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Issue #1492      9 March 2011

100th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day march

Women’s struggle never over under capitalism

March 8 is celebrated around the world as International Women’s Day. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first marches. IWD has its origins in the working class struggles for social, economic and political rights of women, including socialism. For many years IWD took the form of militant marches and other actions in support of equal pay, the right to work, rights of married women, the right to vote, for women’s services and women’s reproductive rights, and many other rights, and against the exploitation of women.

(Photo: Anna Pha)

One hundred years on, many gains have been made and many women now have some measure of economic independence.

In the political sphere the right to vote is now taken for granted and women are regularly elected to all levels of government in Australia.

Progress was made in the social sphere on such issues as reproductive rights, sexism in advertising, the removal of discriminatory clauses in legislation and awards, elimination of sexism in education and doors prised open offering opportunities previously denied to women.

Struggles for the right to work, equal pay, access to affordable and quality childcare, against sexual harassment and greater participation of women in trade unions also saw many gains. The Whitlam Labor government took up the UN’s International Year of Women in 1975, adopting many progressive reforms, including giving women greater access to higher education (abolition of fees, bridging programs, community learning centres, etc) and the establishment of the Family Court.

Wages struggle

Historically women’s wages have been a fraction of their male brothers. Discrimination in wage rates on the basis of gender (as well as race and age) has long been used by capitalism to increase the rate of exploitation and pit workers against each other in the workplace. In the historic Harvester decision of 1907, Justice Higgins set the basic wage rate for women at 54 percent of that of a male worker. Men were seen as bread-winners with stay-at-home wives waiting hand and foot on their husbands and children.

For example, during a recession in the 1970s, The Australian newspaper ran the line that women who entered the workforce were taking their husbands’ and sons’ jobs and adding to the unemployment queues. That was less than 40 years ago.

While sections of the trade union movement have played an important role in the struggle for women’s rights, the right-wing dominated ACTU was much slower to come to the table. It eventually adopted a Working Women’s Charter at its 1977 Congress. While this was a great advance in recognising the right of women to work and encouraged trade unions to recruit working women, amendments on the rights of abortion and married women being entitled to unemployment benefits were resoundingly defeated. Childcare did become union business, as did the problems faced by migrant and Indigenous women.

Following national test case decisions in the Arbitration Commission in the 1960s and early ‘70s the gender wage gap was narrowed, but it still remains. A number of factors and barriers have contributed to this situation, including:

  • The greater likelihood of women being employed on a part-time or casual basis;
  • Entrenched discriminatory attitudes towards women that are nothing short of sexism;
  • Ongoing under-valuation of “women’s work” and segregation of women into low paid jobs;
  • Women carrying family and caring responsibilities;
  • Lack of affordable, quality day care and out of school hours care – made worse by privatisation.

At the same time that many women found it difficult to return to the workforce with a young family, the lack of paid maternity leave meant others were forced back after child birth for economic reasons.

Prior to the federal elections PM Julia Gillard had promised to support the national test case for equal pay for work of equal value that was launched last year by trade unions in the community sector. She has now done a backward flip, effectively claiming equality is not affordable now. At best women in the community sector can expect a long-term phasing in of pay equity.

Eighty percent of workers in the community sector are female and their wages are low by community standards, reflecting a history of undervaluing and underpaying what has traditionally been seen as “women’s work”. This predominantly female workforce is highly trained and skilled, carrying out extremely demanding work and carrying huge responsibilities. Workers caring for the elderly in their homes or supporting families in crisis are paid less than those packing supermarket shelves or collecting garbage.

On average Australian women working full-time are still paid 18 percent less than men, and community workers are even more disadvantaged when their wages are compared with those of men doing work of comparable skill and responsibility. In the community sector the pay gap is close to 35 percent.

The pay equity test case is a test of the government’s commitment to some of the lowest paid workers in the community. It is strongly opposed by employers, who fear it will flow to women in other sectors of the economy.

The most recent advance is the introduction by the Gillard government of a paid parental leave scheme which at last recognises in a concrete form the importance of the role of parents in raising a young family. But it falls short in its inadequacy in payments and availability prior to childbirth. The struggle is not over.

Gains never secure

These gains were not handed on a plate by employers or capitalist governments. They involved years of struggles led by such organisations as the Australian Union of Women, other women’s organisations, the Communist Party and sections of the labour movement.

The Howard era saw women suffer serious setbacks in wages and working conditions as well as in the social sphere. Attacks on “political correctness” were used to wind back the clock on attitudes to women – whether it be to use them as sex objects in advertising, opposition to IVF, abortion or the punitive attack on sole parents with cuts in their rights to benefits.

Women, in particular, who relied more heavily on awards were affected when award provisions were stripped. Men were more likely to be in a position to negotiate enterprise agreements that restored much of what was stripped from their awards.

Like all other gains made by working women under capitalism the struggle needs to continue to not only hold onto what has been won in struggle but to make further advances.

IWD is a time to not only look back on past gains but to look to the many struggles that lie ahead before women achieve equality and emancipation.

There is one demand of the women marching 100 years ago – socialism – which needs to be taken up if the advances in women’s rights are to become permanent. As the present economic crisis demonstrates – and the Howard era in particular proved – gains made in struggle under capitalism are no more than concessions by the capitalist class to be taken back at the first opportunity.

Women’s emancipation can only be won through the struggle of men and women together and fundamental transformation of society to a system to one of socialism. So, if you are not a member yet, what better contribution to the struggle for women’s rights than join the Communist Party of Australia!  

Next article – CPA Statement – “No” to invasion, interference in Libya

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