By Max Lawson

Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host

The history of International Women’s Day is fascinating. An international day for women was proposed by Clara Zetkin (pictured below with Rosa Luxembourg) and others at the International Socialist Women’s conference in 1910. It was inspired by an early move for a one-off day for women organised by the Socialist Party of America.

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxembourd

On March 8th, 1917, in St Petersburg, women went on strike calling for ‘Bread and Peace’. They were fighting for an end to food shortages, WW1 and the Czar. It was their strike that kick started the Russian Revolution. Trotsky wrote in his history of the revolution that ‘we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in the morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.’

Seven days later the Czar abdicated and universal suffrage was granted by the provisional government.

Socialism and suffragism were born at largely the same time and have always been closely intertwined.  It wasn’t always an easy relationship; it completely divided the Pankhurst family for example.  Emeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel were of course passionate feminists but also passionate patriots and anti-communists. Their support for WW1 led to a falling out with Sylvia and Adele, Emiline’s other daughters, who were both pacifists and socialists. This poem, from 1912, called the Socialist and the Suffragist, I think is timeless reading:

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:

“My cause is greater than yours!

You only work for a special class,

We for the gain of the general mass,

Which every good ensures!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:

“You underrate my cause!

While women remain a subject class,

You never can move the general mass,

With your economic laws!”

Said the Socialist to the suffragist:

“You misinterpret facts!

There is no room for doubt or schism

In economic determinism—

It governs all our acts!”

Said the suffragist to the Socialist:

“You men will always find

That this old world will never move

More swiftly in its ancient groove

While women stay behind.“

”A lifted world lifts women up,”

The Socialist explained.

“You cannot lift the world at all

While half of it is kept so small,”

The suffragist maintained.

The world awoke, and tartly spoke:

“Your work is all the same:

Work together or work apart,

Work, each of you, with all your heart—

Just get into the game!”

Source: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Socialist and The Suffragist,” Appeal to Reason, 28 September 1912

When I see big corporates like Nike burnishing their gender credentials, or a range of billionaires lining up in Davos to talk about gender inequality, I often wonder what Clara Zetkin would have thought.  In some ways the incredibly high profile these organisations and individuals give to gender equality is a positive, but  at the same time, as with all difficult structural and political issues, they tend to prefer to focus in on personal solutions like leaning in or adopting apower pose in meetings.

Personally I think it is very hard to support today’s economic system and call yourself a feminist. Achieving true gender equality represents a fundamental challenge to the whole way we run our economies, and to what we value. It is revolutionary in its intent, because it would require a revolution in the way we organise our economies to deliver a gender equal world. And this ambition is of course shared with socialism.

Two pieces I saw yesterday helped contribute to this. An excellent paper from Eurodad, the Gender and Development Network and FEMNET looking at the role of Public Private Partnerships in exacerbating gender inequality. A great blog from Anasuya Sengupta at Development Pathways about how donor funded workfare schemes are exploiting the slave labour of women.

The Eurodad study finds that PPPs contribute to gender inequality in three ways: they are expensive so deny governments vital resources; their pursuit of profit leads to the exclusion of the poorest and predominantly women; and they are often reliant on cheap and feminised labour made flexible. Our study of an enormous Education PPP in the Punjab in Pakistan would certainly support this. We found that fees consistently excluded girls from school more than boys, and that female teachers were being exploited. The private school principals we interviewed were quite candid about it:

‘Preference is always given to boys when it comes to private schools. Ours is a non-fee school, but still boys are given preference. This is because of various non-fee expenditures.’

‘In the PPP it is the teachers who suffer the most. I cannot pay a decent salary to my teachers. I cannot hire male teachers, as they demand a higher salary. Females have fewer options for work.’

Pirates as socialists

It is not well known that pirates in the 17th century were social pioneers. Their ships were often run as de-facto democracies. They had systems of health insurance and compensation for occupational injuries – 600 pieces of eight for the loss of a hand or a foot for example. They had high levels of open homosexuality and a form of gay marriage. Former slaves were often accepted as fellow shipmates. Pirates themselves were often escaping the brutality and oppression of the British Royal Navy. Often they were little more than slaves themselves, kidnapped from English towns and press-ganged into the navy against their will.

Nowhere else in the world during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century did ordinary workers have the right to vote, to receive compensation for occupational injuries, or to be protected from the kinds of checks on arbitrary authority that were taken for granted, for example, on the Royal Rover, a pirate ship in the Caribbean. The Royal Rover’s articles laid down in black and white the understandings among the pirates about their working conditions. They determined who did what aboard the ship and what each person would get when treasure was plundered.

In contrast, when the Royal Navy’s ships Favourite and Active captured the Spanish treasure ship La Hermione, the division of the spoils on the two British men-of-war ships was far less equal. The ordinary crew members received about a quarter of the income, with the remainder going to a small number of officers and the captain. By the standards of the day, pirates were unusually democratic and fair-minded in their dealings with each other.

This contrast between the Pirate ship and the Royal Navy can be translated into Gini coefficients. A Gini coefficient is a clever measure used to compare inequality, where a number from 0 to 1 represents the total inequality in a given situation, where 1 is total inequality. South Africa, one of the most unequal countries in the world, has a Gini of around 0.6. Sweden, one of the most equal, has Gini of 0.29. This can be further demonstrated by what is known as a ‘Lorenz curve’ where a straight line is perfect equality, and the further away from that line, the greater the level of inequality.

The Gini coefficient for the pirate ship is a fraction of that found in Sweden- showing a massive degree of equality.  Whereas the Royal Navy ships had a Gini coefficient like that of South Africa.

(This example comes from the excellent CORE textbook on economics which is an attempt to revitalise the study of economics, and draws on a paper from 2007 in the Journal of Political Economy.)