history of International Women’s Day – as a day which originated in the militant struggle of working women against capitalist exploitation, and which was integrally linked with the movement for socialism – has been sought to be covered up.
The subjugation of women and the discrimination they face in every sphere of life has its roots in the emergence of class exploitation and the institution of private property. The emergence of the capitalist system of exploitation only intensified the burden on women. However, the modern socialised production characteristic of capitalism also provided the conditions for masses of women to come out of their homes, and to organise together with their fellow workers, both women and men, against exploitation. The struggle of women for emancipation grew stronger and more widespread in the 19th century. Working women in large numbers participated in the Paris Commune, the first attempt of the working class to establish its power and do away with exploitation of all forms. Enlightened women of science emerged in several countries in defence of the theory and program of communism. They identified the movement of the working class for socialism as the path to achieve the emancipation of women.
Within just a few years of the declaration of International Women’s Day, the struggle of women got a huge boost from the victory of the October Revolution in Russia and the establishment of socialism. Till that time, even in the most advanced capitalist countries, even the formal equality of women with men in law had not been recognized. Only white men of property enjoyed the right to vote, even in the much trumpeted Jeffersonian democracy in the United States. In the matter of political rights, in the spheres of family, marriage and personal laws, women suffered from a position of inferiority to men.
The state of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Soviet Union in one stroke did what the bourgeois states in other countries had resisted for so long – it completely abolished the legal and political inequality of women, giving women the same rights and privileges in every sphere as working men. The socialist law demonstratively denied political rights to the exploiters, while it placed supreme power in the hands of the soviets of workers, peasants and soldiers. The world could see that only such a power of the working class is interested in smashing the chains of oppression of women.
The socialist state took concrete measures to ensure the economic and social equality of women, without which they would have been unable to enjoy to the full the political and legal rights they had won. The full weight and resources of the socialist state were poured into this effort. The right of women to productive employment was ensured, helping to ensure their economic independence. Within one or two generations, the educational level of Soviet women and girls was brought on par with those of men. The Soviet Union became known for its huge force of women doctors, engineers, teachers, skilled workers and highly qualified scientific and technical personnel. Hospitals and medical facilities geared to looking after the special health needs of women and children were established in every locality. The state also saw it as its responsibility to establish crèches, nurseries, and other social and recreational facilities which would lighten the work load and responsibility of child rearing and housekeeping for the working women. The drawing of large numbers of women into administrative work, and the attention paid to organising and mobilising them at all levels, was crucial to ensuring the success of these efforts.
For millions upon millions of women around the world, the great advances in the conditions of women in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries became the model, the inspiration, for the struggles in their own countries. It brought home to them the truth that women could never be emancipated as long as the system of exploitation remained in existence. It showed the conscious and active women that just as the women of Russia had done, women elsewhere too needed to fight for the victory of revolution and socialism as the way to their own emancipation.
In India, the anti-colonial struggle in the early twentieth century were responsible for bringing millions of women out in struggle against all forms of enslavement. The labour movement and peasant struggles further strengthened this trend. While the communists, and especially a very large number of women communists, were responsible for organising and mobilising masses of women, at the same time bourgeois nationalist leaders and organisations also sought to mobilise women for their aims. With the end of colonial rule, Indian women received certain political and legal rights they had not had before. However, the new bourgeois ruling class deliberately retained the legal inequality of women in many spheres.
The terrible oppression of women due to feudal and backward practices as well as caste oppression and discrimination, much of which was preserved by the colonial rulers and the Indian bourgeoisie which took over power from them, added on to the capitalist exploitation of women. Even today, more than 60 years after formal independence, the vast masses of Indian women continue to be victims of all these diverse forms of exploitation, defended by the Indian state and its institutions. Through all these years, women in India have continued to fight relentlessly against this manifold oppression and exploitation, for better wages and working conditions, for social equality, dignity and security, compelling the rulers to pass certain laws and frame certain policies focusing on women, even though their implementation in practice is woefully inadequate.
In the face of the growing struggles of women in all countries against their exploitation, bourgeois feminism was created and spread first in the heartland of capitalism in the twentieth century. It was actively promoted as a trend in the women’s movement to oppose the linking of the struggle for women’s emancipation with the struggle of the working class and the struggle for socialism. Bourgeois feminism presents the source of women’s oppression as lying in the system of patriarchy, but divorced from the system of class exploitation. The main enemy of women’s emancipation is identified as men as a whole. Personal and sexual freedom is glorified as the single aim of women’s emancipation. The organized participation of women as workers, shoulder to shoulder with men, against capitalist exploitation is discouraged. The advances made by women under socialism are denigrated or denied altogether. ‘Deconstructionism’ – i.e. looking at different problems faced by women in isolation from each other instead of as part of an integral whole social problem – has been consciously promoted.
The bourgeoisie knows that the mass participation of women is essential for the struggle of the working class against capitalism to succeed, and it is even prepared to make limited concessions on some fronts to co-opt certain sections of women. It does so in order to weaken the link between the movement of women for their complete emancipation from the movement for socialism, whose victory is a condition for the emancipation of women from all kinds of exploitation and oppression, including oppression within the family. In the final analysis, it contributes to weakening both the movement of women for their emancipation, and the movement of the working class for putting an end to all forms of exploitation of persons by persons.
In India the bourgeois feminist trend extended its influence over many urban educated women in the 70s and 80s, in the form of the ‘autonomous’ women’s movement. This sought to dissociate women from the working class movement and the general movement for political and social rights, leading the discontent of a whole generation of women up to a dead end.
The collapse of socialism in the 90s, the agenda of capitalist reforms, aggression and war pushed by world imperialism in all countries led to resurgence in the struggle of women. Women all over the world came out to oppose the devastating consequences of the capitalist reforms, to raise their voices against imperialist war and aggression. The contemporary women’s movement in India has seen women come out in large numbers, often in the forefront of the struggle, together with men, against the policies of liberalization, privatization and globalization, against the loot and plunder of their land and resources by the big monopolies, against state organized violence, for national rights, for their rights as workers and against all other forms of social oppression and degradation.
The picture that the bourgeoisie seeks to paint – that women can achieve liberation within the present society that is based on class exploitation – is a delusion. Women should steer clear of such delusions. The unforgettable lesson from the history of the international women’s movement in the past century is that the struggle for women’s emancipation must be waged in close conjunction with the struggle led by the working class to get rid of all forms of exploitation in society. Socialism and communism alone can lead to the complete emancipation of women; while the struggle for socialism and communism can succeed only if masses of women come forward to take active part in it.