Sylvia Pankhurst and the East End branch of the Women’s Social and Political Union were kicked out of that organisation for supporting political causes other than women’s suffrage and because, according to Christabel Pankhurst, “a working women’s movement was of no value, working women were the weakest portion of the sex”. They established the East End Federation of Suffragettes.
The first issue of the Federation’s newspaper, The Women’s Dreadnought, on March 8 1914 (International Women’s Day!), contained this:
“Some people say that the lives of working women are too hard and their education too small for them to become a powerful voice in winning the vote. Such people have forgotten their history.”
So reads one of the adverts for the International Women’s Day strike action being taken by women working for Hackney Picturehouse, one of a number of the cinemas run by multinational Cineworld who will strike on March 8.
The central call, from workers across London puts it like this, notes Veronica Fagan:
This International Women’s Day we’re on strike!
BECTU members at Hackney, East Dulwich and Crouch End Picturehouses, will be joining their colleagues at Picturehouse Central to protest and celebrate!
We’ve been striking for 17 months, for demands including a Living Wage, sick pay, and company maternity and paternity pay. Picturehouse are still refusing to pay us enough to live on, enough to raise our families. So we strike!
If our demands were rolled out across the economy, it would be women who would predominantly benefit. Because here, and all over the world, it is women who are paid the least, and work in the poorest conditions. Low pay is a feminist issue.
International Women’s Day has a radical history. On March 8 1907, women demonstrated in New York, demanding votes for women and end to child labour. On March 8 1908, 15,000 women, mostly garment workers, marched through the city demanding shorter hours, better pay, union rights and the vote. In 1910 International Working Women’s Day was inaugurated by an International Congress of Socialist Women, and the following year, demonstrations attended by upwards of a million women workers took place across Europe. Six years later, it was women striking for “bread and peace” in Russia that triggered the 1917 Russian Revolution. And it doesn’t end there!
Join us this International Women’s Day to protest Picturehouse – and help us win, and to celebrate the power of women who strike! And remember… #BoycottPicturehouse
And as Sara Farrris points out here, the strike by the precarious women at Cineworld is not the only strike action women in Britain will be taking as part of a red thread of continuity with our foremothers.
Challenges for socialist feminists in Britain
But despite these actions, socialist feminists in Britain are in a weaker position than our sisters in many other parts of the world. While BECTU members at Cineworld are not only calling on supporters to join their picket line outside Picturehouse Central, but also the subsequent action in Soho called by the Women’s Strike Assembly, the latter has much less support in Britain than similar organisations across the globe. No official TUC affiliated unions are part of this coalition, nor any Labour Party Women’s Forums despite the mass influx of women of women into the party since Jeremy Corbyn mounted his first leadership challenge.
And while many of these official organisations will celebrate International Women’s Day either on the day itself or around the time with positive and radical events, there are huge gaps. The deficit was summed up for me when I received a notice on March 5 for the meeting organised by the London and SE Region of the TUC Women’s Committee which contained information about time and place – but zero content. IWD as an empty symbol!! How does this help to change the fact that the average age of trade unionists continues to rise, that many people in insecure and/or low paid employment – of whom the majority are undoubtedly women don’t see trade unions as having anything to offer them??
Some of this goes beyond the difficulties of the British labour movement and relates to the lack of structure of feminism in Britain itself. Unlike in countries such as France, there are no authoritative national organisations which organise demonstrations on March 8 or the nearest Saturday thereto. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the last National Women’s Liberation conference in this country – it’s not an anniversary that we should be celebrating!
Many socialist feminists active at that time responded to the disintegration of the unitary movement by putting much of our feminist energy into the official movement. Within trade unions we built and or revitalized women’s organisations and fought for them to have an authoritative voice to make policy about women’s struggles and demands. Inside the Labour Party we radicalized the Labour Women’s organisation which in those pre-Blairite days had a democratic National Women’s Conference with the right to put motions to Annual conference itself. Those were important fights, and ones that we continue to be involved in. In the Labour Party today, organisations like Labour Women Leading are working to ensure that we will again have those rights.
But while those battles remain vital, those socialist feminist who are active in the official labour movement, whether in the trade unions, the Labour Party or in both need to do more to reach out to women active outside those structures. Many of us are doing that within our own localities, though Labour Women’s Forums which organise together with women in the communities, through local trade’s councils who do the same or through organisations like UNITE Community. But beyond that we need to do more on a national scale – to work to ensure that for March 8 2019 the Women’s Strike Assembly has support from across the official movement – and that our voices are raised louder and in unity.