In 1909, the Socialist Party in New York City, at the initiative of Theresa Malkiel, organised the first Women’s Day to protest women’s wage discrimination, women’s inability to vote, and women’s prohibition from holding political office. These women were working class, immigrant, Italian, Black, and Jewish. In some cases, they escaped anti-Semitic pogroms in Eastern Europe and in other cases they deserted potato famines in Ireland. International Women’s Day was not only an opportunity for them to declare the material struggles they had as working-class women, but it was also the chance to exercise their dissatisfaction in a public platform. How do we make sense of this history of gender oppression, inequality, and exploitation? What are the conditions that led women to resist?
We understand that gender oppression is not a natural condition but it is shaped by the economic and political organisation of society. Capitalism relies on gender based oppression – as well as other forms of oppression – to primarily alienate women and gender non-binary people, but secondarily, also men from our common humanity. Thus, a struggle against gender oppression, which does not seek to radically change the way we produce, live and earn our means of livelihood, can only strive for a superficial inclusion of women and/or gender non-binary people into the very system that creates our oppression. We reject this notion of liberal feminism. At the same time, a class analysis that only sidelines questions of gender, race or sexuality cannot fully reach its potential to mobilise all working people around the world – as waged and non-waged workers. We believe that a global worker’s movement has to stand with the exploited and oppressed – and centrally organise and fight against gender-based violence, wherever we encounter it.
A class-based anti-patriarchal approach
What we fight for, is a working class-based anti-patriarchal approach in all activities of our organisations belonging to the global working-class movement, and rooted in the history of immigrant and socialist women. This means paying close attention to the history of colonialism, the wide-ranging impact of austerity and neoliberalism, and way resistance unfolds in our local communities. Class is a feature that shapes how we live, where we live, and how long we live. It is in this regard that the global working class can gravely struggle over the conditions and dimensions by which we sell our labour and relate to our families and communities. Women disproportionately bear the double burden of providing productive labour outside the home and reproductive labour in the home – a situation that is Herculean in practice. This particular social relation, under capitalism, has been the fuel to further exploit women and those who carry this toil. Our politics should not pit class over gender or gender over class, rather, it should seek to confront the institutions that tax women in the public and private sphere. Similarly, our political framework should move beyond bourgeois principles that further exploit workers or desecrate the environment. They should operate on a point of view that gives agency, dignity, and justice to those facing persecution.
For working-class Black and Brown women, multiple oppressions augment each other and reinforce each other, and the material and social conditions in our lives lead to increased suffering on the part of Black and Brown women. This plays out in wage discrimination, housing, reproductive health, and more. It is in this regard that we develop nuanced and sharp analyses that provide the root of these issues and their potential solutions.
Migration has been a contentious debate in Germany, the United States and South Africa and what researchers have found is that migrant women are disproportionately and negatively impacted by reproductive health problems,[i] next to higher rates of unemployment, unstable employment and gender-based violence. This means that labour unions continue to be important in the struggle for equity, childcare, and harassment free spaces for immigrant female workers. Including specific demands concerning female, and/or immigrant workers into labour concerns helps all workers in the end, as workers cannot be pitted against one another for the breadcrumbs offered to us. Yet, this should not only be coordinated at the workplace or on a national level, instead, labour unions can be the means by which working class women can organise internationally. Not only is this a mechanism that resonated with nineteenth century socialist attempts to unify the working class beyond national lines – through the Communist International – but it can iron out the uneven division of resources on a global scale. Historically, the working class has been its strongest when it has seen itself as part of a broader collective and international force. And here we do not speak of either social democratic attempts to highjack self-organised worker’s movements, nor about the efforts of union bureaucracies to do the same. In fact, we believe that social democracy, together with the union’s anti-class struggle social partnership model has historically proven its betrayal to the working class as a whole. Living and working in one of Europe’s flagship social democracies, we understand how exactly this has led to the de-politicisation of labour unions, as recently seen in the mobilisations of the “Mining, Chemical and Energy Industries Union” (IG BCE) side by side the energy corporation RWE, against leftist environmentalists, some of them labour-environmentalists.
