Feminism in the age of neoliberalism

Issue 
An International Women’s Day march in Sydney in the 1970s.

International Women’s Day (IWD) — originally called International Working Women’s Day — was first proposed in 1910 as an initiative of the socialist women’s movement. The following year, on March 19, 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

The idea of IWD was inspired by demonstrations and strikes in the United States in 1908 by women in the garment workers union who protested about their appalling working conditions. This was followed by protest rallies organised by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the strike and the injustices to women.

In 1978, the United Nations officially declared March 8 to be International Women’s Day, a day when women can unite and make their concerns and demands be known.

In its early years, thousands of women throughout Europe marched for the right to vote and hold public office as well as protesting against sex discrimination in employment.

In Australia, IWD was first celebrated in 1928. Its main concerns were working conditions, equal pay, a basic wage for the unemployed, the need for anti-discrimination legislation, Aboriginal and migrant women’s rights and sexism throughout society.

However, what does IWD mean today in Cairns? It seems few know its history.

While working conditions for women worsen and violence against women has increased, IWD has been reduced to celebrating women who have made it in the business sector, which thrives on the exploitation of the majority of women who have been disadvantaged by neoliberal capitalism.

There is no recognition of IWD’s socialist women’s movement roots, nor that it is the day that women unite. Instead, the business sector, which is largely male, approves and honours the women they see fit to be in the business club. Meanwhile, those who work the hardest, the majority of women, struggle to survive in a precarious labour market that has increased their vulnerability to poverty and homelessness.

It was due to this lack of acknowledgement of feminist achievements and the general feeling in Cairns that feminism is obsolete and no longer needed, that the women of the Socialist Alliance proposed to hold a feminist forum.

I invited sociology Professor Hester Eisenstein from the City University of New York to discuss — by Skype — feminism and the problem of neoliberalism. Eisenstein’s research and teaching focus is on women, work and globalisation. She was active in forming women’s study programs and the Scholar and Feminist conference series. In the 1980s she served as a “femocrat” in the state government of New South Wales. Her presentation focused on her latest book: Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women's Labour and Ideas to Exploit the World.

Eisenstein explained how neoliberal policies restructured the global economy favouring the wealthiest, while reducing the protection of the welfare state. This results in increasing business profits and poverty.

While feminists had fought for equal rights, pay and working conditions during the 1960s and ’70s, neoliberal reformists, under the guise of equality for women’s labour, aimed to reduce wages overall and exploit women as a cheaper source of labour.
Eisenstein was critical of hegemonic feminism — liberal feminism — but she said there are other forms of feminism that need to be acknowledged that do support women and oppose neoliberalism. Her book focused mainly on the US, but these issues are still highly relevant to Australia. Feminism Seduced provides details of the second wave feminist movement’s achievements and the way neoliberalism exploited feminist ideals and its impact on women.

Although attendance at the Socialist Alliance IWD forum was not as large as the business sector’s event, it sparked discussion about the oppressive policies women experience in Australia and that there is a place for feminism in the political realm that needs reviving.

Women need to be informed and reminded of the conviction and determination of feminist activism from the past to again inspire women to stand against the oppression of neoliberal policies. This is particularly true now, when women are about to be hit with another round of welfare reforms to push labour conditions and wages down further, to the detriment of women.

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