International Women’s History Month: Women Holding Up Half the Sky

By Karyn Pomerantz, 3-21 -2021 

Women marching in 1917 in Russia

Background – The Roots of International Women’s Day 

March is Women’s History Month that is celebrated with marches and cultural programs around the world. International Women’s Day, observed in the US on March 8, was sparked in 1909 when 20,000 women waistmakers in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City shut down the sweatshops to oppose disastrous working conditions, sexual harassment, and low wages. They inspired the German socialist, Clara Zetkin, to establish International Women’s Day with a march dedicated to universal suffrage, free childcare, and other reforms to improve women’s lives (The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day (jacobinmag.com). Socialist parties in other countries adopted it with marches and demonstrations to create an international movement for justice for women.  

In 1917 in Petrograd, Russian working-class women held a militant march (pictured above) that launched strikes and revolutionary actions that established socialism in Russia. Lenin celebrated the role of working women in the Russian revolution as the Bolshevik Party endorsed International Women’s Day: 

“For under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that—they remain in ‘household bondage,’ they continue to be ‘household slaves,’ for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household.” 

Today, we see rote, performative recognition of Women’s International History Month by politicians, the media, and companies who advertise sales to commemorate it while maintaining conditions that oppress women workers. 

This article describes the role of capitalism in women’s oppression, the effects of Covid 19 on women, examples of women workers organizing against sexism and capitalism, and a class-based strategy to abolish sexism. 

Capitalist Oppression of Women Workers 

Whether as wage earners or as unpaid labor caring for the home and children, women have always been part of the workforce. During feudal times, women worked in the home and on land owned by the noble lords to provide food and clothing for their immediate families. As industrialization developed in newly formed British cities, the lords fenced off the land and prohibited the manor’s tenants from using it under the Enclosure Act. The newly emerging capitalist class forced rural workers to flee to cities and take jobs in factories with horrendous working hours and starvation pay. Homes were hovels with no sanitation or healthy air.  More women were forced to work for long hours in these factories often with their children while maintaining their homes. The English government gave men legal rights to beat their spouses and to auction them off when husbands no longer wanted their wives. Women had no power. These rules did not change until the 19th Century. 

Capitalism is the root of the oppression of women (and others). The ruling class superexploits women workers as a cheaper source of labor than men workers. On average, women earn 82 cents for every $1 men make. Racism intensifies this exploitation. Overall, women of color earn less and generate super profits that land in the pockets of the employers, not men workers. Latinas earn 55 cents, Asian women earn 87 cents, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiian women earn 63 cents, and Native American women earn 60 cents for every dollar that men earn (Wage-Gap-Who-how.pdf (nwlc.org). In addition to on-the-job exploitation, the government spends less on the schools, recreation, and social services used by poor workers, especially indigenous, black, brown, and Asian people. 

Still today, women are over-represented in low-paying jobs in the hospitality, home healthcare, retail, and childcare businesses. On top of this “routine” production-related exploitation, women bear the burden of social reproduction, raising and caring for the next generation of workers, saving the bosses money they would need to pay for those services. Many also manage the lives of their families; their relationships are often symbolized as a sandwich with responsibilities for children, partner, and parents. 

Employers use women as a reserve source of labor to guarantee production during periods of war or times that need additional labor. During WWII, 5,000,000 women joined the workforce, often in industrial jobs. Another 350,000 joined the military. “Rosie the Riveter” portrayed strong women working in non-traditional industrial jobs. The Manhattan Project that created the nuclear bomb employed large numbers of women to supplement the workforce. Yet, when the men returned from war, women lost their jobs, and the rulers pushed them back into the role of homemaker. Racist practices restricted black women from working in many factories and from caring for non-black patients during the war. Ninety-four percent (94%) of black women intended to work after the war, especially in good paying positions, but discriminatory hiring practices forced them into jobs as domestics.   

Justifying the Oppression of Women 

To justify these conditions, the media reinforce stereotypes of women, shaming them as sexual objects, unintelligent, and overly emotional. Capitalists portray men, especially higher income white men, as more intelligent and rational than women, and more worthy of higher wages, management positions, and professional occupations. Capitalist culture promotes toxic masculine traits, such as expressing aggression and repressing emotions, that often lead to violence against women and children. Black women are stigmatized as angry, maternal, and promiscuous. Gay men, lesbians, non-binary, and trans people are smeared as being unnatural and threatening to the “normal” order of society. 

While sexism increases profits through low wage jobs and free domestic labor, it does not have the same power to divide the working class as racism does. Women and men interact, raise children, and live together in loving relationships as opposed to the pervasive segregation of workers by different racial categories. In contrast to sexism, capitalists rely on racism to turn workers against each other based on “race,” immigrant status, and nationality to weaken us and divert our anger against the system to people with superficial differences and strong common interests.  

