We must not forget International Women’s Day’s history of radicalism – Ruth Hayes, Labour Women Lead #IWD2022


“As IWD gains greater recognition in the UK, there is a danger that it loses its radical roots, and that we overlook the brutal treatment of women here and across the world, and the need for collective solutions which deliver long term, structural change”

By Ruth Hayes, Labour Women Leading activist, Unite EC member & Islington North CLP.

The original International Women’s Day took place well over a century ago, and was born out of women’s collective fight for a better standard of living – shorter hours, better pay and the right to vote.  It has gathered support since then and is now celebrated in many countries, recognising both the unequal treatment of women, and their contribution to the ongoing fight for justice and a more equal society.

International Women’s Day 2022 takes place in a very uncertain and frightening world – we are still living through a global pandemic which has killed over 6 million people, though the Tories are treating Covid as if it were over; the climate crisis is having a major impact across the world – the recent “rain bombs” and floods in Australia being just one example, and of course we are witnessing a terrible situation with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with a growing number of dead and the creation of thousands of refugees (largely women and children), alongside ongoing wars and persecution in other countries, many of which receive little news coverage in Britain.

Although progress has been made in some areas since the first IWD celebrations in 1911, recent events have seen the clock being turned back and women as a group are still fighting for basic rights and equality.

As IWD gains greater recognition in the UK, there is a danger that it loses its radical roots, and that we overlook the brutal treatment of women here and across the world, and the need for collective solutions which deliver long term, structural change, and instead have special editions of TV programmes and articles highlighting the achievements of individual women.   

UN research suggests that almost 1 in every 3 women have been subject to physical and/or sexual violence.  Almost 1 in 4 adolescent girls have experienced such violence from a partner or husband.  These are horrifying levels of abuse.

There has been an intensification of violence against women and girls since the start of the pandemic, and yet in many places there has not been a strategic response, either to help women and girls to get out of abusive situations or to help end abusive behaviour.

Violence against women is linked to women’s economic status and it is no surprise that we have seen that deteriorate in the pandemic – women are more likely to have reduced working hours or to have withdrawn from paid employment to look after children during lock down, and women are still concentrated in areas of the economy which are starved of investment.  As an example, despite the well-publicised shortage of care and support workers (with more than 100,000 more staff needed) pay rates have not risen significantly and the Tories do not have a serious strategy to address the issue.  Labour’s 2019 Labour Manifesto set out a bold ambition to address the need for a solution which created good quality jobs with training and support and which recognised that disabled and older people deserve services which support their full engagement in society, and not just the bare minimum of physical “care”.   

The Women’s Budget Group has done substantial work demonstrating the benefit of investment in social infrastructure, and we need to ensure that Labour offers policies which address the true scale of the problem.

We have also seen a culture revealed in the police force which is profoundly misogynistic in places and where attitudes to women are deeply troubling – and yet, again, there is no strategy to tackle this and to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes of male officers (which of course reflect those in wider society).

The commodification of many of our public services and the pervasive impact of the hostile environment mean that migrant women (and black women and women of colour who cannot easily prove their immigration status) are denied health care, even when pregnant, and are pursued for large sums of money at a time when they are in desperate need of medical support and care.

A wide range of Tory policies – austerity, privatisation, attacks on migrants, and the increase in the pension age have had a particularly harsh impact on the lives of women, and the legislation that they are trying to push through at the moment ,such as the Health and Care bill, will make the quality of life for women worse.

We have to ensure that we uphold and honour the socialist origins of International Women’s Day, and its history of collective action by women.  It is fine to acknowledge the skills and achievements of individual women, and to celebrate their contribution to our culture, knowledge base and economy, but let’s make sure that this women’s day, we join cause with women struggling for peace and against war, the women in trade unions fighting for decent terms and conditions and to save jobs, and the women demonstrating practical solidarity with others via refuges, food banks and projects supporting legal rights. 

As the song says, “Yes, it is Bread we fight for—but we fight for Roses, too!”

  • Ruth Hayes is an activist for Labour Women Lead, a member of Unite’s Executive Committee, & a member of Islington North CLP.

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