Sunday, 11 March 2007

Women and Politics Today - A Short Report of Respect's Women's Conference


* Full enforcement of equal pay legislation. Fine employers who flout this legislation.

* Universal childcare in publicly funded nurseries for the full working day.

* End discrimination against women at work during pregnancy and on returning to work.

* Extend parental leave entitlements to all employees regardless of size of workforce.

* Women must be free from domestic violence. Safe accomodation should be provided where necessary.

* No sexual harrassment in the workplace.

* For a woman's right to choose.

* Mass campaigns uniting men and women to oppose sexism and fight for full equality.

In response to a resolution passed at the Respect National Conference held last year calling for a National Women's Conference to coincide with International Women's Day, Respect brought together over 100 women – and a few men – on 3rd March to discuss the position of women in Britain today, and progress on the women's rights movement on a global scale.

A diverse group of women participated in the event, and speakers ranged from journalists, academics and councillors to trade union leaders, NGO workers and leaders of the anti-war movement. It was also an historical conference because though International Women's Day was founded in 1910, in recent years it has come to be celebrated largely as an apolitical event. The Respect conference was an attempt to put politics and issues of class back into discussions around women's oppression.

The six workshops attempted to capture the most pressing issues facing women in Britain and the west today. Issues discussed ranged from the rise of raunch culture and abortion rights to Muslim women and politics, and whether women in general are able to pursue a career, have children and be actively involved in politics all at the same time. The point was made that while women now produce the majority of the wealth in the world, no woman should have to make the choice between pursuing a career or having children, or sacrificing an active political life.

Journalist Victoria Brittain helped open the session along with Lindsey German from the Stop the War Coalition, Linda Smith from the Fire Brigades Union and Rania Khan, a young Respect councillor in Tower Hamlets. Victoria discussed the idea that men are never going to relinquish power willingly, while Lindsey pointed out that the huge inequalities in society today are "not just about individual relationships to society" but rather structural inequalities. "Women got the vote on the same basis as men in 1928. Laws were passed on equal pay and sex discrimination more than 30 years ago. Yet there is still huge inequality," she said.

Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana and Eli Rostami-Povey of Action Iran introduced a powerful session on how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have set back the position of women in those countries. Haifa noted that while Iraqi women were fighting alongside men in the resistance against the British in 1922, we now have a situation where an Iraqi woman MP considers it unacceptable to speak in public. Not a particularly inspiring role model for young women in Iraq.

The National Women's Conference was welcomed by participants as the first women's conference that Respect has organised, with enthusiasm for similar forums in the future which would allow Respect women members and non-members to discuss action on the issues raised, such as developing a Respect policy on work/life balance and supporting campaigns on abortion rights. The essence of the meeting was that while there have been clear advances, women are still fighting some of the same struggles today as they were from the beginning of the women's movement. The clear message was that politics must be put back into the fight for equality and that changing society and attitudes towards women are fundamental to realising women's rights

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two Voices from the Women's Conference

Extracts from two speeches by two leading members of Respect at the Women's Conference last week

Respect candidate for London mayor 2004, National Convenor of UK Stop the War Coaliton

It’s worth recalling the roots of International Women’s Day, which is celebrated on 8 March, because nowadays it is totally depoliticised – if people celebrate it at all.

The day started in 1910 at a conference of European socialist women in Copenhagen, Denmark. The German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day under the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”

They chose the date because two years’ earlier women garment workers in New York organised a demonstration for suffrage – the right to vote. They were very young women, largely immigrants excluded from wider US society.

Many were Jewish and some didn’t speak English – yet they organised huge strikes as well as demonstrations.

Respect stands in that tradition. One of the things we stand for is bringing together people from different backgrounds, different genders, nationalities and races. Respect grew out of the great movement against the war, a movement that has always had women to the fore, especially Muslim women.

Women come to the fore every time there is a progressive movement in society. In Russia, for instance, women took the lead in the overthrow of the Tsar. Women took to the streets of Petrograd on International Women’s Day in 1917 demanding bread and an end to the First World War.

In Britain, women were to the fore in the explosion of struggle among the low paid that marked the “new unionism” of the 1890s, as well as the “great unrest” prior to the First World War, and in the explosion of struggle that rocked Britain from 1969 until 1975.


When there is reaction, women, like black people, get pushed back. A recent report from the Equal Opportunities Commission found that, at the current rate, it would take 60 years to get an equal number of women in the boardrooms of the top 100 London Stock Exchange companies.

