On March 8, women’s rights campaigners around the world will celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day (IWD).
There could be no more fitting testament to the meaning of IWD than the words of one of the thousands of Egyptian women who joined the democracy protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo last month. The people’s struggle to be rid of dictator Hosni Mubarak, she said, is also a struggle for women’s rights: "[Before] we had nothing, now I guess we will take everything."
IWD was born in a time of great social turbulence and huge struggles by ordinary people for a better life.
In 1909, a strike of 30,000 garment workers in the United States, mainly migrant women, almost shut down the garment industry. It lasted for three months and won most of the workers’ demands for the right to organise and bargain collectively, and improved wages and working conditions.
The next year, in 1910, women from 17 countries met at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen. They decided to organise an International Working Women's Day to mark the garment workers’ victory and provide a focus for the growing international campaign for women’s right to vote.
The first IWD rally in Australia was held in 1928. It also was organised by socialists, through the Militant Women's Movement. The protest demanded an eight-hour workday, equal pay for equal work, paid annual leave and a living wage for the unemployed.
The past century of successful campaigns — for women’s right to vote, attend university and earn a wage, for example — has given many women much to celebrate. But for the overwhelming majority in Australia, and even more so in the global south, the demands of the first IWD protests have yet to be met. Moreover, under the neoliberal policies imposed by capitalist governments around the world since the 1980s, they are becoming further out of reach for most women.
In Australia, poorer, Indigenous and migrant women in particular are being hit hard by Labor and Coalition governments’ attacks on all people’s right to decent wages and working conditions; to welfare support that provides for a reasonable quality of life, not merely survival; to affordable housing; and to free, good quality education and health care.
Equal pay long overdue
Almost a century after it was first raised, the demand for equal pay for women is once again the main focus for this year’s IWD activities in Australia.
In a modern, democratic society, the payment of the same wages to all people doing the same work would seem a self-evident necessity. Yet four decades after equal pay laws were first passed in Australia, the gender pay gap is widening.
Despite the fact that there are more women in the workforce (including as the main family breadwinner) than ever before, full-time women workers earn, on average, 18% less than men: that’s 65 extra days each year that women would have to work to take home the same pay as men.
In some industries the gap is as large as 30%, and when part-time and casual work is taken into account, the total gap is about 35%.
Women workers comprise about two-thirds of casual workers, three-quarters of whom are also part-time.
Over a lifetime, that gap compounds into a big impact on women’s lives.
Australia now has a female governor-general and prime minister, but there is still a chronic undervaluing of the professions in which women workers predominate, such as teaching, childcare, cleaning, community work and nursing. Almost without exception, workplaces with a high proportion of female employees have lower rates of pay.
The advent of enterprise bargaining (which has reduced awards to mere “safety nets” for workers with less bargaining power in the workplace — especially women) and the move to more individual contracts has severely compounded women workers’ disadvantaged position.
It is becoming clearer each year that, for women workers especially, helping to rebuild a militant trade union movement that fights seriously for equal pay as a central pillar of winning better wages for all workers is an urgent and indispensible task. Immediately, that includes actively supporting the Australian Services Union’s current equal pay campaign.
Women’s right to choose — abolish 19th century laws!
A second major demand of IWD rallies this year is for reproductive rights. Alongside economic independence, one of the biggest factors in determining women’s quality of life is the ability to decide whether and when to bear children.
This basic human right is still governed in Australia by centuries-old laws that are completely out of step with public opinion and practices. The fact that in most states anyone who has an abortion or assists a woman with one can still be jailed is ridiculous when, for the past decade at least, survey after survey has shown most people support a woman’s right to choose.
Women always have and always will have abortions regardless of the lawmakers’ decrees, but wherever abortion remains illegal, women — in particular poorer and younger women, and women living in more isolated areas — will be subjected to unnecessary physical and emotional suffering. The refusal of state governments — shamefully led in NSW and Queensland by women – to remove abortion from the 19th century crimes acts is undemocratic and cruel.
There is no reason for governments to treat abortion any differently from any other medical procedure, and therefore no need for special laws governing it. Abortion should be removed from all crimes acts and health acts. Like all other medical procedures people need, abortion can and should be provided safely, free of charge and immediately on request through the public health-care system.
IWD in Australia this year will focus on these two issues. But the long and proud history of women’s battle not only for equality with men, but to be able to realise their full potential as human beings, has shown that, in fact, all issues are women’s issues. Every achievement in people’s struggles against racism, or imperialist war and occupation, or poverty, or any form of exploitation and injustice is a step forward for women’s rights.
In a world racked by war, global warming and inequality, the only really viable future for women — and all of humanity — is to strive now to create a world based on peace, real democracy, social justice, and respect and care for the planet.
[Lisa Macdonald is a member of the Socialist Alliance National Council.]