One is Not Born a Woman, One becomes One

“Women have time for everything, manage a great number of issues, and yet stay gentle, bright and charming.” Vladimir Putin, Russian President on International Women’s Day, 2017

“Today women participate strongly in the economy too. Nobody is more capable in pointing out changes in Supermarket prices than women.” Michel Temer, Brazilian president on International Women’s Day, 2017

“Nation is always empowered by its women. It is she who nurtures a citizen as a mother, as a sister in his childhood, and later in the life as a wife. These empowered citizens eventually make an empowered country.” Narendra Modi on International Women’s Day, 2017

The above statements from heads of government of 3 of the top 10 populous countries more or less sums up what women face every day. These are not impromptu statements by these heads of government but are carefully thought out official positions, well-cleaned by top civil servants, of each of these very large countries. The position expressed by these leaders is no different from most other heads of government across the world. The position also is reiterated at every level in society that a woman interacts in, be it at home, at work, on the streets, in public life, and even as citizens. The statements clearly lay out some key issues: (i) double burden on women is the norm and they must bear this without questioning it; (ii) being charming and gentle is how a woman should be; (iii) women’s participation in economy is about shopping judiciously for maintaining the family; (iv) and finally, women are only needed to produce and nurture men who would be the first class citizens of a nation as mothers, sisters and wives, and hence are second class citizens. Believe it or not these statements are not from 100 years ago.

What do Women Want?

This is a question that most men ask and have been asking for centuries. Women have also been articulating what they want for close to two centuries but things have not changed much.

In the 1830’s women workers in UK raised the demand for Equal Pay. The first, in 1832, was articulated by women who worked in Robert Owen’s ‘labour exchange’ in Grays Inn, London. Also in 1832 women card setters in Scholes and Highton demanded equal pay with men. In 1833 unionised women in the Women Power Loom Weavers Association in Glasgow struck work for equal pay.

In 1843, women textile workers in Massachusetts, USA, led by Sarah Bagley demanded a Safe Workplace and a 10-hour work day.

In the mid-19th century, women in several countries—most notably, the U.S. and Britain—formed organizations to fight for Equal Political Right – right to vote. But it was only in 1918 that Britain’s Parliament passed the Eligibility of Women Act which allowed women to be elected to Parliament and ten years later, the Representation of the People Act granted women the right to vote. While in the US, women won the right to vote in 1920. New Zealand was the first country to allow women to vote (1893), while women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to vote only in 2011.

The First World War (1914-1918) witnessed large scale recruitment of women in jobs vacated by the conscripted men. In 1915, a conference was called by the Women’s War Workers Committee, which drew up a comprehensive list of demands including the Rights to Training, Trade Union Membership and Pay Parity. In 1918 an Equal Pay strike was organised by women tramway workers, starting in London and spreading to other towns in England, over the offer of an unequal War Bonus. The strike also spread to the London Underground. This was led by women and finally won by women.

In the years between the two world wars (1918-1939), during the great depression of the 1930s, male unemployment grew leading to a dominant trade union view to call for a marriage bar on women’s employment along with negotiating higher wages in sectors dominated by men that widened the gender gap in wage. Both these strategies and the economic crisis pushed the demand for equal pay off the horizon. The struggle of women workers for equal pay and better conditions at work was thus not just with their employers but with their own – their fathers, their brothers, their partners, their sons, their comrades, with many of them back from the war. This made the struggle even more uphill.

The number of women who joined the workforce at the time of the Second World War (1939-1945) far outnumbered the earlier war period. Equal pay and the Double Burden of Women remained burning issues throughout the war, with local battles initiated by women. In 1937 the Clerks Union of Australia organised a conference in Sydney on equal pay which was attended by delegates from 53 organisations, both unions and women’s organisations. The conference established the Council of Action for Equal Pay (CAEP). The main unions involved in the CAEP were the Public Servants Association, the Clerks, Teachers Federation, Railways, Textiles, Rubber Workers, Postal Workers and Food Preservers, indicating the industries with a large female workforce. One of their first actions was to assist the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ first quasi-equal pay claim to the Arbitration Court, when they tried to lift the female rate to 60 percent from the current 54 percent of the male wage.

By the end of the war the demand for equal pay lost momentum as the government and the trade unions sought to persuade women to return to their home-making role and to more traditional paid work such as domestic service. This triggered the next phase of feminist movement moving the focus beyond issue of voting rights and property rights to women’s Right to Choice and Right to a Violence free society alongside the persisting demands for equal pay, safe workplaces, and equal political rights.

The demands have not changed in almost two centuries. These have found support across the world and yet women still are expected to be caregivers at home, work for less, work under unsafe conditions, live in constant fear of being abused.

Listen to Us

The #MeToo campaign across the world divided us between those in favour and those against it. It was a strong statement by some of the most advantaged working women across the world stepping out of their world of silence and speaking up about the sexual violence they faced and had to live with every day of their life. It moved the public discussion to the violence at work that women face. Many women came forward. It empowered many women. Sexual violence is the most extreme manifestation of establishing control over women but there are more insidious ways to establish this and women across the world endure these every day to survive in this hostile world.

Post 1990s, restructuring of economies has meant cuts in social spending by government, increased role of the private sector, deregulation of markets including the labour market which now after two decades has translated to minimal public investment in health, education, public distribution, social infrastructure like crèches, old age care, social security. On the other side of the coin, the labour market restructuring has meant less number of protected jobs, flexible employment contracts, including contracts that allow home based work or work from home. What these two together mean is that women are once more being pushed back to care jobs or home based jobs as the state is refusing to take responsibility. The double burden of women is being institutionalised and legitimised to keep women’s work invisible, unregulated and controlled with so-called blurred employer-employee relations. This makes imagining a collective identity for these workers difficult, this makes organising them next to impossible.

Further, as we today look at our days ahead we find women being told what they should wear, how they should look, what they should eat, who they can marry, what time they should get home, where they should work. Any departure from this legitimises violence against her. Even progressive organisations are unwilling to disturb the equilibrium as it will affect them as much as others. It is time to change and make the change effective and visible.