Many feminists fall into the trap of blaming all men for the source of their oppression. While most ruling class members are men, it is their commitment to profit that makes them exploit women. Most men work, not rule, and suffer from the same system that hurts women. Capitalism allows some perks for men, especially white men, with higher wages, relief from housework, a more respected social status, and power over women while capitalists still exploit them. Meanwhile, black and Latin men experience higher rates of police brutality, unemployment, and poverty than white men and women. To offset the anger at their economic situation, movies, books, advertisements, and music often endorse and applaud male aggression against women and rape culture. Women become trophies, commodities, to reward and entertain men. 

Covid’s Impact on Women 

Covid 19 has revealed these devastating effects of capitalism on the working class. Racism and sexism have added to the huge impact on families during the pandemic. Black and Latin women are more likely to live in multigenerational households, hold essential jobs that increase the probability of exposure to Covid 19, and risk layoffs. They also have much lower rates of vaccination due to access barriers. Lower income families often lack Internet connections and the digital literacy to access health information and alerts. 

Covid 19 has expanded the economic inequalities between the super-rich and workers, especially women. The wealth of these super-rich capitalists, like Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, jumped by $1.3 trillion since March 2020, enough to fund 2/3 of the 2021 stimulus package. At the same time: 

  • Over 47 million women and girls will be driven into poverty by 2021, especially in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan African countries. 
  • 25 million women lost benefits, such as health insurance and retirement savings, after leaving jobs that provided them. 
  • Globally, over 70% of domestic workers became unemployed.  
  • Essential workers, who cannot telework and are predominantly black, Latin, and Asian, lost jobs when their employers closed their businesses.  
  • For those still employed, the lack of affordable and available childcare stresses people’s ability to work and manage children’s lives and learning. 

(UNwomen.org, inequality.org, weforum.org) 

Women Fight Back 

Women have led important struggles against the oppression of all workers, such as leading the Paris Commune that established a working-class society in France in 1871, forming unions, joining revolutions, and campaigning for suffrage, environmental justice, health justice, education, and abolition. Black and Latin women have been significant leaders in the fights for socialism, public education, criminal punishment system reforms, unions, and against the elimination of safety net programs, detentions and deportations, and voter suppression. The following briefly describes three areas where women fight oppression: feminism, unions, and revolutions. 

Feminism 

Feminism has many definitions and changing perspectives over time, from workplace reforms to restructuring society. In general, traditional feminism refers to the equality of women with men in terms of income, political power, suffrage, corporate leadership, domestic labor, education, safety, and the obliteration of stereotypical gender and sexual roles. Feminists redefined rape and sexual assault as violence against women, ways to show power and domination. (Rape has also been used as a weapon of war and a way to retaliate for women’s economic and social progress as in India and in many developing countries). In centering equality rather than new and better societies, mainstream feminism posits male standards as the ideal.  

Feminist women’s liberation calls for the unity of women based on their sex, not their class status. This leads to working- and middle-class women supporting women candidates and politicians regardless of their anti-working-class records (Kamala Harris, for one) or cheering on corporate women trying to break the “glass ceiling” to become CEOs because they are women. Many books and memoirs advise women on reaching the top while having it all. There are other books that parody wealthy white feminists paying lip service to women’s rights while exploiting their black, Asian, and brown nannies and housekeepers. All class unity based on sex and gender obscures the class nature of sexism, the ways male and female owners of industries use working class women to profit and raise the next generation of workers and soldiers. 

During the 1960s, feminists like Betty Frieden represented this “first wave” of feminism. In her classic, The Feminine Mystique, she advocated for women trapped in stultifying home bound lives and blamed all men, the “patriarchy,” for women’s subordinate social position. These feminists did not indict capitalism as the determinant of their situation; it was the misogyny of men that was its source. Mostly composed of white educated women, this movement demanded equity in relationships, responsible jobs, leadership roles in government and organizations, participation in their medical care, access to safe abortions, and the appreciation and use of their skills and intelligence. Feminists opposed ways that men sexualized and objectified women as playthings for men and as commodified images to sell cars, liquor, and other consumer goods. Many joined demonstrations against bridal fairs and beauty pageants, such as the Miss America contest when protestors burned their bras. They held consciousness raising meetings to share experiences and reveal that women’s problems were social issues, not individual pathology.  Many rebelled against the consumer culture where shopping was (and is) the way out of oppression on an individual and social level. 