We probably don’t care so much about these companies. But if you want equal representation in parliament for women it will take, not 40 years, but 40 general elections at the present pace.

Women in Britain got the vote on the same basis as men in 1928. Laws were passed on equal pay and sex discrimination more than 30 years ago. Yet still there is huge inequality. You cannot explain this just in terms of individual relationships – it centres on structural inequalities.

Women are oppressed, but not because they don’t apply themselves at school, or fail to get a college education, or are insufficiently assertive. We still live in a world where the bulk of the responsibility for childcare lies within the family, with the burden falling on women.

There seems to be an idea that if women put on some lipstick, then we can do whatever we want. This may be true for a tiny number of women, but the structural inequality ensures that it is not true for the vast majority of women.

In Britain women earn at best four fifths of what men earn. Part-time women workers earn around two thirds of what men earn in part-time jobs.


A nursery place costs £7,000 a year outside London and £10,000 in the capital. Many women earn scarcely more than that. If you have two children under school age, then you have to have a good job just to cover the cost of childcare. But for many women it is economically impossible to work.

This is how we got to the situation where, as a report last week showed, women with young children are 45 percent more likely to not be in work than men of the same age.

The success of a few women does not disprove that systematic oppression exists. This oppression is based on the fundamental fact that if the government and the big capitalists were to implement equal pay, a 35-hour week, and good quality free childcare, it would mean major, radical changes.

Class divisions impinge on feminism. In the 1960s, feminism – particularly in Britain – was a progressive movement, closely aligned with the struggles of working class women.

That isn’t true today. There is a lot of token talk – such as wanting women to be liberated in Afghanistan and Iraq – but there has been no attempt to deal with the real issues which affect women’s lives.

The impact of neoliberalism means women bear the brunt of worse conditions, longer hours and more shift work, while juggling work and childcare. And when you attack welfare, you attack women who largely do the work of caring for children, the elderly and the sick.

The Economist magazine last year published figures showing that women going out to work in the last two decades have contributed more to the world economy than either the development of new technology or the rise of the new industrial giants in China and India.

But no one talks about “Women – the economic miracle”.

The Economist also pointed out that if you factor in the largely unpaid childcare and housework that women do – as well as the millions of women doing unpaid agricultural work – then women produce the majority of wealth in this world.

If women produce most of the wealth in the world, this gives us a power to organise and make the possibility of women’s liberation a reality.

Respect Councillor, Tower Hamlets
& Leading activist in Bromley-and-Bow Defend Council Housing

We need a better gender balance in politics. Only 13 out of the 56 councillors in Tower Hamlets are women. I think many more women in Respect should think about where they live, how to make it better and then stand for election.

The suffragettes campaigned for votes for women through constitutional methods. Although many argue that they won over a large portion of public opinion, the movement was not gaining much ground where it mattered – in parliament.

Some women felt that they had to resort to different methods in order to attain suffrage – for example firebombing Liberal leader Lloyd George’s house and attacking Winston Churchill while he was on a golf course.

We should remember the struggles of Sylvia Pankhurst who fought for social reform. She separated herself off from the middle class women’s movement in order to fight for all.

Today women still don’t have equal pay or equal representation. Still only 5 percent of reported rapes end in a conviction. When Tony Blair says he wants to liberate Muslim women from their burqa, I don’t call that liberation. What I call liberation is when we have a choice.

Liberation would be fair pay for the work we do, more support for childcare, decent education, decent homes and a national health service for all.


I have been involved in the anti-war movement from the beginning.

I was only a teenager then and despite all the negative coverage, which I found suffocating, when they spoke I felt like I had hope again.

I have also been inspired by my mother who is also a councillor and a full time practice nurse. People say that Muslim women are timid and shy and when they get involved in politics they are used by men. Well here I am – one of the youngest female councillors in the country - and I bet I can take on any man in the world.

Tony Blair and others see Muslim women as the problem in society, so when we get involved in politics, especially in a party like Respect, we are slapping Blair across the face.

The key issue in politics is not the problems we face as representatives, but the problems faced by the women and men we represent.

Tower Hamlets has a female council leader who is proposing to abolish home care support for vulnerable people.

More carers will be straining to do these jobs for their loved ones. This burden will fall mostly on women. The budget hits the poor and the sick – and women will feel this the most.

The issue is whether our MPs and councillors serve the majority of people, or make the majority pay for the government’s wars, privatisation and subsidies for the rich.