International Women's Day: Ghetto Festival or Front Line of the Struggle for Women's Liberation?

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Speech for Radical Women to IWD Forum, Melbourne, 22 August 1988

Comrade Klara Zetkin would be turning in her grave if she could see what International Women’s Day in Melbourne has become. IWD was initiated by communist women and was unashamedly a working class day. Radical Women issues a call for IWD in Melbourne to return to these traditions and to break with the lifestyle politics that have dominated the day for most of this decade! (There! We promised you provocative speakers so I thought I’d start without pulling any punches!)

The comments that I make imply no particular criticism of IWD collectives, past or present. Radical Women is involved in the current IWD collective and I was a member of the IWD collective in 1980. I want to emphasise that I think returning to these traditions is a job for every person who classifies themselves as a fighter for women’s liberation. It is not just a job for tiny IWD collectives. IWD reflects the state of the movement and if we want change then the movement must take it on!

So what do I mean when I talk about lifestyle politics dominating IWD in recent years? I mean women deciding to come to IWD only if it is a nice sunny day! I mean women coming along just to catch up with a few old faces that they haven’t seen since last year! I mean women standing and chatting while the speakers are addressing the crowd rather than listening! I mean women spending time prior to the march deciding what to wear rather than on what slogans to write on the placards that they should be making for the occasion! I mean all the women who turn up to look at stalls, watch some street theatre and sit in the gardens but who can’t be bothered to come to the march! I mean all of the women who look at you as if you’re from Mars when you offer them a chance to buy a political newspaper! I mean the majority of women who attended this year’s march who weren’t interested enough to stay on for a migrant women’s IWD event being held in the very same venue! But I guess what I mean most of all is a feeling of cliquey exclusivity that freezes out women who don’t quite fit. Women who turn up with a male friend, women who aren’t dressed like lifestyle feminists, migrant women, Aboriginal women, women from the suburbs, women shopping in the city, and a large number of working class women.

We have to challenge the underlying assumptions of ‘lifestyle feminism’. One is that we are all lesbians or a least celibate women who prefer to socialise mainly with other women. This has become a stumbling block to the movement. Instead of clear political demands about fighting the oppression of  lesbians that we expect all who support women’s liberation to take up and fight for, we’ve got a bizarre combination of lesbian political invisibility but an underlying assumption that in our lifestyles we are all dykes. Within the women’s movement the word “women’s” has become code for the word “lesbian”. Added to the assumption that we are all lesbians are the assumptions that we all live in the inner suburbs or out in the bush on “womyns land”;  that most of us can get away to attend demos in the middle of the day,  that we all speak English, that we don’t want men to participate and that if we do then we can’t possibly be ‘real feminists’!

So if you accept the general picture that I’m painting I guess the key question is what do we do about it? 

First of all we’ve got to make IWD political, and by political I definitely don’t mean boring or lacking in culture. We have to address the issues of the day–those that people who aren’t at IWD are concerned about or fighting around. To give one example: it is not enough simply to have a demand about equal pay or economic justice for women. We have to take a stand on the Accord, on the two tier wage system, on the ALP, ACTU. Trades Hall and the union bureaucracy; on the 6% we wont be getting! Women workers know all too well what we’ve lost in the recent period. We know that the gap between women’s and men’s wages has has widened. We know that all workers are being made to pay for the crisis of the economy and that women workers are expected to pay the highest price. There is a lot of anger around that IWD should be able to tap into. To be political is not, as many fear, a recipe to alienate those who are not already involved but is a way of breaking down the ‘clubbishness’ to allow more people to join in the struggle. We need a comprehensive radical and multi issue political statement that addresses the issues of the late 1980s and that can take us forward.

Another thing we need to do is to broaden our base. The current collective has made a start on this by commencing an endorsement campaign. By building the drive to get a wide range of organisations to endorse IWD we can all participate in the work needed to broaden support and reach and mobilise a layer of people who don’t normally hear about IWD. A big list of endorsers from all progressive movements and communities is a way of showing those not previously involved that they too are welcome.

The campaign to make IWD a public holiday is yet another way of popularising it without necessarily depoliticising it.

We are not going to change things overnight but we need to have the sort of orientation that I’ve outlined. We need to aim for the day when every person in this state knows that IWD is on March the 8th and knows that IWD is a day when we highlight the demands of working class women and show that when we fight for the demands of all working class women we are fighting for the demands of all the oppressed. 

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