As noted by black women, the predominantly white feminists did not make racism a significant part of their analysis or struggles. They did not acknowledge that black, brown, and Asian women had long histories in the labor market on top of domestic work, and how their compensation was lower than white women’s. Women of color faced negative stereotypes due to their gender and “race.” White women did not bear the additional stigma of “racial” prejudice, exclusion, and hatred. 

Black feminists reacted to their oppression in different ways. They organized around a broader range of social and economic problems, such as safe, affordable housing, union jobs, welfare reform, and civil rights like voting. Black antiracists, such as Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass, were prominent leaders in the suffragist movement, but white suffragists marginalized them, even forcing them to march in the back to appease southern racists whose support they needed. This created a wide wedge between white and black activists. The famous Combahee Statement in 1977 written by radical, socialist, and queer women affirmed their commitment to fight racism together with sexism, to fight the sexism of black men and the racism directed against them. They rejected white feminist hostility against black men and their exclusion of issues most relevant to black women. They called on all feminists to recognize the intersections of “race,” class, and gender in determining the types of oppression women faced: 

“… we feel solidarity with progressive Black men and do not advocate the fractionalization that white women who are separatists demand…. We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism. … We realize that the liberation of all oppressed people necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and patriarchy.” 

As a communist, Angela Davis also explained how sexism originated from capitalism’s need for cheap labor, blaming the victims for their oppression and keeping women politically disenfranchised.  Feminist issues today include the abolition of prisons, war, and capitalism. Today, women’s liberation invokes critical race theory (applying a lens of antiracist ideology to social problems), elevates black women and queer leadership, and calls for the abolition of all oppressive systems. 

Nonetheless, there are strains of nationalism within some antiracist and antisexist organizations and a reluctance to call for revolution, the only strategy that could achieve abolition of oppressive systems. Black Lives Matter, established by queer black women and funded by the anti-communist, reformist Soros Open Societies Foundation, holds black only meetings and refers to white members as allies, not partners. While it is understandable that nationalism results from racist treatment by whites, it weakens our movement and isolates workers from one another. Multiracial solidarity lays the foundation for defeating capitalism and creating an egalitarian society. It is impossible to achieve victory without the participation of the entire working class organizing collectively. 

 Union Organizing 

Women workers have played important roles in organizing unions, including Elizabeth Gurley Brown’s work with the IWW, the Wobblies, and the courageous factory girls and women in the garment and textile industry. Immigrant garment workers in New York City during the early 20th Century formed the International Ladies Garment Workers Union that fought for higher wages and safer conditions, spurred on by the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory inferno that killed scores of women locked inside while fires burned. As noted above, their efforts sparked the founding of International Women’s Day inspiring the German socialist, Clara Zetkin, and Lenin to recognize the role of working women in the class struggle. 

These are selected examples of women’s participation in the labor movement: 

  • Only 30 years after the founding of the US, women seamstresses and boot makers coalesced into the United Tailoresses in New York and in Philadelphia to demand a living wage (over their current $1.25 per week) at a time that slave owners and northern manufacturers were making a fortune from cotton. 
  • Early women’s associations demanded the abolition of slavery. In 1866, Mississippi laundresses circulated a petition to raise the wages of black women workers. 
  • During the 1930s, sharecropping women went on strike with their families in Missouri to demand land and a living income, setting up tent cities along the highway during frigid winter months. For a time, they won land and established a collective of black and white families. Even impoverished members of the Ku Klux Klan abandoned their Klan membership to join.  
  • Black and white women militantly supported the strikes of their spouses and brothers to form the United Auto Workers union. Women in Flint, Michigan delivered food, picketed the plant held by General Motors strikers, and fought off the police who tried to shut down the sit-in. 
  • Garment and textile workers, primarily young, immigrant, and Jewish women and girls, organized unions in New York City, Philadelphia, and New England. They fought the mill owners in the famous Lowell, Massachusetts strike, repeatedly striking until they won. 
  • The International Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, welcomed black and white women into their union. The union promulgated socialism, working class unity, and militancy over voting. Elizabeth Gurley Brown, a famous and fiery organizer, joined as a teenager and developed into a major influencer in western labor struggles, pushing the Wobblies to address the extra exploitation of women workers and support women working outside of the home. 
  • During the 1960s, women, including many Latinas and immigrants, led the unionization of healthcare employees, hospitality workers, and farmworkers. 
  • As the service and retail sectors of the economy grew and employed a majority of women, disproportionately Latin and black, majority women unions also grew, such as SEIU and UNITE/HERE. Government employees joined AFSCME and AFGE locals to fight for job protection and wages. The Coalition of Labor Union Women, CLUW, developed in the 1970s to advocate for women office workers. 
  • Now, we are witnessing the unionizing of Amazon workers and gig workers at Instacart, Uber, and Lyft, giving women the opportunity to fight the super exploitation of contract work that provides no retirement benefits or health insurance. (Amazon owner, Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men on the planet, denied health insurance for his part-time workforce at Whole Foods). 

