In the early 1900s, women in most of the world were relatively new to wage work and a small minority in the labor force. But their dynamism was an inspiring thing to behold.
In 1912 in Lawrence, Mass., 30,000 textile employees struck, most of them teenaged and female. Their walkout became known as the Bread and Roses strike, named for the slogan they raised. Against daunting odds, they succeeded in winning increased pay, a victory that reverberated throughout New England factories and stoked the early labor movement. At the time, women were just 20 percent of wage earners in the U.S.
Then came the world-shaking walkout by women textile workers in St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day in 1917. It sparked a general strike that within five days overthrew the czar and ignited the Russian Revolution.
Those battles are early chapters in the epic story of women workers. Today, women globally make up almost 40 percent of the labor force. Astonishingly, this fact — and what it means for society — has been widely ignored.
The surge. Over the past decades, the number of women workers has exploded both in the industrialized world and in underdeveloped countries. In the U.S., women grew from 33 percent of the workforce in 1960 to 46 percent in 2016. In Mexico, the change was from 25 percent in 1979 to 37 percent in 2016.
In most regions, women weigh in at well over 40 percent of the workforce. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are 46 percent in North America and 45 percent in Europe and Central Asia. But they are also 46 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and 43 percent in East Asia and the Pacific. The smallest percentages are in the Middle East and North Africa, at 21 percent, and South Asia, at 26 percent.
Great leaps have been in Latin America and the Caribbean, where women went from 34 percent of workers in 1990 to 41 percent in 2016. Among other impacts, this increase has helped revitalize the feminist movement in Latin America, which has made new alliances with labor unions and the environmental cause.
A march at the end of this year’s National Women’s Encounter in Argentina attracted up to 70,000 people. Teachers’ strikes are spreading across Latin America, while mass mobilizations demand abortion rights and fight against femicide and patriarchal culture.
Bad news for the powers-that-be. As Frederick Engels explained in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, women have been oppressed since the rise of private property. Because women bear the children, they have long had the role of caring for them and maintaining the household. In clan-based societies, this work was collective and socially valued. Now it is considered private and is not paid directly.
Before women entered the modern capitalist workforce, their survival depended on the wages of their husbands — and woe to the female on her own! Now it generally takes two paychecks to maintain a household. At the same time, the fact that domestic work inside the family is still not paid for explains why women’s labor outside the home is so undervalued. The non-payment and underpayment of women’s labor is an essential prop to capitalist profits.
But change is coming. Because some of the work women traditionally do in the home must now be undertaken by someone else who gets paid for it, the worth of domestic labor becomes more evident.
And when women work, their consciousness is hugely transformed. They come to recognize their value — and power. They also gain enormous might to transform society. This shows in everything from the feminist, race liberationist and gender-openness of U.S. youth to mass outrage against sexual violence in India and across Latin America.
Female employees experience the worst that capitalism offers on the job, from sexual abuse to squalid, dangerous conditions and unequal pay, which can force them to choose between buying food and paying the rent. This discrimination, violence and super-exploitation fuels their willingness to take risks and ferociousness in fighting back in all arenas.
A shot in the arm for labor. Collectively, women have the unique quality of being the doubly downtrodden half of every oppressed nation, race, and group.
This, in combination with their typical role as the mainspring of the family, tends to enlarge their social awareness. They bring into the labor movement their concerns about things like childcare, education, healthcare, discrimination, and global issues like war and its effects. They push organized labor to go beyond narrow “bread and butter” demands. This is especially true for women of color, immigrants, and queer and trans women.
The fact that women are oppressed on multiple counts also gives them a great ability to unify struggles. In the labor movement, they are more likely to build coalitions and reach out to community groups, making union organizing more socially relevant and effective.
Women are making an impact both in the traditional labor movement and in the rising organizing among workers in the informal sector of the economy, where they are the majority.
As examples, UNITE HERE in the U.S. has campaigned to protect hotel workers from sexual harassment, and the International Domestic Workers Federation campaigns globally against gender-based violence. The organization of female marine workers in India, SNEHA, has fought for healthcare, sanitation and education as well as labor rights. Groups have formed for people who make their living in the informal economy, including home-based workers, street vendors, sex workers, and waste pickers who salvage materials. Ripped-off garment industry employees in Turkey are alerting customers with clothing tags that say, “I made this item you are going to buy, but I didn’t get paid for it.”
All of this is good news for the world labor movement, especially in this period of capitalism’s ugly decline. Women’s increasing participation in the workforce will be a motor force in building working-class struggle, giving it a militancy and breadth and depth of vision that is desperately needed.
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