Introduction for Revolutionary Women Meeting, March 2014

by Louise Gartrel

This speech was written as an introduction to a meeting titled ‘Revolutionary Women: The Story of Rebellion’, which formed part of Scotland FRFI’s ‘Voices of Resistance’ series of events. The meeting was held on 16 March 2014 in celebration of International Women’s Day.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! has called this meeting today to pay tribute to the undeniable contributions which women have made towards the Revolution throughout history and to make the point that the struggle against imperialism and towards a society rid of oppression and exploitation must necessarily have women at the forefront. It must also be recognised that women throughout history have had to face not only oppression from the ruling-classes in terms of the effects of a capitalist system, but have also experienced the domination of, and subjugation to, male privilege within the home and throughout society. And for this, we see that women have had to face the greatest hardship and as a result shown the strongest resistance.

I will be discussing the historical and political importance of the role of women in four different parts. I will begin by outlining the crucial role of Sylvia Pankhurst in the early 1900s and the birth of organised mass political movement of women here in Britain. I will then move on to the women of the Cuban Revolution and their historically critical role in developing a socialist model of organisation. Thirdly, I will outline the resistance of Palestinian women in the face of Zionist oppression and destruction, and their consequent imprisonment. And lastly I will be addressing in what ways these battles apply to the fight here in Britain today as women lead the struggle against the cuts.

Firstly, a discussion on women’s struggle for self-emancipation and the fight against capitalist oppression must necessarily begin with the example led by the revolutionary Sylvia Pankhurst, who has too often been over-looked. Sylvia Pankhurst was an ardent campaigner for women’s right to self-determination and liberation, and is probably most recognised for her role in the Suffragette movement, although not as remembered as her ultimately reactionary sister Christabel and mother Emmeline. Sylvia began agitating for women’s right to vote around 1904 and within the context of the emerging labour movement. However at this time women’s role was predominantly within the home, as use as cheap and exploited labour, and were essentially encouraged not to partake in politics.

Sylvia’s political trajectory begins with her involvement within the women’s suffrage movement and it is here that we begin to see the initial stirrings of her development towards a more militant and radical political stance. Whilst campaigning as part of the right to vote movement, tensions began to arise within the Women’s Social and Political Union (the WSPU) in which Sylvia was involved. Unlike her comrades, Sylvia questioned the narrow bourgeois focus of this group which isolated the issue of the need for women’s right to self-determination from the greater question of justice and representation of the working-class as a whole. From the very outset, Sylvia understood the need to build a real mass working-class movement through the adoption of militant tactics, and to never limit the campaign to appeal to the liberal sentiments of the middle-class women who predominated within it. Sylvia instead sought to involve working-class women directly and to constantly encourage their engagement with the struggle, this forming the basis of her decision to move to and work largely within the East-End of London, in which the need for working-class women to organise was the greatest. It was here that she founded and become the editor of the newspaper The Women's Dreadnought, later named the Dreadnought, which reported on a variety of social issues and also took an uncompromising position on racism and the importance of class struggle.

And this is really one of the crucial aspects which we must acknowledge in Sylvia’s role from this period of history, her refusal to separate women’s liberation from the wider class struggle and her understanding that both working-class women and men must unite in order to resist against capitalist and imperialist oppression which served as the ultimate cause of their exploitation.

This political stance can be seen through Sylvia's instrumental role in the organisation of mass mobilisations on the street to reach out to working-class people and to encourage them to partake in direct action in the struggle against oppression. Sylvia organised a series of large-scale demonstrations across London at this time and according to her biographer 'there were at least 12,000 people at Wimbledon, 15,000 in Regents Park and 30,000 in Blackheath.[1]' Sylvia's committed campaigning is truly heroic when realised this was done so in a time when traditional Victorian viewpoints on the rightful place of a woman prevailed. Her role in the establishment of a real women's liberation movement and the creation of a political culture in which women's unions, federations and committees were commonplace, demonstrates how she always sought to encourage working-class women to actively voice their opinions and lead their own struggle for emancipation.

And it is this solidarity with the working-class of all nations which led Sylvia to adopt a staunch anti-war position, as she rightly understood it as an imperialist war fought with the ultimate aim of protecting interests and furthering profits. It is this internationalism which we must remember in Sylvia, at a time when the majority of women were abandoning the suffrage campaign to get behind the war effort. Sylvia sought to convince working men and women that war made profits for the rich whilst causing devastation at home. This can be seen in her uncompromising support for the Irish-struggle and for the Easter uprising, particularly at a time when the British Left and Trade Unions failed to take up their fight.

