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Reclaiming the radical tradition of International Women's Day

Faline Bobier

March 8, 2017

After the huge turnout on the Women's Marches on January 21, both in the US and internationally, in response to the election of the misogynist and racist Donald Trump, eight prominent feminist scholars and activists in the US called for a women's strike on March 8, International Women's Day.

In doing so they were inspired by recent events in Poland where women went on a one-day strike against the proposed abortion ban in that country, as well as women's marches and strikes in South Korea, Ireland and Latin America to defend women's reproductive rights and to protest violence against women.

Women’s strike

The March 8 action is supported by up to 30 other feminist organizations around the world. The prime goal of the Day without a Woman in the US is to create “a grassroots, anti-capitalist feminism — a feminism in solidarity with working women, their families and their allies throughout the world.”

Here in Toronto, where the IWD March has traditionally been one of the largest in North America, the themes for this year's march are "Stop the hate! Unite the fight! Build the resistance!" This could not be more timely, given the election of Trump, the alarming rise of racist incidents both in the US and here, and the threat of our own home-grown racists inside the Tory Party.

The call to action in the US is a direct challenge to the so-called 'lean-in' feminism best represented by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The term comes from a 2013 book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, written by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Nell Scovell, TV and magazine writer.

This lean-in feminism is available only to wealthy women, whose fight for equality is for an equality with their male counterparts in the corporate world, leaving most of the rest of us, men and women, at the bottom of society. It espouses the same ideology as that of the so-called American Dream. If you're not wealthy, if you're not able to lift yourself out of a situation of poverty wages, bad housing, lack of access to education, it's your fault. You're not trying hard enough. It has nothing to do with systemic sexism, racism, discrimination and everything to do with individual drive and determination.

Of course, this mythology aims to divide us from each other, to turn to self-blame or blaming the 'other'—whether that be women, Blacks, the poor, people with disabilities—for the faults of a system that places profit for the few above all else: decent healthcare and reproductive rights, living wages and dignity at work, the freedom to love when and whom we choose.

Some are denigrating the call for a women's strike on March 8, arguing that it's not 'realistic' and that not all women will be in a position to refuse to work on that day. That may well be true. We do not all have the ability to refuse to work without risking our jobs and our ability to feed ourselves and our children.

However, in these times we need a bold feminism, as in the slogan this year for international IWD actions: #BeBoldforChange. The call for the March 8 action deliberately includes a variety of tactics since not all of us will be in a position to withdraw our labour. It is an inclusive call: "The idea is to mobilize women, including trans women, and all who support them in an international day of struggle – a day of striking, marching, blocking roads, bridges, and squares, abstaining from domestic, care and sex work, boycotting, calling out misogynistic politicians and companies, striking in educational institutions."

And as has been amply demonstrated, since the election of Trump and before, women and others are more and more willing to take on the bold action that is needed to confront the monsters that 40 years of neoliberalism and untrammeled capitalism have brought us.

Tens of thousands took part in A Day Without Immigrants strikes and protests across the US on Feb 17. People marched in Charlotte, North Carolina and Austin, Texas, in Chicago and Detroit. Some schools were shut down in Los Angeles.

The thousands who flooded airports protesting Trump's racist ban on Muslims, high school students who came out after his election to proclaim "Not my president" and "Refugees are welcome here", the ordinary Americans who have been holding their representatives to account at town hall meetings where they are demanding politicians stand up to the racism and sexism of the bigot who is now the leader of their country – all of these struggles and more speak to the willingness among broad swathes of the population to take bold action.

And it is often women – in Black Lives Matter, in the Fight for 15, in the organizing to defend choice and reproductive rights – who are at the forefront of these struggles.

2017 is shaping up to be the year to take on Trump, both inside the US and internationally, as well as challenging other manifestations of the same sickness: the Kelly Leitches, Marine LePens and other world leaders who are turning to racism, sexism, Islamophobia and homophobia to divide and conquer the 99%.

IWD, from 1917 to 2017

2017 is also the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution. We can and should look to the incredible struggles of that period for inspiration in the fight today.

It was a celebration of International Women’s Day in February 1917 that was the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution. A group of women textile workers in St Petersburg had asked the Bolshevik central committee what to do on that day. They were told not to strike and to await instructions.

But when no instructions came the women took matters into their own hands and went out onto the streets. Soon thousands were leaving the factories and the bread lines, filling the city with banners demanding "Bread—our children are starving!"

They were eventually joined by other women, by male workers and peasants, by soldiers and only a week after these events the Tsar, Russia's absolute monarch, abdicated. This moment led to the taking of power by the whole of the Russian working class in October of that year.

It's in that spirit that we should celebrate and organize for IWD this year. Women in Tsarist Russia were among the most down-trodden and oppressed but by taking collective action they inspired not only themselves, but also other sections of the oppressed within Russian society.

As the organizers of the Women's March wrote in their call for a Day Without a Woman, "We saw what happened when millions of us stood together in January, and now we know that our army of love greatly outnumbers the army of fear, greed and hatred.”

Join the IWD March in Toronto this Saturday at 11am

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