Another International Women’s Day passes. It’s been 157 years since working women first took to the streets. Back then, thousands of women textile workers marched through the wealthy boroughs of New York, protesting their miserable working conditions.
Then in 1908 on March 8, 40,000 seamstresses went on strike demanding their rights to join unions, receive better wages and vocational training, have a shorter work day, and against child labour. On that day, 129 women workers were burnt to death at the Cotton Textile Factory in Washington Square. The owners had locked them in to force them to remain at work.
Worldwide solidarity campaigns were launched denouncing the workers’ situation. Strikes and factory occupations were held protesting against a practice that revealed so crudely how capitalism has no consideration for human life when its economic interests are at stake.
The campaign didn’t succeed in prosecuting the capitalists responsible for the crime, but March 8 was registered as a highly significant date celebrating the courage of working women.
Every year since those early struggles, women have marched on IWD for better conditions and equality. They have celebrated their gains, just as Geelong's pregressive community did on March 7 at Trades Hall when our annual breakfast attracted nearly 100 women and men.
And great gains have been made. In the late 1960s the law that banned women who married or fell pregnant from working in the public sector and the banks was abolished -- and in the 70s awards were adjusted removing pay rates based on gender.
But the gains have not been as great as expected; women still earn up to 64 days less pay a year than men.
Over the past decade, life has been getting much harder for single mothers in Australia. The John Howard government slashed sole-parent income support in 2006 with its “Welfare to Work” measures. Julia Gillard cut it again in late 2012 when, on the same day as her celebrated “anti-misogyny speech”, she announced that 80,000 sole parents would be moved to the lower Newstart benefit.
Both governments exploited prejudice against single mothers to justify their cuts, claiming they were designed to “increase women’s participation in the workforce”. In fact, they have done the opposite, trapping single mothers in poverty and leaving them little time or energy to be part of the workforce.
The Tony Abbott government wants to address the shortage of affordable childcare shortage by exploiting overseas women workers on 457 visas as nannies earning $200 a week. Furthermore, as gender equity goes backwards, this government is ending mandatory reporting of gender equity for employers with more than 100 employees.
It might seem strange to have a man writing about IWD. But the United Nations theme for International Women's Day 2014 is "Equality for Women is Progress for All” and it’s a reminder that what happens to women affects us all.
Maybe part of the problem is that not enough men are talking about what are often dubbed "women’s issues". Men can’t ignore bad policy just because it’s not about them. We need to march together if we are to prevent the status of women going backwards. Any loss in living standards is a loss for us all.
[In memory of Ali Murphy, one of the smartest and nicest women I’ve meet in Geelong. This article originally appeared in the Geelong Advertiser. Tim Gooden is the secretary of the Geelong Trades Hall Council and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]