Capitalist Co-option of International Women’s Day

Or, Please Stop Appropriating Historically Radical Events For Your Own Financial Gain Whilst Reinforcing Oppressive Exclusionary Systems.

Three weeks ago I was invited to do a 15-minute TED-style talk at an upcoming International Women’s Day event that a local bar is organising. After they accepted my proposed topic, I received unexpected news that anyone wishing to attend would be charged £6 entry fee. This immediately made me feel uncomfortable, my initial thoughts being:

  • Why is there a door tax for an event that should be inclusive?
  • Why, if a fee is being charged, are the speakers not being paid?
  • Why is none of the entry fee being donated to a charity or campaign group that supports the aims and values of IWD?
“International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.”

When we celebrate an event or occasion, we reflect on achievement, progress, a journey. There is performance, ritual, praise, we do something special in honour of the event in question. So to celebrate women we will look to the past to see how far (or not) we’ve come.

The roots of IWD are socialist and stem from industrial struggle and the right to vote. Working class women in New York’s needle trade organised a strike on 8th March 1908 around these two main issues. The following year 30,000 women organised to form the first trade union for women workers in the US. News spread to Europe and in 1910 at the second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin, a women’s rights activist, proposed that “socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.” The inaugural celebration of International Working Women’s Day took place on 19th March 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland with over a million people attending rallies. Just a few days later on 25th March, more than 140 mostly immigrant female workers, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York. This disaster had an enormous effect on labour legislation in the United States and brought heightened potency to the labour movement and consequently IWD.

IWW ‘Bread and Roses’ Textile Strike in Lawrence, MA, 1912.

Yet history repeats. The 2012 Dhaka fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory killed at least 117 people, over 200 were injured. The Savar/Rana Plaza building collapsed on 24th April 2013. The search for the dead ended on 13th May 2013. The death toll was 1,129. These sombre statistics don’t evoke feelings of celebration. The need for trade unions is still critical as women worldwide continue to suffer and even die at the hands of capitalism.

In honouring the roots and history of this day, and to continue the fight for women’s rights, this International Women’s Day we strike against

  • the gender pay gap
  • unpaid work, including domestic care
  • harsh working conditions
  • persecution of sex workers
  • sexism
  • patriarchy
  • denial of reproductive healthcare services
  • the gender binary
  • transphobia
  • racism
  • and so much more…

Please join us! Here are some ideas on how to participate:

  • total strike — no work (this includes domestic labour)
  • partial strike — take an hour or two off, extend your breaks
  • join local events and demonstrations after work
  • boycott companies that have sexist adverts, that exploit women and non-binary people — contact them explaining why
  • share this article and others on social media and email — raise awareness of women’s issues
  • set up an auto-reply on your email for the day explaining why — and be critical of the emails that land in your inbox today. If Big Business is using this day for their own profit, question why
  • wear a visible piece of clothing to support the strike. In Dublin, there is a call out to wear black
  • celebrate the amazing women in history that were doing this revolutionary work before IWD even began, like Lucy Parsons, who became the second woman to join the IWW in 1905.
Spray paint and stencil by Ashley Costa

Today the “internationalwomensday.com digital hub for everything IWD” is plastered in corporate advertising through sponsorship.
BP caused one of the worst environmental disasters ever — the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. BP is the largest foreign investor in Egypt; a country under El-Sisi’s regime that has become increasingly threatening to the lives of trans and queer Egyptians. BP are also accused of large scale UK tax avoidance.
Caterpillar sells bulldozers to Israel in full knowledge that they will be armoured and used to destroy Palestinian homes, infrastructure and agriculture in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Capitalism continues to kill. These are not the actions of those who support women. We must take a stand against this corporate co-option.

Whilst one of the key historic aims of IWD — the right to vote — was being achieved (for white women) within the first half of the twentieth century, the words from public figures of these movements are oft forgotten:

“I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong that people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.” — Sylvia Pankhurst

With all this in mind, I wondered how best to call-in the bar, in hope that if I highlighted these issues they would be responsive and create an inclusive and inspirational event for our local community. I wondered who the other speakers were and if anyone would be discussing social and political struggles. I remembered these words from Kelly Diels:

“Maybe you’ve been noticing that conferences about women’s empowerment seem to be choosing speakers from one group of women — mostly white women.
The people asked to speak have influence. If you’re getting asked to speak, you have power and you can be an ally. You are the product they’re selling. There’s no conference or event without you.
So if and when someone approaches *you* to speak at an event, ask about the speaker line-up. Ask who’s speaking. Ask how diverse it is. Ask what measures they’re taking to ensure that the speaker line-up reflects their audience and our communities.
And if it’s just a slew of women who are “the mythic norm”, then ask the organizers to remedy that or decline the invitation.
So let’s make diverse speaker line-ups the new norm in our empowerment communities.
Let’s pledge to only speak when the line-up is as diverse as our communities.”

So I wrote to the organisers of this event. I explained my concern about an entry fee excluding people on low incomes; this being particularly crucial when the pay gap is still so large. I included a list of charities and campaign groups doing great work that support the values and aims of IWD — tickets were already selling and putting the money into a donation fund seems like less labour than offering refunds. I enquired about how many women of colour were involved in the event.

The owner and manager of the bar are both women. They listened to my concerns, and ignored them.

“Use International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8 as an important opportunity to:

  • celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women because visibility and awareness help drive positive change for women
  • declare bold actions you’ll take as an individual or organization to help progress the gender agenda because purposeful action can accelerate gender parity across the world.”

And when you do, please respect the socialist roots of this day. The struggles of the past are still present. If you’re in a position where this is news to you, I invite you to look deeper, and in the words of Clara Zetkin who first proposed this day, ‘prepare carefully’.

Resources/Further Exploration: