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Raising the socialist banner for women's rights

Published Mar 27, 2008 8:28 PM

Excerpts from a speech by Sue Davis to Detroit Workers World commemoration of International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day has a long, proud history. A demonstration in New York on March 8, 1908, of 15,000 women garment workers, mostly immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy and Ireland, inspired socialist women to unanimously pass a resolution at the Second International Socialist Conference in 1910 establishing International Women’s Day.

Workers World Party made its own contribution to IWD 38 years ago. As the modern-day women’s movement was gathering steam in 1970, women in the party—mostly young women attracted to the anti-war, anti-racist, pro-liberation activism of WW’s youth group, Youth Against War & Fascism—were inspired to reclaim the socialist tradition of IWD. Due largely to the anti-communist McCarthy era, there hadn’t been a public commemoration of IWD in New York for at least 25 years.

The newly formed Women’s Caucus of YAWF called a rally in Union Square. We were thrilled when 1,000 women turned out to hear speakers talk about the need for universal childcare, to end racist oppression of Black women, the needs of working women for higher pay and more job opportunities, and the plight of women in prison. Maryann Weissman, a leader of YAWF who had just gotten out of jail for helping to organize anti-war GIs at Fort Sill, Okla., spoke about how women were in prison mostly for crimes of survival and called for the demonstration to march to the nearby Women’s House of Detention to show solidarity with our most oppressed sisters in jail.

That rally and march turned out to be the first major demonstration of the women’s liberation movement in New York. At the time no other group in the city had the politics or the organizational experience to call such a large action. But none of us who organized the rally had a socialist understanding of women’s oppression. So for a month before and at least two years after, all the women gathered to study the origins of women’s oppression and how to fight it.

Dorothy Ballan, a founding member of WW and an organizer of women workers, wrote “Feminism & Marxism.” Ballan showed why patriarchy is not a god-given institution, how women’s oppression is rooted in private property and class oppression, and why it can and must be overthrown. She stressed a basic tenet of Marxism: fighting for women’s emancipation is an integral and essential part of the overall class struggle to end capitalist exploitation and all forms of racist, sexist and gender oppression.

One of the first things YAWF Women published was the brochure “Abortion and Class Society,” which affirmed that all women must have the right to abortion as part of the right to control their bodies. But we didn’t stop there; we asserted that working women, poor women, women of color needed to have social, economic and cultural supports to be able to raise healthy children, thus ensuring the real right to choose.

Eager to put that socialist perspective into practice, we became active in the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, founded by Dr. Helen Rodriguez Trias in 1972. This Puerto Rican pediatrician had become aware of the massive U.S. government plan to sterilize women in Puerto Rico. U.S. corporations setting up plants there wanted a low-cost, stable group of women workers to exploit.

Also around that time the sterilization of the Relf sisters, two Black teenagers on welfare in the South, became a national scandal. CESA’s research exposed a pattern of racist sterilization abuse that affected 35 percent of all women of childbearing age in Puerto Rico, as well as 30 percent of Black women and 25 percent of Native American women in the U.S. CESA was able to win regulations, first in New York City in 1975 and then federal restrictions in 1979, that mandated informed consent so women could not easily be coerced into being sterilized against their will. However, we know that even today poor women can feel pressured to become sterilized because they don’t have the economic means to have more children.

When the Hyde Amendment became the law of the land in the summer of 1977, progressive women in New York, many of whom called themselves socialist feminists, organized a citywide meeting. Hyde was the first serious challenge to legal abortion, which became law in 1973. Hyde cut off funding for abortions for women on welfare—an outrageous attack on poor women, disproportionately women of color, who already had the least resources. A number of us who had worked in CESA were worried that poor women, denied access to abortion, would be pressured into becoming sterilized. We struggled long and hard to educate others about the intersection of those issues. Eventually the group voted to call itself the Committee for Abortion Rights and Against Sterilization Abuse.

As we discussed the issues, the concept of reproductive rights came into being. We outlined the many prerequisites women need to be truly liberated: things like free, safe, accessible abortion regardless of age, race, economic status or class and no forced sterilization; safe contraception and comprehensive sex education; lesbian rights; freedom from racist oppression; the right to education, housing, food, jobs at livable wages, free childcare and medical care; freedom from sexual discrimination and harassment, incest, rape; and freedom from stereotypical gender roles. Similar meetings of progressive women were held all over the country, and the Reproductive Rights National Network (R2N2), made up of 80 regional groups, was founded in 1981. Since then, the concept of reproductive rights and the call for reproductive freedom have continued. More recently some women of color groups expanded on those demands and now call for reproductive justice.

Many of the women who founded the National Network for Abortion Funding, which raises funds to help poor women pay for abortions, were members of R2N2. So it’s no coincidence that NNAF started a campaign in 2007 to end the Hyde Amendment.

Sue Davis was one of the organizers of the 1970 International Women’s Day demonstration in New York City.