Unfortunately, labor organizations also opposed the civil rights of black workers: 

  • The Knights of Labor welcomed black men and women to join, providing support for their labor struggles and social outlets through their clubs and social literary circles. However, they eventually barred black workers and demanded their deportation to the Congo. 
  • The American Equal Rights Association advocated for voting rights for black men and all women but abandoned their campaign when southern racists threatened the female vote; many labor leaders supported this. 

Revolutionary Movements 

Women have joined and led communist, anarchist, and socialist movements around the world to call for the elimination of capitalism. Seamstresses in Paris fought on the barricades to establish the Paris Commune, the first proletarian state run under communist principles. Working class women in Russia led strikes, organized militant marches, and distributed clandestine literature. Chinese women joined the People’s Liberation Army and its Long March, leaving their children in the care of others to overthrow the despotic rule of Chinese emperors who bound the feet of women to limit their mobility. In too many cases, women revolutionaries have been subordinated to their more famous husbands, such as Esme Robeson married to Paul Robeson, Louise Thompson married to William Patterson, and Dorothy Graham DuBois married to W.E.B. DuBois. 

Prominent revolutionaries included: 

Louise Michel who led the Paris Commune,  

Alexandra Kollontai, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and organizer of childcare and household collectives,  

Lucy Parsons, an anarchist fighting for unions, revolution, and the eight-hour day in the US,  

Elizabeth Gurley Brown, a militant union organizer with the Wobblies,  

Claudia Jones, who developed the communist press in the US and UK, developed the theory of the triple oppression of women of color and advocated for multiracial participation in revolutionary movements 

Agnes Smedley, who supported Mao and the Chinese Revolution,   

Louise Thompson, a leader with the Communist Party USA,  

Vietnamese women fighting US imperialism, and so many more. 

Lenin wrote about liberating women from capitalism: 

“The second and most important step is the abolition of the private ownership of land and the factories. This and this alone opens up the way towards a complete and actual emancipation of woman, her liberation from ‘household bondage’ through transition from petty individual housekeeping to large-scale socialized domestic services … for the first time in history, our law has removed everything that denied women rights (Cheah, 2020; Role of Women).”  

Women under socialist societies in the USSR and China increased their life expectancy, developed new professional and leadership roles, participated in cooperative domestic work, such as neighborhood dining rooms, free job-based childcare, and shared housework. The USSR legalized divorce, stopped labeling children born to unmarried couples “illegitimate,” gave voting rights to women, permitted abortion, and established equal pay for equal work. The Chinese Communist Party also allowed divorce, ended prostitution through jobs programs, eliminated infectious diseases, such as syphilis, and substance use. Women owned small plots of land in the rural villages and had access to basic medical care and education. 

Since communism ends profit, goods and services depend on society’s needs and its ability to produce. Therefore, there is no need to justify inequalities with sexist excuses and rigid role expectations like masculinity or femininity. While there is no communist country today, if workers unite, we have the potential to create equity and community without the harmful power dynamics that harm our relationships and economic needs. We need to uphold multiracial solidarity and reject all forms of separatism that divide the working class by gender, “racial” categories, national origin, and so many other identities. Once we win our liberation, the real struggle begins to ensure that we develop an antisexist, antiracist society. 

Further Reading 

The Role of Women in Soviet Russia | Guided History (bu.edu) 

Press release: COVID-19 will widen poverty gap between women and men, new UN Women and UNDP data shows | UN Women – Headquarters 

Updates: Billionaire Wealth, U.S. Job Losses and Pandemic Profiteers – Inequality.org 

COVID-19: How women are bearing the burden of unpaid work | World Economic Forum (weforum.org) 

Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall. Viking, 2020. 

Combahee Statement. The Combahee River Collective Statement – COMBAHEE RIVER COLLECTIVE (weebly.com) 

Women and the American Labor Movement by Philip Foner. Free Press, 1979. 

Feminist Freedom Warriors by by Chandra Talpede Mohanty (Editor), Linda Carty (Editor). Haymarket Press, 2018. 

Angela Davis. Radical Feminism. Youtube. Angela Davis: Frameworks For Radical Feminism – Bing video 

The Struggle Against Sexism by Progressive Labor Party. Leaflets & Pamphlets – The Revolutionary Communist Progressive Labor Party (plp.org) 

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