International Working Women’s Day (IWWD) is a yearly celebration of women’s achievements that has its roots in revolutionary organising. The Socialist Party of America held the first IWWD on February 28 1909 in New York, to mark the impressive International Ladies Garment Workers Union strike the year before. In February 1917, where a militant rank and file workers movement was proliferating in Russia, it was the women’s strike that sparked what was to become the Russian Revolution. Women workers and the wives of working men took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands, demanding “bread and peace”.
Today the annual event is known as International Women’s Day (IWD). Like so many anniversaries which mark the struggles of working class agitation, IWD has been stripped of its militancy to become a vehicle for neoliberalism to shove its brand of women’s empowerment down our throats, in partnership with some of the most corrupt companies in the world (namely, BP, Western Union and Pepsico.)
This year’s IWD theme, #beboldforchange, makes appeals to ‘gender balanced leadership’ and individual achievement. It reveres strong, outspoken women. Inoffensive and ‘safe’ women, out of the kitchen and into the boardroom women. Those made examples of are bosses, entrepreneurs, and members of the ruling class who uphold positions of power while trampling on the necks of women in waged and unwaged work to get there. Neoliberal ideology has been bolstered by the politics of individual identity. Celebrities the likes of Emma Watson, Hillary Clinton, and Beyoncé have successfully commodified feminism and crafted careers out of becoming the literal embodiment of women’s empowerment. These are role models who promise the rest of us “We can do it!”
But who is this ‘we’? What does the woman working a zero hour, minimum wage job in Costa have in common with Queen Bey, who is frequently quoted as saying “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”? Beyoncé is applauded for dominating in a man’s world, while the Costa worker continues to be dominated by her precarious existence under capitalism (not to mention the women who worked in the sweatshops for 54 cents an hour producing the garments for Beyoncé’s clothing line).
Leaders of NGOs are held up as advocates of women’s rights, while reinforcing the very institutions which sustain the mass exploitation of women globally. For example, Oscar winning actress Angelina Jolie, a ‘goodwill ambassador’ whose philanthropy gives with one hand but takes with the other. While Jolie’s charity work to end rape and FGM in war torn places is commendable, it is done in partnership with the most powerful and undemocratic organisation in the world, namely the United Nations. The UN has been accused of enabling forced abortion and the sterilization of women in Peru, to name just one in the long litany of offenses brought to the public’s attention.
It’s important to consider the women who often get left out of this performative display of remembrance. ‘Extremist’ women, like Assata Shakur, a former member of the Black Panthers who escaped from prison to Cuba after killing a white cop. Angela Davis, a card carrying communist, who was once known as the most dangerous woman in America and continues to work to abolish the prison industrial complex. Fighters of the YPJ women’s militia struggling for democratic confederalism and women’s emancipation in Syria. Your local trade unionists who organise hotel and hospitality workers, care workers, or teachers. Your local antifascist women fighters, who risk prison and violence to keep fascism off of the streets. Will these women be remembered as class heroes, or controversial trouble makers?
It’s easy to hold up women as pioneers when they do not rock the boat or present a threat to law, order, and free capitalist enterprise. Liberal discourse advocates for women’s rights within the confines of the status quo instead of pushing for a revolutionary vision of feminism. This acts to depoliticize women’s subjugation, failing to see it as an oppression intimately linked with the capitalist mode of production. Leaders of these liberal camps try to convince us that the women who need to be rescued are over there in the ‘Third World’, or in Muslim countries, or the Global South.
This contrived hierarchy of oppression means pioneers of single issue campaigns can distance themselves from their complicity in the mass destruction that ensures the continual exploitation of women closer to home. Life saving services made to support rape and abuse survivors devastated by the cuts in Britain; entire communities of colour ripped apart due to the mass incarceration of working class black women and men in America; the women still facing state violence when protesting for legal and safe abortions in Ireland and Poland. Liberalism is afraid to call sexism by its name; to speak of systematic misogyny, rape, battery, the murders of trans women, or the devastating impact that the continued criminalisation of sex work has on the ability for sex workers to live and work safely.
Neoliberalism is a toxic ideology that privileges tokenized identities over political conviction, and speaks of breaking glass ceilings as individual triumph, when we should be using our collective power to smash the shit out of the very system that depends on the socially reproductive labour of women to sustain it.
The notion of radical self care was once used as theoretical tool to speak of survival as an act of resistance for poor, black women whom the system is built on and not for. Today it’s been co-opted by liberals for whom self preservation takes precedence over engaging in political warfare. How far we’ve come: from marching out of our work places into the streets to take political power from the bourgeoisie, to now retreating into our duvets and blankets to nurture our bruises from everyday struggle. This is not to suggest that we neglect our mental and physical health: how many brilliant and talented grassroots organisers do we lose to burn out, sexual violence within the ranks, and police repression? Many of us who suffer because of the precarity of waged and unwaged labour also have to navigate the oppressive layers of sexism, racism, and ableism. This makes us ill, this makes us wary. And no amount of bubble baths, scented candles and whale sounds is going to change the soul crushing material reality of our lives under capitalism.
The elixir to our sickness won’t be found in a mindfulness class, as relieving as it might feel at first. Like a hydra, our sickness has many ugly, oppressive heads and if we keep slashing them it will just keep growing back with more. Unless we take out the heart, unless we dismantle capitalism, we will never win true liberation. We need to learn the lessons of the women agitators who fought before us and those who continue to fight among us. We need to remember, learn, and struggle to win.