Why be a feminist activist today?

February 16, 2008

This year is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Each year, people gather all over the world on March 8 — or the closest weekend — to celebrate working class women and the struggle that has gone before us, and to continue the struggle into the future.

On Isis.aust.com, Joyce Stevens writes: "In 1908, on the last Sunday in February, socialist women in the United States initiated the first Women's Day when large demonstrations took place calling for the vote and the political and economic rights of women. The following year, 2,000 people attended a Women's Day rally in Manhattan.

In that year, 1909, women garment workers staged a general strike. 20[,000]-30,000 shirtwaist makers struck for 13 cold, winter weeks for better pay and working conditions. The Women's Trade Union League provided bail money or arrested strikers and large sums for strike funds."

Now it's 2008, and we are told through the mass media, our education system, in our workplaces and homes, that women "have it all", that we've "smashed through the glass ceiling". We can, and do, juggle work and family commitments; we have careers in medicine, law and engineering; we have the same legal rights to a minimum wage as men; we can study at university if we choose. Isn't that proof of equality? Do we need to be feminists anymore?

Women have yet to attain true equality.

Rights such as formal equality before the law and access to education are a direct result of the actions of the women's movement in the 1960s and '70s, and decades and centuries of struggle before. These rights were fought for, and they were hard-won. Similar to trade union struggles for decent working conditions, nothing was ever handed to us on a platter.

What's more, in some areas women still don't have formal equality in Australia. Even the very basic right to control our own bodies: abortion is still on the criminal code and available only through common law rulings, which means we don't have full control of if or when we have children.

Legally we have won equal pay for equal work, but full-time working women still on average receive only 83.6% of men's average full-time wage, according to a 2007 Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report. We still take most of the responsibility for domestic labour and care of children and the elderly. And the beauty industry tells us that, while doing all this unpaid work, we must also conform to unrealistic images of "perfect bodies".

There is a section of society that benefits greatly from the reserve pool of labour that is women's unpaid work, that benefits from the stereotypes of the "ideal woman". It isn't you or me (unless you happen to be the executive of a cosmetics company, own a newspaper or two, or perhaps you're a heavyweight politician?).

The ones who benefit from women's oppression are the ruling elite who run society. Making women feel ugly is a billion-dollar industry, and making sure there are people to do all that unpaid domestic labour means the government needn't worry about providing quality, free child care, or investing in nursing homes.

Sexism is a systemic problem, the result of a society that puts profit before people.

When we're bombarded with images that tell us that "sexy" is "empowered", we don't have to believe it. As with all protest movements, the ruling class is terrified that we will get the upper hand, that the majority of society will start to see things the way they really are. There is nothing biological about women's oppression. Capitalism needs women's oppression. And to truly get rid of it, people need to change the system that relies on it.

We need a system where the economy is based on the needs of the majority of society and not profit margins, where communities are empowered to decide what they need and when, and everyone participates in decision-making processes — where, because there is enough to go around, there is no need, or basis, for oppression. This is socialism. But there are real steps that can be taken here and now for the struggle for equality.

Just as struggles were fought for progressive social change in the '60s and '70s, through getting involved with campaigns and organisations that seek to mobilise people we can change this world for the better. Women do this every day when they take part in protests against all forms of injustice, when in their own lives they challenge the sexist ideas of popular culture, ideas that say that women need be thin and attractive to be worthwhile, that they shouldn't work in non-traditional areas, that they should act dumb to be accepted ...

This is why Resistance is a feminist organisation and is involved in International Women's Day all around the country. Check out our contact details in the front of the paper and join the fight for women's liberation.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.