Working class women have a proud history of fighting for their rights, bringing women’s liberation to the forefront of workers’ movements, and fighting in important class battles.
Huge social movements that have united women and men are where the biggest advances have been won by working class women.
This is what should give us hope today that we can smash sexism.
All the gains won in the past—from abortion rights, to the vote and the promise of equal pay—have been won through struggle and protest. None have been handed down easily from the top.
That’s true of local battles, such as the Glasgow women’s equal pay victory in 2017. It was based on the determination of women strikers, but a key moment was when mainly male bin workers struck unofficially in their support.
And it’s true of the great battles where history hangs in the balance.
Fighting under the united banner of class and confronting and resisting the system through struggle breaks down the ruling ideas in society. It allows for new ways of organising.
Abortion rights is one example of the power of united class struggle. After abortion was decriminalised in Britain in 1967, socialists battled in their unions for the issue to be taken up.
The Trade Union Congress eventually passed a motion in 1978 that committed to supporting abortion rights if they came under threat. So when a bill in parliament was tabled to limit women’s access to abortion in 1979 the TUC called a demonstration that saw 80,000 workers march—both women and men.
The force of this united movement meant the bill was dropped. Trade unionist Angela Phillips who pushed for abortion protection within the TUC reported, “When we moved our resolution at the women’s TUC there was no major opposition.
“This was because it was working class women who were most affected by the lack of safe abortions. They were the most likely to be forced to have backstreet abortions. The demo was huge. But there was a huge row about who should lead it, women or the TUC. Some feminists said that women were being usurped by male trade unionists. But by going through the unions we were reaching thousands of women.”
Moments of revolution show the same pattern of the power of class unity, but at a much higher pitch. Women were central to revolution in Russia in 1917, in which they won huge gains for themselves and their class.
Under the former monarch, the Tsar, women were treated as property of their husbands. They suffered low and unequal pay and constant harassment. Small numbers of working women were elected to some of the first Soviets—workers’ councils—set up in the first revolution of 1905.
Strike activity grew and women were central to it—they made up half of the workforce by 1917. The journalist Ariadna Tyrkova wrote, “Day by day, the war has changed attitudes about women. It has become increasingly clear that the unseen effort of a woman and her labour often support the entire economy of a country.”
Women still had a double burden working in the factories and at home. So on International Women’s Day in 1917 women in factories in St Petersburg suggested using the day to demand change by going out on strike.
They called for support across the city. “Masses of militant women workers flooded the narrow street,” one male worker in Petrograd said. “Those who noticed us began to wave their hands and shouted, ‘Come on out! Down your tools!’
“Snowballs were thrown through windows. We decided to join the demonstration. The women workers greeted the workers with shouts of ‘Hooray!’”
That day 100,000 workers came out on strike demanding bread and an end to the war, and the movement sparked by women turned into a general strike. Five days later the Tsar was overthrown.
It wasn’t until after the October revolution when workers took power that real changes to women’s lives were proclaimed. Women won abortion rights, divorce on demand, equal pay and the vote. Yet women were still spending an average of five hours a day on housework by 1919. Prejudice and discrimination remained.
So, because of women’s pressure from below, measures were taken to free them from the home, such as communal canteens. Ideas about the family and relations between women and men can change in the course of struggle.
This isn’t to say that struggle automatically and permanently removes sexism, as seen in 19th century France.
The Paris Commune of 1871 saw workers briefly take power and create the first workers’ government.
The creation of the Commune came after a defeat of France’s national government’s attempt to secure 400 canons from the National Guard that was running the city.
Paris residents defended the streets and the army retreated. Women were central to this victory. One eyewitness wrote, “The women led from the front. Those present on 18 March did not wait for their husbands. They encircled the guns and cried out to the gunners, ‘This is shameful, what are you doing there?’ The soldiers did not answer.”
Before the national army attacked, Paris had been under siege from the Prussian army who invaded France. During the siege, women were given the vital tasks of organizing provisions and fuel, which kept Paris running and politicised women.
Despite its brief existence of three months, the Commune enacted important changes. This included waiver on rents, free public education and workers’ takeover of abandoned factories.
But women had to fight to be able to participate equally in the new society. Leading Communard Louise Michel reported women were “more capable than the men to say definitively that it has to be this way.
“Shorn of hate, of rage, of sympathy for either themselves or for others, they insist it has to be this way, even if it makes the heart bleed. That’s what the women of the Commune were like,” she said.
When the National Guard banned women from participating in battle the decision was met with widespread hostility, arguing this went against what the Commune was trying to build.
Women were also denied the right to vote in elections as many male Communards saw this as a disruption to women’s role in society rather than building new rules.
The German Revolution at the end of the First World War also saw united struggle win gains, with an ongoing battle for sexism to be fully eradicated. It involved a huge wave of workers’ strikes and soldiers’ and sailors’ mutinies. Armed workers patrolled the streets and workers’ councils saw the possibility of an alternative way of living.
The united struggle between working women and men meant there was an opportunity to uproot capitalism. This forced myths about women’s inability to play and equal part in society alongside men to be challenged.
As Gertrud Volcker, a socialist in the port city of Kiel wrote, “The fight for freedom, democracy, human dignity, social equality and solidarity became my own struggle.”
Significant reforms were won quickly. In his 1917 Easter speech, German Emperor Wilhelm II had announced plans for democratic reforms in an attempt to consolidate his position. But he didn’t mention women at all.
Yet full voting rights for women on the same basis as men were gained within days of the workers’ uprising of 1918-19. Women were at the heart of the revolution, with key leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin agitating for a workers’ state.
But they had also to fight within the revolution against backward ideas. Women made up only 5 percent of all representatives of the workers’ councils, and many were forced out of work as men returned from war. There were only two women among the 489 delegates at the national conference of workers’ councils in December 1918.
One of them, Kaethe Leu, began her speech with the address to the other delegate, Klara Noack, “lady and gentlemen…”
United class struggle is the key to undermining sexism. But within that struggle, there has to be specific agitation to tear down all forms of oppression.
How ordinary people won Indian independence
180 years since Britain's first general strike