South of the River – on International Women’s Day

Compass-SouthNow I’m not a woman, but I do celebrate International Women’s Day, which is today. And I prefer it to Mothers Day, or Mothering Sunday as it was called when I grew up, which falls on Sunday.

My mother was a feminist, the first in her family to go to university. This was in Australia in the 1930s. She was also in the Land Army, but that’s another story. She travelled around the world before the jet age with small children in tow. She was wonderfully independent. Most importantly she had a strong sense that everyone deserved to be treated equally and fought for social justice in many ways throughout her life.

Her sense of equality meant I had to learn cook, wash up and clean just like my sisters. I’m very grateful for learning these skills at an early age. She was a Christian too so we did observe Mothering Sunday, but not Father’s Day – that was just an American invention to boost the card trade according to her.

Not surprisingly, my sisters are feminists and my Other Half is a feminist. I’ve always been happy to do my share of the housework and as I am currently a househusband, I’ve taken over the lion’s share of the housework.

In my working life I’ve had male managers and female managers. Some were better than others, but that had nothing to do their gender.

So, back to International Women’s Day. Its exact origins are disputed but it started in the years before the First World War. In my mind I always associate it with the textile workers strike in Lawrence, New York in 1912. The workforce were mostly women and immigrants and the strike became know as the Bread And Roses Strike, after their slogan “We want bread and we want roses too”.

The topic of bread, or lack of it came up again five years later when women organised a protest march in Petrograd on International Women’s Day. The male comrades urged caution, but luckily the women ignored them and went ahead. The protest grew into the February Revolution and toppled the Tsar in Russia.

When women started fighting back they had to take on a raft of issues all at once. Whether it was the Victorian “Matchgirls” at Bryant & May or the Leeds Textile strike in the early 1970s. They had to convince their male dominated union that this was a good idea or even possible.

During the miners strike we saw the birth of Women Against Pit Closures. They started with “women’s work” organising the soup kitchens. But then they started going on the demonstrations and challenging the sexist attitudes of their menfolk. Like World War Two when women went into the factories to build the tanks and planes, the Miners Strike was total war, so the men couldn’t afford to disrespect women. Attitudes changes.

When I look around the world it seems women are so often at the forefront of real change.

Take the AIDS epidemic in Africa. For whatever reasons, men just can’t seem to take responsibility. For women it’s a much bigger issue than the immediate act, perhaps it’s because they will be left holding the baby – literally. The same seems to be true about bringing clean water to a village, or starting a micro-business in Bangladesh. Is it about motherhood? I’m not sure, but women seem to get the bigger picture about collective effort and thinking ahead to the next generation.

I can understand why powerful men might fear women’s equality, I’m sure they fear any equality. But I don’t understand why ordinary blokes like you and me should fear it. The issue came up again during an otherwise very good piece on Newsnight this week about the rise in men’s suicides. Was this because of feminism? What? No! I think unemployment, debt and being told you should be providing and be in control might have more to do with it. And Surely men are more likely to find the space to talk about the stress they’re under thanks to better counselling facilities fought for by women.

Jeremy MortonThere are lots of events going on today, so if you’re female take some time out and go along. I shall celebrate by watching Made In Dagenham on Saturday night which tells the story of the women at Ford who led a successful battle for equal pay in 1968.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’ve got nothing better to do and you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

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3 Replies to “South of the River – on International Women’s Day”

  1. Interesting piece – I studied American history but didn’t know about bread and roses…

    I do think increasing male suicide does have a relationship to feminism in that men who are not neanderthal are struggling to find what their role is. As you say, many men think they should be in control of things – you don’t wipe out millennia of genetical inheritance just like that – and struggle to establish what being a man means in a culture of equality and roles not defined by gender. I am still amazed at the number of men who are unwilling to discuss their feelings… I’m guessing but I suspect that proportionately male suicide is more prevalent today than in the Thirties when unemployment and poverty were worse than today

  2. Had a great IWD. Feminist Archive North (FAN) put on a fascinating exhibition of the gradual progress of women into careers as engineers and scientists and the feminist campaigns that made this possible, with very entertaining guided tours by former engineer, teacher and artist Lynette Willoughby. (Lynette and others are currently Artists in Residence at Armley Mills Museum). This was at Leeds University. FAN is an independent charitable trust with a massive collection of material from the Women’s Liberation Movement, late 1960s onwards: newsletters, magazines, leaflets, personal letters, posters, badges, T-shirts, dissertations, conference papers, photos…..The exhibition was brilliant and deserves more than one day in a library. Next year, Leeds City College, Technology Campus, perhaps? We shall see.

    After giving a presentation about FAN in the afternoon, I went along to the TUC in Town Centre House, Merrion Centre. During the day, Middleton Park Councillor Kim Groves had spoken on how the government’s programme of austerity and the cuts are particularly affecting women. (I often wonder, does this govt deliberately want to push women out of work into a 1950’s style dependency on men in the family, or do they just not notice the probable effect of their policies? Both are possible). The wonderful Free Range choir, which includes former Cllr Geoff Driver and Helen King from Asha (sorry if I’ve missed out any other South Leeds singers), sang and led a sing-a-long of Ethel Smyth’s stirring Suffragette anthem, followed by Wathint’ abafazi, Wathint’ imbokodo (When you strike the women, You have struck a rock – you will be crushed – beware) which was sung by 20,000 women of all backgrounds in 1956 when they marched on government buildings in Pretoria against the pass laws, organised by the Federation of South African Women.

    Feminists cause male suicides? Sounds like the the infamous “feminists cause traffic jams” to me (rationale: feminists leave their male partners, there are more households all wanting their own cars, therefore…..).

  3. Al

    Okay, can’t resist the bait!

    I’m pretty sure that the change in traditional male roles which, in part, can be ascribed to feminism has been a factor in the increase in male suicide. I don’t think this is the same as saying as ‘Feminists cause male suicides’ or even that ‘Feminism causes male suicides’. The reasons for suicides – as far as anyone can understand them – are many and complex but a loss of meaningful purpose/role is clearly a factor and I think that is something that is affecting some men in our society and is connected, in part to feminism. This doesn’t make feminism a bad thing. A lot of good things have some consequences which may not all be positive. This is not saying feminism is to blame or responsible for it – the person responsible for any suicide is the person who commits suicide.

    For what it’s worth I think feminism is in the interests of both women and men but that the adjustments in thinking and culture will take some time to digest. Of course, more women driving cars is a factor in increased traffic and traffic jams but that’s not the same as saying feminism is to blame for it!

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