Knowing that our bargaining power lies within collective, not individual struggles, we see the necessity of organising as students, feminists, anti-racists, mothers, sisters, waged and un-waged workers. As the Black Marxist Angela Davis noted, “the importance of doing activist work is precisely because it allows you to give back and to consider yourself not as a single individual who may have achieved whatever but to be a part of an ongoing historical movement.”[ii] To us, this historical movement has very wide roots that stretch from the Global South to the Global North into all corners of the continents. We draw inspiration from anti-colonial uprisings and grassroots upheavals, many times against party and union bureaucracies.
A working-class perspective of fighting against gender-based violence
Social movements do not happen in the abstract but they emerge when people’s ability to live, breath, and function are pushed to the edge. The Zapatista uprising emerged after decades of economic and infrastructural neglect by the Mexican central government, the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa surfaced on the heels of austerity, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States materialised from racial minorities who were angered by state violence, and the young and vital #NiUnaMenos movement has mushroomed across Latin America as a response to rape culture, femicide and ongoing attacks on the reproductive rights of women, non-binary people and transgender people. These movements and their aftermath do not only provide material and social critiques directed at the state, they seek to build a world that can offer their constituents something new. That is to say, collective resistance is the fodder that disrupts the status quo and the foundation for activists to imagine palpable possibilities that could absolve us from our daily suffering. In each of these movements, working class women played pivotal roles as leaders and organisers; sometimes their names are known and other times their collective agency are marked. Women’s strikes are not entirely new, nor are they located primarily in the Global North. Women’s social power has been especially pronounced when their labour power is withheld, as was the case with Mahalla textile factory, a locus of fortitude for Egyptian women workers.[iii] Strikes, in their capacity to halt labour on a mass scale, provided working class Egyptian women the political tools and confidence to resist capital and authoritarianism.
In Germany mobilisations to join the Global Women’s Strike have started a few months ago. In a variety of working groups, we are organising as daughters, sisters and mothers for a strong feminist strike on March 8th. Local committees have called for a national meeting on November 10th and 11th in Göttingen, a city that is centrally located in Germany. During this assembly, we will have political debates to further refine our political demands for the Germany-wide call-out. The women’s strike committee is a space for women with a variety of biographies to step out of the alienation in society and find comradeship and solidarity through collective political action. For us, it is also a space to engage with white German comrades around the question of migration and racism in order to foster an atmosphere of mutual learning, anti-racist and anti-imperialist initiatives. Historically, the feminist movement in Germany has been highly nationalist and permeated by racial marginalisation. Despite this history, it is important to engage with liberal feminists on questions of capitalism and class analyses in order to enrich and heighten our political demands. This gives us the possibility to link gender oppression on the basis of class and race. More women bosses or more women liberal politicians will not change the material conditions and social exclusions we face.
The global women’s strike on March 8th is a moment to brings together working class women from Buenos Aires to Shanghai. It provides the juncture where the connections between women’s visible and invisible labour, at the waged workplace or in the un-waged household, is clear for all to see. At the same time, withholding our reproductive labour challenges gender norms and provides the fruit for them to be overturned. This is why workers all over the world are organising within their labour unions, their neighbourhood committees and amongst their fellow parents for a day of action against capital and patriarchy. By striking, calling for lengthy staff meetings or slow-down actions at our waged workplaces. By refusing to cook and clean in the household. By rejecting silence towards gender-based violence at home and on the streets, at the waged workplace or within our political movements. In meetings, assemblies, picket lines and demonstrations, we will take back March 8th as the global day of working women defending their interests as women and workers, and with that, defending the interests of the working class as a whole. The power of a women’s strike on March 8th, over a century after its inception, is that we can articulate our grievances collectively so that we can provide sustainable solutions for the future.
[iii] https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/revolutionthrougharabeyes/2012/01/201213013135991429.html and https://books.google.de/books?id=kQa8F06Ni0IC&pg=PT199&lpg=PT199&dq=nada+matta+mahalla&source=bl&ots=MZkWEeHNiY&sig=UQ4TIqvvYviAie9XEBoY0GmWqvc&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwicpv22m6zeAhVPjqQKHaklDKsQ6AEwC3oECAQQAQ#v=onepage&q=nada%20matta%20mahalla&f=false