Women in the labour movement have, and will continue to have, much to be proud of, says GAIL CARTMAIL
“THOSE who do not move do not notice their chains.” Rosa Luxemburg.
In the mid-’80s labour and trade union meetings thought nothing of an all-male line-up of speakers.
At one meeting I attended I can recall a brother justifying this with the explanation that there just aren’t women of sufficient stature.
While the brother was on his feet I drafted a list of women trade unionists I knew to be at least as worthy as the men put forward.
There wasn’t a shortage then and there isn’t now — more a case of rationing women than a shortage.
This was one of the incidents of everyday sexism that gave birth to the campaigns Socialist Women on Male Platforms and One Woman Is Not Enough.
Today many sisters feel the movement is backsliding. After all, we are asked: “Aren’t there more important issues to worry about?”
Thinking recently about who and what inspired me to link together trade union, socialist and feminist values reinforced my belief that presenting our movement as inclusive of us all is vitally important, as to do so holds the possibility of boosting our power and impact.
To ignore women is to ignore our history of commitment to peace and progressive causes.
Years ago I read with relish Hidden From History — 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It, by the socialist feminist historian Sheila Rowbotham.
Another book that resonated with me was Women, Race and Class written by the revolutionary US civil rights activist Angela Davis.
Both are insightful and help put today’s struggle against women’s oppression, exploitation and neoliberalism into a class context.
So now when I think of the fight for women’s suffrage, the lesser-cited Pankhurst, Sylvia, comes to mind: “I am going to fight capitalism even if it kills me. It is wrong other people like you should be comfortable and well fed while all around you people are starving.”
Today this is a call for international solidarity as climate change and globalisation of capital is destroying the hopes of the world’s poorest.
And we see women front and forward internationally fighting for peace and justice, from Palestine to Colombia.
Throughout 2014 we have been inundated with mawkish sentimentalism on the centenary of the start of World War I.
Thankfully, organisations such as the National Assembly of Women have countered this and given voice to the cause for peace.
Women were at the forefront of the campaign against carnage at the time, the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin among the most prominent.
“When men kill, it is up to us women to fight for the preservation of life.”
All around us every day in our movement, women of all ages, ethnicities and with varied life experiences give up their time and effort to move our struggle on.
Shop stewards on the front line have an unparalleled job defending members collectively and individually as volunteers — the trade union movement is Britain’s largest voluntary organisation.
Women shop stewards still typically shoulder the bulk of domestic and carer responsibilities, hold down a job and on average are paid less than their male counterparts.
Yet as Eleanor Roosevelt put it: “A woman is like a teabag — you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
And that strength is being tested in austerity Britain with an economy less just than that of the 1930s.
Women are hardest hit by the dismantling of our welfare state, meant to protect society from indecent economic and social inequalities.
All over Britain women are fighting to save services and campaigning to defend our NHS from the EU trade agreement TTIP and irreversible privatisation. They are demanding David Cameron uses his veto or, better still, dump TTIP altogether.
It was Barbara Castle who best explained the case for our NHS and other publicly owned services: “You see, another reason for nationalisation was that private ownership meant fragmentation.”
It is tough getting to meetings, speaking out and risking victimisation while juggling domestic and carer responsibilities, but thousands of our women activists do so, day in and day out.
My list of present-day women trade union leaders is longer than ever. To realise our full potential all activists — women and men — would do well to heed the advice of Angela Davis: “Lift as you rise.”
Davis recently reflected on our need to go one step further. She said of activism: “You can never stop and us older people, we have to learn to take leadership from youth and I guess I would say that is what I’m attempting to do right now.”
A good resolution for 2015 is to build on the best traditions of our movement’s commitment to peace, justice and equality galvanising all talent to fight for a better world.
Gail Cartmail is a member of the National Assembly of Women and assistant general secretary for Unite.