Today should not be about tokenism or empty rhetoric. Today should be about honouring, remembering, celebrating and recognising the millions of women across the planet who have shaped history, improved society, challenged sexism and defied the odds to conquer adversity.
A book, let alone a column, could hardly do justice to the women who have shaped and enhanced my life personally and improved living conditions generally for everyone. What follows is a mere thread from the giant tapestry which represents the progressive role and contribution of women everywhere to our world. A progressive role and contribution which is all too often forgotten completely or consigned to footnotes in history books invariably written and compiled by middle and upper class men.
Today is International Women’s Day. I am particularly proud of the socialist cause and movement which fought long and hard to get March 8th recognised every year as International Women’s Day (IWD). After the Socialist Party of America organised a Women’s Day on February 28th of 1909 in the city of New York the following years International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910 suggested a specific Women’s Day be held every year. However it was the momentous October revolution in Russia in 1917 which fundamentally challenged the status quo when women were granted the same right to vote as men and March 8th was designated an annual holiday to honour the role of women in society.
For many years March 8th was celebrated as IWD in socialist countries and by the socialist movement within Western capitalist countries. It was eventually adopted as a worldwide day of importance and celebration of women by the United Nations in 1975. Ever since then it has been a day of international recognition of women, women’s rights and the demand for equality in all walks of life. The gap between demands and reality, words and action is still huge but through struggle, resistance and incredible courage and persistence many advances have been made in women’s rights. Defending those advances and continuing the fight for equality is, however, absolutely imperative in the face of reactionary politicians and movements in both advanced countries and underdeveloped nations where sexism, misogyny and denial of equality are either rife or returning with a vengeance.
When women secure equal treatment and rights it is like a powerful wave which lifts all the boats in the harbour so the fight for equality and women’s rights should be supported fully by men because it is right in principle and it advances all of society as a whole.
Rosa Parks was a black woman whose courage in the face of discriminatory racist laws in 1950’s America inspired not only other women to fight back but hundreds of thousands within black communities to stand up for equal treatment and rights. The racist segregation laws which then existed discriminated against blacks in all aspects of life from freedom to vote, work, attend schools, sit in cafes, use public toilets and travel on buses to name only a few examples.
On Thursday, December 1, 1955, 42-year-old Rosa Parks was commuting home from a long day of work at the Montgomery Fair department store by bus. Black residents of Montgomery often avoided municipal buses if possible because they found the ‘Negroes-in-back’ policy so demeaning. Nonetheless, 70 percent or more riders on a typical day were black, and on this day Rosa Parks was one of them.
At one point on the route a white man had no seat because all the seats in the designated “white” section were taken. So the driver told the riders in the four seats of the first row of the “coloured” section to stand, in effect adding another row to the “white” section. Three of the black passengers obeyed. Parks did not.
“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired,” wrote Parks in her autobiography, “but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically… No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in” https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/rosa-parks.
Eventually, two police officers approached the stopped bus, assessed the situation and placed Parks in custody. Seamstress Rosa Parks was “tired of giving in” to racist laws. Three other black citizens that night obeyed the racist law but Rosa Parks defied it. She was arrested like a criminal, put in jail and eventually convicted by a court of breaking the segregation laws but her courage gave birth to an enormous civil rights movement which included an organised bus boycott on the day of her conviction. That Montgomery bus boycott lasted a year and Rosa Parks was dismissed from her job as a result of her defiance. But the bus boycott only ended when the United States Supreme Court was compelled to declare bus segregation was ‘unconstitutional’ and therefore illegal.
The civil rights movement secured fundamental changes to the segregation laws and other racist laws in relation to voter registration, the right of assembly and equality of treatment at work over many years of difficult and determined struggle. The name Martin Luther King is synonymous with that civil rights movement but the midwife of that movement was a woman of substance and courage called Rosa Parks.
Constance Markievicz was an Anglo-Irish Countess, politician, revolutionary nationalist, and suffragette. During her lifetime she participated in countless Irish independence causes and played a key role in the Easter Rising of 1916 where she wounded a British sniper. Because of this she was forced to surrender and was put into solitary confinement. Constance served as the Minister for Labour of the Irish Republic for three years, making her one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position. She was also the first woman to be elected to the British House of Commons but ended up rejecting the position in line with Sinn Féin abstentionist policy. She was jailed again due to her strong political views. In prison, she and 92 other female prisoners went on hunger strike. She was released a month later.
Most people associate the Cuban Revolution with Che Guevara and Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, few have heard of Celia Sanchez, the woman who played an important role in the famed revolution. The Cuban native joined the struggle against the Batista government following the coup of March 10th, 1952. She was one of the first women to assemble a combat squad and quickly became one of the main decision-makers during the revolution. She was also the founder of the 26th of July Movement—the organization that ultimately overthrew Batista. After the revolution, Celia became the Secretary of the Council of Ministers and served in the Department of Services of the Council of State until her death from lung cancer in 1980.
