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Issue #1813      March 7, 2018


IWD: many gains, more to win

This Thursday, March 8, is International Women’s Day. It was first celebrated in Europe in 1911 after Clara Zetkin, then leader of the Women’s Office of the German Social Democratic Party, raised the idea at the 1910 Copenhagen International Conference of Working Women. Zetkin later played a leading role in the German Communist Party.

IWD was first celebrated in Australia by the Militant Women’s Movement, a division of the Communist Party of Australia, in 1928.

According to the Australian Women’s Council, International Women’s Day is intended to celebrate the economic, political and social achievements of women. “It is an occasion for looking back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, for looking ahead to the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women.”

Writing in 1889 about conditions for Australian women, Louisa Lawson, the indomitable fighter for women’s rights, asked: “Will it be believed a hundred years hence that such a state of affairs existed?” After 129 years, and with enormous struggle, much has been achieved. But much, much more remains to be done.

Discrimination in pay levels has been officially banned, but cases of underpayment still continue, especially where women work on contract. Women still have lower income levels. Further, an increasing number of women are now facing homelessness in old age.

Many gains have been won through the militant, organised working class in their trade unions – the eight-hour day, sick leave, annual leave, long service leave, workers’ compensation, paid overtime, penalty rates, occupational health and safety laws, advances towards pay equity, paid maternity and paternity leave, minimum wage rates, the concept of a living wage, permanent full-time employment, trade union and other rights. Married women gained the right to permanent employment in the public sector, superannuation and unemployment benefits. Some of the biggest gains were made during the years of communist leadership in the trade union movement. Not one was handed to workers on a plate by benevolent employers.

Early childhood education is not regarded as part of the public education system, and with the privatised system single parents, mostly women, face high costs for private childcare, which are financially crippling for women workers in low-paid jobs.

Australia’s first woman Prime Minister took office in 2009. But her period in that position was notable for vicious misogynistic attacks on her character, with one radio commentator even suggesting she should be drowned at sea.

Historically, under capitalism women have been treated as chattels belonging to men. Fathers gave their daughters away in marriage as property. Discrimination marginalising women is embedded in the system. Married women were not expected to enter the paid workforce and if they did, they were not paid a living wage. A “good” marriage was promoted as a vehicle to economic security. The historic Harvester case in 1911 awarded women 54 percent of the male wage rate. Sexism prevailed in the trade union movement for much of the 20th century and has still not been completely eliminated.

Domestic and other violence against women was condoned. Rape was not considered a serious crime and it was extremely difficult to obtain a conviction. The lack of respect for and recognition of women’s rights in all spheres of life contributes to the culture of violence towards women.

During the 1970s and ‘80s women made gains towards pay equity and ending sex role stereotyping in the workplace and education, in particular under the Whitlam Labor government. Childcare, abolition of university fees, the development of TAFE and measures to support older women returning to study enabled many women to gain a measure of dignity and economic independence.

It was no longer acceptable to overtly discriminate in job advertisements or appointments or to use women as sex objects in advertising. Some sections of the church were changing and the law was also making advances but there was still a long way to go in changing a culture that condoned domestic violence. But still women are concentrated in lower paid and insecure jobs.

Domestic violence still remains hidden in the home, a taboo that brought shame on the victim. Police were instructed not to intervene. And where they did women had nowhere to go, no way to escape the perpetrators of violence, no shelter, no safe place.

The number of women trapped in situations of domestic violence, who are physically and psychologically brutalised – with two women per week murdered by their current or ex-partner – is increasing. Services set up specifically for women fleeing domestic violence, in many cases with their children, have been defunded.

Legislation on abortion varies between the states, and the law does not fully recognise a woman’s right to choose. Abortion is still subject to criminal law except in the Australian Capital Territory, but even there, exclusion zones may be set at the discretion of the ACT Health Minister. The only termination clinic in Tasmania recently closed because of a lack of funding and the Hodgman government refused to step in and save it.

Of course, many of the problems that women face are those they share with husbands and partners, including the high costs of housing and early childhood education, and the over-arching problem of corporate greed.

The Communist Party of Australia calls for:

  • Equal pay for work of equal value
  • Permanent full or part-time employment with full rights to leave and other entitlements
  • An end to social security payments based on relationship status, which deny women access to an independent income
  • The enforcement of anti-discrimination and affirmative action legislation to economically assist Indigenous, migrant and disabled women
  • Publicly-funded free childcare
  • Paid parental leave
  • Legislation to guarantee women the right to abortion, and
  • The elimination of sexual harassment and violence against women.

Discrimination and domestic violence against women shame and demean the nation and must be dealt with, but the nation’s political economy is the major problem facing both women and men.

The Communist Party declares: “Like men, women should be afforded the real value of their labour, and not simply the same wage as the opposite sex ... Capitalism cannot provide solutions to the problems that women encounter because the system as a whole is driven by the profit ambitions of private companies.”

And the Party’s policy concludes: “Socialism promotes a balance between women’s social contribution through their work, their family life and their individual development. Only socialism is capable of restructuring society to achieve this balance.”

Next article – Perth celebrates IWD, One Billion Rising 2018

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