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Two women strikers on a picket line

Women strikers on the picket line during the 'Uprising of the 20,000' in New York, 1910. Photo: Wikipedia

The anti-austerity movement is an opportunity to force women's liberation onto the political agenda says Yasmin Dahnoun

International Women's day is a time to celebrate the battle for equality and freedom women have fought for so long. Those rights we have achieved have been won through a rich history of militant action, mass campaigns and even hunger strikes. As well as celebrating inspirational struggles, it is a moment to learn from our past in order to better be able to shape our futures.

Because women’s struggles are more important than ever. The Tories’ assault on the health sector and social services will disproportionately affect women. The £20bn in cuts to the NHS will impact disastrously on the working conditions of a predominantly female workforce.  

Welfare cuts too affect women most, and in particular penalise women in the worst situations. Refuges have been closed and support networks for women trapped in abusive relationships are now almost non-existent, a situation made even more acute by the housing crisis.

The struggle for women’s rights have always been linked to wider campaigns. In Britain, the London matchgirls strike of 1888 against excessive working hours and hazardous safety standards brought the scandal of long working hours and the overexploitation of women into the public eye. Parliament was forced to take up some of the issues and eventually forced legislation on safer working conditions.

International Women’s Day itself was proposed at a socialist conference held in Copenhagen in 1910. Its mover was the German socialist Clara Zetkin, who proposed honouring the day as a female equivalent of May Day.

The commemoration date of 8 March was chosen because two years earlier in 1908 women from the New York needle trade had demonstrated through Manhattan's Lower East Side. The needle trade women were involved in sporadic strikes at the time.

The year after this demonstration their various grievances erupted into one huge strike wave, known as the 'uprising of the 20,000', which marked a turning point in the history of unionising women in the US.

The suffragette movement, which developed here in the early 20th century, was part of a wider radicalisation in British society which culminated in the Great Unrest – a series of massive strikes in the years directly before World War One. The suffragettes brought together heroic militancy and direct action with mass campaigning, which both raised the question of women’s right to vote and deepened the crisis facing the ruling class.

During the First World War many more women began playing an active role in the workforce, helping to break down divisions and create a mood for fighting for rights to equal pay and fairer working conditions. It was in the years of growing militancy and challenge to the British ruling class after World War One that the right to votes for women was granted, although full enfranchisement had to wait until 1928.

Working-class militancy played an important role in sparking the ‘second wave’ of feminism in Britain too. In 1968, 187 female sewing machinists walked out of the plant on strike, angry that their work was classified as unskilled and therefore their pay equal to men's.  

The strike had a national impact and generated a wide debate on equal pay  popularising the notion of women’s rights in general. In particular it inspired other women's trade unionists to found the National Joint Action Campaign Committee for Women's Equal Rights (NJACCWER) which organised a demonstration to Trafalgar Square in 1969, helping to force new legislation onto the agenda in the form of the Equal Pay Act.

Much has been achieved. But anything approaching real liberation remains to be won. Sexism still structures our experience. Basic pay inequality remains a scandal. Domestic violence, rape, objectification and the ongoing division of labour remain problems that shape our everyday lives.

The great struggles against austerity, war and racism we are witnessing, and the growing support for Corbynism in British society give us another opportunity to force the issue of women’s liberation onto the political agenda. It is a chance we must not miss.

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