Sophie Scholl was a brilliant German revolutionary who was a founding member of The White Rose, a non-violent anti-Nazi resistance group. The group spread its beliefs via graffiti and anonymous flyers. Sophie and other members of The White Rose were arrested in 1942 for handing out flyers at the University of Munich. She was convicted of high treason and was executed by guillotine along with her brother Hans. Copies of the group’s flyer were retitled ‘The Manifesto of the Students of Munich’ and were smuggled out of the country and air-dropped over Germany by Allied forces later that year.
Phoolan Devi’s early years were characterized by several instances of sexual abuse by high-caste men, inspiring her to fight against the caste system in India. At 18, Devi was gang-raped by high-caste bandits. In retaliation, she decided to become a gang-leader herself and seek revenge on her assaulters. In 1981, Devi returned to the village of the incident and executed two of her rapists and 20 other villagers. She evaded the law for two years and finally surrendered in 1983, when she was charged for 48 crimes including murder and kidnapping for ransom. After 11 years in prison, the state government dropped all charges against her and she was elected to parliament in 1994. She was assassinated in 2001 by three upper-caste men at the age of 37.
Freddie Oversteegen was only 14 when she joined the Dutch resistance during World War II, and only a couple of years older when she became one of its armed assassins. Together with her sister they ambushed and killed German Nazis and their Dutch collaborators. Freddie and her sister Truus, who was two years older, grew up in the city of Haarlem with a single, working-class mother. Their mother considered herself a communist and taught her daughters the importance of fighting injustice. When Europe was on the brink of war in 1939, she took Jewish refugees into their home.
Hannie Schaft was also a Dutch resistance fighter. Born Jannetje Johanna Schaft in 1920, she had to drop out of her university studies because she refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the Nazis. She joined a resistance organization called the Raad van Verzet, which leaned toward a communist philosophy. Schaft spied on German soldiers, aided refugees, and committed sabotage. She became known as “the girl with the red hair,” although she later coloured it after her identity was disclosed. In March of 1945, Schaft was arrested at a German checkpoint. They didn’t know they had arrested the infamous girl with the red hair until later when her roots began to grow out. That identification led to her execution on April 17.
Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was barely 18 years old when she was executed for her guerrilla activities in World War II. She was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, the first woman to be named so in World War II. In October of 1941, she had volunteered for a class of guerrilla fighters known as the Red Army Western Front sabotage and reconnaissance force. Her unit was sent behind enemy lines, near Moscow at the time, to set land mines and to cut off German supply lines. Ordered to burn the village of Petrischevo, Kosmodemyanskaya set fire to a stable and a couple other buildings and was caught by locals. Some accounts say she was betrayed by one of her compatriots, Vasily Klubkov, after he was captured and interrogated. German forces tortured Kosmodemyanskaya by stripping and whipping her and marched her around naked in the cold. Still, she gave no information on her unit. The next day, she was hanged in a public ceremony, a sign on her chest reading “arsonist.” Her body was left hanging, displayed for a month before burial.
Above are examples of women in the midst of the most extreme situations including being arrested and criminalised, wars, revolutions and violent attacks against them but still being prepared to stand up against powerful foes and sacrifice their liberty and even lives for the advance of just causes. These are women whose names and lives deserve to be remembered today and every day.
Others have perhaps not sacrificed or risked their lives for causes but still displayed incredible courage in the face of adversity in pursuit of justice and fairness.
Rose Boland, Eileen Pullen, Vera Sime, Gwen Davis, and Sheila Douglass may not be women immediately recognised by many but their courage and determination over 50 years ago paved the way for the Equal Pay Act of 1970 which removed the right to legally pay women less than men for work of equal value. These women worked at Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant and began a strike on 7 June 1968. They were all machinists and their walkout in protest at a discriminatory regrading exercise was followed later by the machinists at Ford’s Halewood Body & Assembly plant. The women made car seat covers and as stock ran out the strike eventually resulted in a halt to all car production.
The regrading exercise which led to the walkout was blatantly unfair and sexist. The women were informed that their jobs were graded in Category B (less skilled production jobs), instead of Category C (more skilled production jobs), and that they would be paid 15% less than the full B rate received by men. At the time it was common practice for companies to pay women less than men, irrespective of the skills involved. At first the women were largely ridiculed by the men and then even faced hostility from fellow male union members and the male leaders of their trade union because their actions closed the plants and led to lay-offs. But the women refused to be intimidated and they eventually forced the Ford Motor Company to back down and abolish the sexist grading system. The movement ultimately resulted in the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970, which came into force in 1975, and which did, for the first time, aim to prohibit inequality of treatment between men and women in Britain in terms of pay and conditions of employment. Gender pay gaps still exist and are unacceptable but the actions of the Ford women workers has since benefitted millions of women workers.