It was during the war effort that Sylvia really began to develop her Marxist position, which was hastened by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The wave of strikes and demonstrations occurring across Russia acted as an inspiration for the working-class movement in Britain, and Sylvia saw the gains the Bolsheviks were making as decisive for the struggle at home. This resulted in Sylvia becoming a leader member of a 'Hands off Russia!' committee, and drawing inspiration from the Russian fight for the creation of democracy through a complete dismantling of the old reactionary regime. In an age of social transformation, Sylvia's political consciousness grew along with her communism as she strived to make the links between international struggles in order to create a revolutionary situation here in Britain.

However, it was this honest anti-imperialist position and belief of the total destruction of capitalism which led her to view the Labour Party as ultimately destructive in the fight for socialism. Even at this time Sylvia viewed the Labour Party as reformist, as she saw that it was in their basic interest to maintain imperialism due to the fact that they preserved their privileged position by doing so. The Labour Party's support for the First World War demonstrated that they had essentially betrayed the workers of Britain as they stood by and watched millions of working-class men get slaughtered in the trenches. From here on out Sylvia knew that if there was ever going to be a revolutionary working-class movement in Britain, it was imperative that there be a decisive split from the Labour Party. And it was this assessment which truly set her aside from the mass of the British Left during this period and which marked her as a true progressive and revolutionary who has led the way for our struggle for democracy today.

And so we can see Sylvia's legacy to the women's movement in Britain is unparalleled. But if we are to draw anything from her political contribution as a feminist and socialist, is her dedication to the creation of a real working-class movement, which she believed could only be achieved through challenging imperialism at its core.

The Suffrage Movement of the early 1900s can therefore be said to be the forerunner to a period of complete social transformation in which women were being further drawn in to the political leadership of mass revolutionary movements across the world.

This leads me onto the next section on Cuba and where I will mention briefly the important and crucial role that women played in the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and their contribution to the establishment of women's rights in Cuba thereafter.

Before the Revolution, Cuba suffered like many other Latin American countries from a culture of extreme macho-ism, which was worsened by the use of Cuba as a playground for America's rich and powerful, where prostitution and the exploitation of women was commonplace. Women took on the traditional role as housewife and gender stereotypes were very much entrenched in society. Women faced illiteracy, unemployment and sexism. But these degrading and desperate situations created the conditions for the political development and mass movement of the Cuban people culminating in the 1959 Revolution.

The Revolution not only revised the whole economic framework of society, laying the ground for a socialist system but was also committed to the dismantling of the reactionary ideas and beliefs which dominated life before, paving the way for total personal and objective liberation of the Cuban people.

And fundamental to this historic task was the role that women played in Cuba's economic and social transformation. And one of the most important revolutionaries who affected this change was Vilma Espin. Vilma was a prominent organiser of the civilian resistance to the Batista dictatorship and was involved in the guerrilla war of the 1950's, fighting alongside Castro, leading to the Revolution. The participation of women like Vilma in rebel warfare and partaking in militant struggle changed the role of women in Cuba forever, as they began to be seen as equals in the fight for socialism and democracy. Other significant women who played a pivotal role in the establishment of a free Cuba were Aleida March, Celia Sanchez and Haydee Santamaria.

After the Revolution, women's lives began to be transformed socially, politically, culturally and economically, as a battle to reverse years of oppression was unleashed. The old reactionary institutions were smashed, and 'The Revolution within the Revolution' began, which is what Cuba calls the struggle for women's equality[2]. Vilma become a key member of the central committee of the Communist Party and a leading advocate for women's rights. She established the Federation of Cuban Women which ensures the promotion and implementation of legislation securing the rights of women and their equal status.

Vilma was also instrumental in leading the mass literacy programmes which were headed by mostly Cuban women and girls who attempted to tackle widespread illiteracy in 1961. Around 100,000 student teachers, most of them teenage girls, travelled throughout the country to teach millions of Cuban people to read and write. The fundamental work done by these young revolutionaries meant that Cuba has become the most literate society in the Western hemisphere[3].

