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Women who raged against oppression

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International Women's Day is on 8 March - Socialist Worker celebrates the day with some words from women who have led radical movements or fought for women's liberation and socialism
Issue 1891


‘HOW MANY women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practised as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility, that consumes the beauty to which it at first gave lustre.

It would be an endless task to trace the variety of meannesses, cares and sorrows, into which women are plunged by the prevailing opinion, that they were created to feel rather than reason, and that all the power they obtain must be obtained by their charms and weaknesses. What were we created for? To remain, some say, in innocent: they mean in a state of childhood. We might as well never have been born.’

From her famous book, A Vindication of the Rights of Women. One of the first feminists, she was deeply inspired by what she witnessed during the French Revolution in 1789.


‘THAT MAN over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man-when I could get it-and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne 13 children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?’

An ex-slave who blasted the hypocrisy and double standards in society’s treatment of women.


‘PARIS IS being blockaded. Paris is being bombarded. Do you hear the cannon roaring, ringing out the sacred call-to arms! Citizens of Paris, descendants of the women of the Great Revolution, the women who, in the name of the people and justice, marched upon Versailles and carried King Louis off as captive-we, the mothers, wives and sisters of the French people, will we go on allowing poverty and ignorance to make enemies of our children, allowing them to kill each other for the whim of our oppressors? Citizens, the gauntlet is thrown down. We must win, or die.’

Dmitrieff issued this declaration from Paris in 1871. Workers had seized control of the city, forming the Paris Commune. She played a key role organising women of the city. They defied all convention-defending their commune on the barricades.

CLARA ZETKIN 1857-1933

‘WE CARRY on our war for this measure, not as a fight between the sexes, but as a battle against the political might of the possessing classes, as a fight which we carry on with all our might and main.

The aim of that fight will be that one day the proletariat in its entirety, without distinction of sex, shall be able to call out to the capitalist order of society, ‘You rest on us, you oppress us, and see how the building which you have erected is tottering to the ground’.’

Zetkin was a leading socialist in Germany. She led the calls to establish International Women’s Day.

ANNIE BESANT 1847-1933

‘WHO CARES for the fate of these white wage slaves? Born in slums, driven to work while still children, undersized because underfed, oppressed because helpless, flung aside as soon as worked out, who cares if they die or go on the streets, provided only that the Bryant and May shareholders get their 23 percent, and Mr Theodore Bryant can erect statues and buy parks?’

From her article ‘White Slavery in London’, which publicised the appalling exploitation of young women working at the Bryant and May match factory in east London. When the teenage workers read it, they went on strike, won major concessions-and sparked the rebellion known as New Unionism.


‘THE ‘QUEEN of the parlour’ has nothing in common with the ‘maid in the kitchen’; the wife of a department store owner shows no sisterly concern for the 17 year old girl who finds prostitution the only door open to a $5 a week wage clerk.

The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of men, is a hollow sham to labour. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality are the sinister outlines of the class war.’

She was a leading organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World, a militant union that broke with tradition and organised both men and women workers. In 1951, at the height of the McCarthyite witch-hunts, she was jailed for two years.


‘WHEN I arrived in the East End, mothers came to me with their wasted little ones. I saw starvation look at me from patient eyes. I knew then that I should never return to my art.

Many times I have endured the vile brutalities of imprisonment and force feeding for the crime of working for women’s suffrage. I have gone to war too, and my life will be shortened for it. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving. Capitalism is a wrong system of society and it has got to be smashed. I would give my live to smash it.’

From her 1920 courtroom speech while standing trial for sedition. An artist and a militant Suffragette, she organised women in London’s poverty-stricken East End. Inspired by the Russian Revolution, she broke with her family and declared herself ‘proud to be a Bolshevik’.


‘VIOLATED, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth-there stands bourgeois society. Not all spic and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law-but the ravening beast, the witches’ Sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. The madness will not stop, and the bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, France, Russia and England wake out of their drunken sleep, clasp each other’s hands in brotherhood and drown the bestial chorus of warmongers and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, Proletarians of all countries, unite!’

Luxemburg was among the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century, leading the left wing of the German socialist movement. She wrote these words during the First World War.


‘AS LONG as any woman is kept as an object and prevented from developing her personality, prostitution continues to exist. Prostitution presents a problem of moral, economic and social character which cannot be resolved juridically.

Prostitution will be abolished when sexual relations are liberalised, when Christian and bourgeois are liberalised, when women have professions and social opportunities to secure their livelihood and that of their children, when society is established in such a way that no one remains excluded, when society can be organised to secure life and right for all human beings.’

Montseny was an anarchist activist in the CNT trade union during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-9.


‘I AM totally committed to the eradication of the oppression of black people. I cannot separate myself as a black woman from overthrowing the system which consigns millions of black children to starvation. Prisons are instruments of political control. There are thousands of black men and women in prison today, not because they are criminals but because they resisted. People talk about moderation. If I see a comrade or friend being attacked by a pig with a machine-gun, I can’t respond with moderation, I can’t say, hold on there while I wonder what to do. You can’t tell a mother to moderately rescue her child from a burning building. We can be non-violent, but only if our enemy is non-violent. If our enemy has napalm and machine guns, we have to do everything to try and destroy that enemy.’

Davis was a black activist sacked from her teaching job at the University of California for being a Communist. In 1970 the FBI put her on their most wanted list, accusing her of supplying guns for a breakout from Soledad prison. She made this speech just before she was caught and locked up for 18 months.


‘IF ALL of us are indeed against imperialism and against the project of neo-liberalism, then let’s turn our gaze on Iraq. We have to become the global resistance to the occupation. Our resistance has to begin with a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the US occupation of Iraq. It means acting to make it materially impossible for empire to achieve its aims. It means soldiers should refuse to fight, reservists should refuse to serve, workers should refuse to load ships and aircraft with weapons. We must consider ourselves at war.’

An award-winning Indian novelist and leading figure of the global movement against capitalism and war. Her speech is from the World Social Forum which took place in January this year.

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