Last October in Glasgow the spirit and courage of the Ford women workers in 1968 was present in abundance as 8,000 carers, cleaners, cooks, caterers and classroom assistants took part in 2 days of strike action in pursuit of an equal pay claim stretching back over a 12 year period. Initially these predominantly low paid women were ignored and/or discouraged by their respective trade unions. Derisory settlements were presented as good deals and the union leaders, mostly men, failed to fight the cause properly. The women refused to lie down however and eventually forced their unions to take them seriously. The strike action organised across Glasgow last October was the largest equal pay strike in UK history. Six weeks ago those low paid women workers were able to celebrate an historic deal which many had thought impossible years before. It took twelve years and loads of courage and determination but eventually those women have won equal pay deals https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/jan/17/glasgow-council-women-workers-win-12-year-equal-pay-battle.
Women were the backbone of the mighty poll tax struggle which sank Margaret Thatcher and her unfair, unjust and immoral tax scheme. Women are at the forefront of the radical campaign for Scottish independence which seeks to break the exploitative British union and free Scotland to pursue a fairer, more just and nuclear weapon free independent nation. Women are the heart of the peace movement from the Greenham Common Peace Camp (1981 – 2000) to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
In Palestine women like Ahed Tamimi lead the campaign against Israeli occupation and for justice and peace. Retaliating against her cousin being shot in the head with rubber bullets by Israeli Defence Force soldiers she slapped a soldier outside her home. Despite being only 16 at the time she was subjected to interrogation and sexist intimidation before succumbing to pressure and pleading guilty to an assault and obstruction of soldiers charge https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jul/30/ahed-tamimi-i-am-a-freedom-fighter-i-will-not-be-the-victim-palestinian-israel. She was sentenced to 8 months in prison. Since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem in 1967 over 15,000 Palestinian women have been arrested and hundreds fatally shot http://www.palestinechronicle.com/15000-palestinian-women-arrested-israel-since-1967/. Women are to the fore of the struggle in Palestine as they are in justice, peace and freedom campaigns across the world.
In conclusion let me mention other women who inspire me daily. My 80 year old mother Alice, who worked in bars and hotels for many years, became a trade union organiser to fight for better wages and conditions for the predominantly female bar-staff she worked alongside. She organised strikes against big brewing giants who owned the pubs and hotels to get union recognition deals. They won significant improvements in wages and conditions. She also volunteered with the ‘Battered Wives’ movement in the 1970’s and helped get trade union funding for the first refuge in the city to allow women victims of domestic abuse to have somewhere safe to flee to. That movement went on to become Women’s Aid and my mum went on to become a qualified social worker and specialised in helping child sexual abuse victims cope with and deal with their trauma. She pioneered counselling methods which literally helped save the lives of hundreds of abused children. After early retirement due to ill-health she played a pivotal role in the anti-poll tax struggle in Scotland organising occupations of sheriff officer offices and physical blockades of homes threatened by sheriff officers for non-payment of the hated poll tax.
My oldest sister Lynn joined the army at 17 and learned to drive heavy goods vehicles. She left before her three year service was completed to become first a private hire and then a Hackney cab taxi driver. She then became a bus driver in a male dominated environment and was elected as the depot union representative. She then trained as a social worker and worked to protect vulnerable children and manage children’s care homes. She is now a lecturer in social work at Caledonian University and completing a doctorate.
My other sister Carol left school without qualifications and was married very young. She had two children and rose from an auxiliary nurse to become a fully qualified nurse. Her marriage broke up but her two children went on to become teachers and she studied to become a social worker despite being diagnosed with dyslexia in the course of her studies. She conquered that barrier and qualified to now manage elderly care services across a large part of Glasgow.
My wife Gail was very clever at school and qualified for university at 18 before leaving her course to take up a job with British Airways (BA) at 19 years of age. She had to move to London for a couple of years before moving back to Glasgow and earning several promotions from air stewardess to Cabin Service Director making her the most senior member of the cabin crew on 747 planes carrying several hundred passengers. Although she was recruited to lead the British Airways Promotional Team she was also an active shop steward and was elected to represent all the crew at Glasgow and had to organise and lead three separate strike actions in defence of their wages and working conditions against a company that was very powerful, profitable and intent on driving wages and conditions down. Gail was often targeted by management and threatened several times with dismissal for her trade union activities. She was ordered to scab during the strike actions or be sacked. She refused to back down to BA bullying and instead of crossing picket lines she organised picket lines and managed to defend her fellow worker’s jobs and conditions despite the threats and warnings. Gail was born of solid working class and trade union stock and her loyalty to her class and fellow workers was always unbreakable. She is a remarkably strong woman and a rock of support and inspiration for me.
On this International Women’s Day 2019 I want to pay tribute to the women I have mentioned in this column and the thousands of others I could have mentioned. Rosa Luxemburg, Mary Barbour, Marie Curie, Emmeline Pankhurst, Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale and countless others. But in the search for inspirational women on this special day I would encourage you to look closer to home as well as in history books. The women who have surrounded me throughout my life are both heroic and inspirational and I pay tribute to them, as well as the others mentioned earlier on in this column, on this special day.