In order to progress women's position in society, the Cuban's understand that employment is key: 'Today, women in Cuba are 44 percent of the labour force. They are 66.4 percent of all technicians, mid-level professionals and higher-degree professionals. They make up ‘72 percent of all education workers, 67 percent of health workers and 43 percent of all science workers'[4]. Women also possess identical rights to men in terms of equal pay, working conditions, job security, holiday entitlement, pension rights and training. The economic independence they enjoy is the result of socialist economic planning which regards women as integral to forwarding the progress of the Revolution, and not as separate.

I unfortunately do not have the space or time to go through all the gains that women have made under the Revolution but some of these include free healthcare, paid maternity and paternity leave, strict laws enforced against rape and sexual assault, free education and genuine political representation.

What can be seen through the example of Cuba is that women have made enormous gains through the re-organisation of society which places emphasis on the equality of men and women, and the right to free healthcare, housing, education and employment. From the outset of the Revolution women were leading forces in the creation of this new system and played a pivotal role in forwarding women's right and gender equality. Through transforming the economic foundations of society and the fundamental material conditions which lent itself to women's oppression, sexism and exploitation are constantly in the process of being further eradicated. The women of Cuba have demonstrated that through creating a society based people's needs rather than profit, women can make great gains in their daily life and experience true liberation. And it is due to the revolutionary example of the women who led the struggle against fascism in the '50s and the strong women of Cuba today that this has been achieved.

This leads us on to discuss the revolutionary role of Palestinian women in the struggle for freedom and the battles they have fought in the face of constant threat and domination from Israeli military forces. But before we continue, a fundamental point must be recognised about the specific nature of the position of Palestinian women. This quote is taken from a research report written in 1973 titled the ‘Struggle of Palestinian Women’. It states: ‘The role of Palestinian women historically has been organically linked to the development of the Palestine Question. The activity of Palestinian women, be it social or political, can best be understood in the context of their national struggle...they've not fought for their liberation in isolation from the overall Palestinian struggle for national liberation; on the contrary, through it they have been able to tear down many of the barriers of traditionalism and conservatism that commonly obstruct women in their progress toward total emancipation’[5].

And really this expresses a key element to the political position of Palestinian women- that their struggle for self-liberation and equality cannot be regarded as separate from the total question of self-determination for the Palestinian people as a nation.

Instead of viewing Palestinian women as passive victims of patriarchy and male domination within the family, we must see their political development as the result of the conscious decision to challenge their true oppressors, the colonial and imperialist forces, leading to their decision to fight alongside men in the fight for freedom. And this has been expressed in a quote taken from a female militant activist: 'If colonizers succeed in keeping women away from lining up at battle side by side with men, they achieve victory even before battle has started.[6]'

Palestinian women have faced daily struggles throughout history; from seeing their homes destroyed by the state and settlers, experiencing degradation and humiliation from the Israeli Defence Forces, constant monitoring and restriction of movement and removal of their land. Faced with these challenges Palestinian women have been drawn into the liberation movement where their revolutionary role has become essential in challenging this oppression.

Women’s participation in the national struggle began in the early 1920s when they started to join national resistance organisations. Within these organisations women came to be responsible for a variety of different political roles and importantly, armed struggle. During the Revolution of 1936 women were key to the transportation and hiding of weapons, however it was really after 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza that women adopted a public political face and began partaking in all areas of the struggle, including military struggle, with many women joining female militia units of the Palestinian Revolution. One such famous revolutionary is Laila Khalid who in the 1960s became an active member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and is known for her militant role in the organisation in this era. However just like their male comrades at this time, women were faced with violent aggression from Israeli military forces, resulting in both short and long-term prison sentences.

Therefore we can see that the 1967 Six Day War acted as pivotal in increasing Palestinian women's involvement in the liberation movement, as they began to form spontaneous political groups to counter the destruction of their communities. This mobilisation involved setting up methods of distributing much needed food and clothing to those in the occupied territories, all done in secret from Israeli government and military forces. They also reacted by creating popular social organisations and providing material assistance for people within the community, nursing and also helping those whose male family members were imprisoned. But women's role also extended to the cultural, ideological and economic areas, and not merely the social, as women began to create women's unions, associations, political committees and syndicates and there was also advancement in women attaining professional employment.

However we can truly see the impact of female participation in the liberation movement through their organised and militant mobilisation on the streets against imperialist Zionist aggression. In the 1960s Palestinian women began to take to the streets en masse to protest against political imprisonment and Israeli attacks on the Gaza strip, and partaking in general anti-Israeli agitation. This was met with extreme brutality from Zionist forces, an example: 'In January 1969, large numbers of Palestinian women staged a sit-in strike in front of Israeli prisons and detention centres demanding the release of their imprisoned husbands, brothers, and sons. In response, the Israeli authorities fired on them, killing and wounding many’[7]. In fact in the Gaza area alone; 65 women died resisting the occupation between 1967 and 1970 and at one time the women's prison in Nablus contained more than 500 political prisoners aged 14-16[8].

