On Women’s Day this year, messages clogged my inbox. They offered tempting discounts in salons, on shoes, clothes and cosmetics, and even complimentary cocktails. Despite women organising seminars on finance, sexual harassment and health problems across the country, tokenistic marketing threatened to reduce the day to hashtags and discounts.
The irony and history
On the International Women’s Day 2019 website, the partners included McDonald’s, Amazon and Oracle. McDonald’s is facing flak in the U.S. for failing to pay its largely female workforce the minimum wage, Amazon is reported to have a huge gender diversity problem, and Oracle is facing a civil rights suit that alleges female employees were paid on average $13,000 less per year than men doing similar work. All three were apparently in support of the 2019 campaign theme, ‘Better the balance, better the world’.
The irony of all this is particularly rich given that International Women’s Day has its origins in socialism. German socialist and feminist Clara Zetkin, who organised the first International Women’s Day, was a socialist first and a feminist next. In the magazine Die Gleichheit (Equality), Zetkin wrote in 1894: “Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women are two fundamentally different social movements.” Zetkin held that “bourgeois feminists” were not concerned with the conditions of working class women who were fighting not only against men who sought to suppress them, but also with men against a common oppressor, capitalism. She believed that as white, upper class feminists would only fight to better their own conditions, socialism was the only way to serve the needs of working class women.
Zetkin suggested in the Second International Conference of Socialist Women at Copenhagen in 1910 that Women’s Day be celebrated each year, the foremost purpose of which would be “to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage”. The timing for the proposal was ideal — a year earlier, the Socialist Party in the U.S. had also suggested that a National Women’s Day be observed, in honour of a strike that took place in 1908. More than 15,000 women garment workers fought for higher wages and shorter working hours in that strike.
Following Zetkin’s proposal, International Women’s Day was observed in a few European countries on March 19, commemorating the 1848 Revolution in Prussia when a people’s uprising had forced the king to promise women the right to vote, which he later failed to keep.
But the day became truly revolutionary only later. In Russia, protests erupted on March 8, 1917, against World War I and brought down the Tsarist Empire. The new government gave the women the right to vote. International Women’s Day was thus a day of resistance and demand. The reason the UN observed the day only decades later, from 1975 onwards, was because the Americans were aware of — and wary of — its origins in socialism.
Over the decades, women’s demands have varied across cultures. In India, for instance, following the anti-colonial and social reform movement, the Constitution guaranteed justice, dignity and equality for women. However, these values came in conflict with old patriarchal values, thus limiting women’s progress. The women’s movement became fragmented, only to see a resurgence in the 1970s after the Emergency when there was a rallying cry for civil rights. This led to the birth of several women’s organisations, which successfully pushed for legal reforms. The women’s movement slowly regained strength, fighting against dowry deaths, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. However, it never really appreciated the struggles of Dalit and Bahujan women.
Issues in India
On this March 8, in some parts of the world (mostly Latin America and Europe), women continued to do what women in the early ’90s did — protest. In India, however, several companies with gender diversity and pay gap problems celebrated the day, despite the alarming trend of more and more women withdrawing from the workforce (female participation in the workforce fell from 42.7% in 2004-05 to 23.3% in 2017-18). WhatsApp forwards continued to celebrate women as mothers, daughters and sisters who are able to multi-task effortlessly, underlining the widespread belief that it is acceptable for women to work as long as they also carry out their traditional duties at home. Given the huge inequality in the treatment and payment of women workers, and with labour conditions being unfriendly to women, it is important to ask what really women want on this day: roses or reforms?
Instead of celebrating women, companies would do well to reflect on how they treat their women: is their pay on a par with men? Are sexual harassment cells in place and do they function? Are there crèches at workplaces? And what about the informal sector, the working class women, who are not represented by “bourgeois feminists”? How do we consolidate various women’s movements across classes and castes?
In an increasingly unequal world, March 8 gives us the opportunity to ask ourselves how much more is to be done and how it is to be accomplished. Instead of allowing a day rooted in protest to be taken over by consumerism, women could mobilise around specific issues — better sanitation facilities and better wages — and make sustained demands for effective change in their conditions.