International Women’s Day


3/8/10

Today, March 8, I am blogging in commemoration of International Women’s Day.  The great German socialist and feminist Clara Zetkin is credited for having invented the memorial as part of her fight for women’s suffrage and for better working conditions for women and men everywhere.

Clara Zetkin

The socialist movement had always been an international campaign, part of a worldwide movement to resist the psychological, economic, and political damages inflicted by a capitalist economy in which every aspect of life is tied to the market.  Zetkin and other socialist feminists around the world understood what so many of us have only lately come to understand, which is that when you let the bankers and the wealthiest corporations and employers do whatever they want, without any regulation whatsoever, things fall apart. And when things fall apart, women and children are the first to suffer and the last to recover.

It is worth remembering that while the first International Women’s Day celebrations, held in Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland in 1911, were wildly successful (thousands of women turned out for meetings, and men were happy enough to acknowledge women’s many unpaid services to the family and the state as mothers, wives, and caretakers with gifts of flowers and cake) women did not win the right to vote in Switzerland until 1990.   Danish women won full voting rights in 1915, Austrian and German women in 1918.  Women in the United Arab Emirates still do not have full voting rights, which is an outrage.  As we know from long and hard experience, even once women have won the right to elect government officials to office, they do not always vote in their interests.  Many cultural factors work against them.  These include widespread and deeply entrenched male-centered assumptions, and various forms of symbolic and real violence that prevent women from knowing and employing their true worth and power.

Attitudes that encouraged both sexes to regard women as inferior and relatively unimportant members of society led to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 148 workers, mostly women and girls, died because their employers had locked them into their work area.  The tragedy, which became a centerpiece of American celebrations of International Women’s Day during the first part of the 20th century, exemplifies the ways in which gender discrimination and capitalism work together to oppress women.

Consider what is happening today, March 8, in India, where people take International Women’s Day far more seriously than they do in the United States.  Two political parties are threatening the stability of the government because they refuse to support a bill that would ensure that one-third of the seats in Parliament be awarded to the group that makes up more than one-half of India’s population.  Here’s a country where women have been voting since 1935, and where a woman (Indira Ghandi) was elected to the highest government seat of power in 1966, continues to thwart equal political rights for women. And yet  long-ingrained scorn for women’s intellectual and governing abilities persist.

And what about here, at home, in the USA?  Hollywood–one of the great bastions of sexist powers in the world–is currently reeling with self-congratulation and shock because it finally, finally, after 82 years, managed to grant an Oscar to a woman director, Kathryn Bigelow.  Obviously, the problem was not that women haven’t been making great movies all this time, but rather that men–and some of the women voting–could not bring themselves to put the two words “woman” and “director” together.  O, we’re perfectly comfortable letting women direct women–but in this country we have frighteningly tenacious antipathies to letting women do the things that directors do: oversee, govern, supervise, other men.  Just think of the way that the same Americans who think they’re the most enlightened people on the planet brutally attacked Hillary Clinton when she ran for president.   Consider William Kristol‘s not-funny joke about “white women,” which he thoughtlessly told right next to one, on Fox News.  Think of the stupid Hillary nut-crackers, or the voodoo dolls which allegedly gave men the ability to power to “stick it to her” that they feared she was going to take away from them.

Mosquitos with bad attitudes like Kristol are, fortunately, not the greatest threat to international women’s freedom, to the dignity, political, social, and economic well-being of global women today.  But corporations such as Fox News may be.  As the internationally renowned gender theorist  Raewyn Connell observes, “the corporation is the dominant form of economic organization and the key institution of developed capitalism,” and corporations have always been gendered institutions.  Overwhelmingly owned, directed, and managed by men, corporations promote a gendered division of labor that relegates women to the lowest paid and least respected jobs.  Even in countries where significant numbers of women have reached middle management, the so-called “glass ceiling” keeps women from positions of senior authority.  Congress studied this problem in 1991 and found that, among the biggest corporations in this country, 97 per cent of senior managers were White, 95 to 97 per cent of them were male, and of the top 1000 companies only 2 had women CEOs.  Linda Wirth, who examined the problem globally in 1997, states,

Almost universally, women have failed to reach leading positions in major corporations…irrespective of their abilities. Women generally fare best in industries employing large numbers of women, such as health and community services and the hotel and catering industry.

As in the global media, the international business community seems to be comfortable letting women direct women, but not other men.  Chalk one up for Bigelow.

Transnational corporations work hand-in-hand with states, most of which are also dominated by men, and constitute the largest business organizations on the planet.  They operate in global markets of capital, commodities, services, and labor, that are also strongly gender-structured.  Recent feminist research shows that these markets, which are very weakly regulated, foster a misogynist and aggressive trading culture.  This masculinist culture is often reinforced by the global media flooded with pornographic images of women as sex-crazed objects and servants of men’s desires.  With few exceptions, sports programming also dishes out images of hyper-masculine, heteronormative, muscular machismo.

While the new media, especially the World Wide Web, nurtures important sites of resistance, such as all the blogs participating in International Women’s Day, the trend that characterizes transnational corporations, the global market, and the global media does not bode well for gender equity. The research shows that we are increasingly bound together as women and men, as lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered persons in this global marketplace.  We therefore need, now more than ever, to revive the original call for justice in the workplace that Copenhagen International Women’s Conference and Clara Zetkin sounded in 1911.