However the use of detention is a very significant political point, because although female prisoners are still forced to this day to endure horrific and degrading treatment, the prison system is where Palestinian women in many cases have been able to organise and strengthen politically. Like the political leadership which was cemented by the imprisonment of their male comrades, Palestinian women have been able to resist the brutality of detention by actively forming systems of resistance within prison walls. This has taken the form of working committees, education programmes, and also hunger strikes, where women have developed their leadership skills always with the cause of forwarding the Revolution. The fact that women have been able to overcome the trauma and torture inflicted on them to form organised and effective political movements within prison, is a testimony to their true, brave and revolutionary spirit.

And so this brings me to the concluding section of my talk- how do these struggles apply to women in Britain today and their fight against racism, exploitation and imperialism.

As the capitalist crisis deepens in Britain it is women who face the brunt of cuts to social services and welfare. In times of crisis history repeats a familiar pattern as women are always the first to be pushed out of the labour market and required to take up free domestic labour in the home and community. This can be seen clearly today, as local councils continue to shutdown day-care centres for children, nurseries and make cuts to family planning clinics also. These actions violently undermine women's material position, as they are forced into poverty, unable to provide for their families, and must suffer cuts to welfare benefit and severe benefit sanctions.

But it is these violent and desperate conditions that have forced working-class women to confront the causes of their exploitation and to challenge it out of sheer necessity. Just like the women of Palestine who have been drawn into the struggle for liberation in reaction to daily Zionist oppression, women here are making the links between their worsening position while understanding that the rich only get richer and banks continue to get bailed out.

This can no more clearly be demonstrated than through the E15 mothers campaign which emerged last year in East London. This campaign led by a collection of determined and resilient young working-class women was formed in reaction to the threat of eviction from their homes in a mother and baby unit which forms part of a hostel for young people. As the campaign has grown and gained more and more support, the working-class women have become radicalised as they are confronted with hostility and incompetency from the local Labour council and its leaders. What began as a campaign to save vulnerable mothers from being re-housed into private accommodation out with London, has resulted in a campaign which calls for an end to the removal of social housing as a whole and to make a stand against the violent attacks being thrown at the working-class from all areas. These women are a true inspiration in the struggle for justice, as they are actively leading a successful, political campaign which is calling for the preservation of women's basic right to secure housing and childcare.

And this response to the implementation of austerity measures can be seen across the country as it is women who have been the ones leading campaigns against closures of schools, day-care centres, against Atos and also the bedroom tax. What can be understood from this, is that it is the most oppressed sections of the working-class which will be at the forefront of leading resistance against attacks on living standards and basic human rights.

New forms of organisation such as these give us hope for the role of women in the fight for democracy and ultimately socialism in the future. And this is essentially the argument which I have attempted to demonstrate in this talk, that without a struggle against capitalism and imperialism and linking our struggles here to those abroad, women will never be liberated. The legacy of these powerful and revolutionary women throughout history from Pankhurst, Khalid, Espin, the mothers of E15, and not least the revolutionary women of the Black Panther Party and the women of Ireland, have demonstrated that women's fight for emancipation cannot be separated from the struggle of the working-class against oppression as a whole. Only through drawing on the crucial feminist, anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics of these women and understanding the sacrifices they have made to achieve justice, democracy and equality, can we continue the fight here today.

[1] Connelly, Katherine (2013) Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire Pluto Press

[2] PSL ‘The revolutionary role of women in Cuba’    

[3] PSL ‘The revolutionary role of women in Cuba’    

[4]   PSL ‘The revolutionary role of women in Cuba’    

[5] The struggle of Palestinian Women (1973) Palestine National Assembly Research Centre Palestine Liberation Organization

[6] Alian, Ittaf, ‘Female Prisoners and the Struggle: A Personal Testimony’ Threat: Palestinian Political Prisoners in Israel (2011) Pluto Press

[7] The struggle of Palestinian Women (1973) Palestine National Assembly Research Centre Palestine Liberation Organization

[8] The struggle of Palestinian Women (1973) Palestine National Assembly Research , Palestine Liberation Organization