International Women’s Day: Inspiring Women for the 21st Century

russian womens poster

For the sisters, mothers, friends and lovers

Who would not accept defeat

Who’ve been cut by broken promises

Been pounded by deceit

And still hold out for justice

Against brutality…….

Hitting Home by Claire Mooney  from her CD Slow Riot 1997

Clara zetkinluise zietz

On International Women’s Day 2013 I would like to dedicate this post to three women whom I think live up to the spirit of this day. International Women’s Day was proposed by two German socialist women, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin, at the Socialist Womens conference in 1910 and was first celebrated on 19 March 1911.

It was organised by word of mouth and debates took place about the role of women and their right to vote. It was a very successful day. Across the country meetings were organised in small towns as well as big cities. So many women attended that the men had to give way to the women and looked after the children, whilst the women went to the meetings. Over 30,000 women attended a street demonstration and, when the police tried to take the women’s banners, the women fought back.

Clara Zetkin believed that it was only working class women and men campaigning together who could change society and bring freedom and equality to all people.

In 2013 life can be really depressing and, even for those of us who have always been active in some kind of political struggle, we need inspiration to continue to oppose the attacks being made on our public services and our way of life. Here are three women who have led lives devoted to opposing injustice and inequality. They are ordinary women who led (or are still leading) extraordinary lives. They show that we can all make a difference to society – but we can only do it if we get together with other women and men. Happy International Women’s Day!

Hannah Mitchell

Hannah Mitchell

Hannah Mitchell

She was born on 11 February 1871, one of six children, on a remote farm in Derbyshire. Clashing with her mother, who stopped Hannah from going to school, she left home at 14 years to start a life of domestic service. Fortunately her employer had a good library which she devoured. Domestic work was not for her and, because she had good sewing skills, she left and went to work as a seamstress.

Hannah’s working life taught her many lessons about the limited opportunities for young working class women, the slavery of service – both domestic and factory – and the low wages which meant she often went without meals. But her new freedom did allow her to choose her own friends, develop her education through reading and begin a career in radical politics.

Hannah’s move to Bolton changed her life. She met Gibbon Mitchell, a tailor, member of the Fabian Society and founder member of the ILP. Together they pursued their politics, and Gibbon supported her in her fight for women’s right to vote in the years from the end of the 19th Century to the First World War.

Hannah, Gibbon and their son moved to Elizabeth Street in Ashton-under-Lyne where she began her life’s work;
It seems to me now, looking back, that all my previous life had been a preparation for this great experience. While indirectly it caused me much sorrow, it brought me many contacts which have immeasurably enriched my life.

Hannah became involved with the Pankhursts, the Women’s Social and Political Union and the Suffragettes. She was a good speaker, who wasn’t put off by hecklers or the violent behaviour of a minority of people who attended her meetings. She was employed as an activist and organiser for the WSPU, which involved everything from speaking at parliamentary by-elections to organising campaigns and going to prison.

The intensity of the work led to Hannah having a nervous breakdown and having to withdraw from the campaign whilst she recovered.

Hannah’s belief in pacifism meant that she broke from the Pankhursts over their support for the First World War. The years following the war saw the victory of the campaign for the vote. Hannah and Gibbon continued their political life in the ILP and in 1924 she was elected to Manchester City Council.

As a councillor she worked hard to improve the lives of working class women including building a local wash house where women who did not have bathrooms or wash-house facilities could use.

After retiring from the council in 1935 she continued to speak at womens’ meetings and the Co-operative Womens Guild. Hannah had always wanted to write and now she had the time and wrote stories about everyday life which were published in Labour’s Northern Voice.

Before she died in 1956 she wrote her lifestory: The Hard Way Up; the autobiography of Hannah Mitchell, Suffragette and Rebel which was not published until 1968.To buy it see

Bernadette Devlin McAliskey

Bernadette Devlin, 1969

Bernadette Devlin, 1969

She was born 23 April 1947 in Cookstown, County Tyrone, in the Six Counties of Northern Ireland, one of six children. Her father was a carpenter who couldn’t find work in Northern Ireland, so he lived, worked and sadly died in England, aged just 46. Her mother died at the same age and Bernadette became the legal guardian for her 15 year old brother, whilst she was a student at Queen’s University in Belfast.

She said about her life:
If it hadn’t been for the fact that I had an essentially Christian background from my mother,poverty would have made me bitter rather than socialist, and what I know of politics would have made me mad Republican.

From The Price of My Soul by  Bernadette Devlin,  1969

In 1968 Bernadette became involved with the growing Civil Rights Movement in the Six Counties, a movement that called for the right to vote, fair electoral boundaries, freedom of speech and assembly, repeal of the Special Powers Act and a fair allocation of jobs and houses. It was part of a world-wide protest movement of massive anti-war Vietnam marches , workers and students striking and rioting in France and sit-ins in Universities across Britain.

The reaction of the Royal Ulster Constabularly to the marches organised by the CRM was to violently attack the demonstrators. This galvanised the movement and within twelve months sent tremors through the Northern Ireland government and the Labour Government in Westminster.

Bernadette and her student comrades set up their own organisation, Peoples Democracy, which went on to organise more marches and leafleting. She became one of the leading figures.

In April 1969 Bernadette was elected to the House of Commons at the age of 21 years and was the youngest woman MP. She stayed as an MP until 1974.

Being an MP did not stop her political activity, she took part in the Battle of the Bogside when the residents, faced with loyalist marchers and a sectarian RUC, defended their area for three days until the British government intervened and replaced the RUC with the British Army.

Bernadette was convicted of incitement to riot and served a prison sentence. In 1971 she had her daughter Roisin and two years later she married Michael McAliskey.

Over the years she has been involved in various left organisations, including Irish Republican Socialist Party. During the Hunger Strikes in 1981 she stood as an independent candidate and she was a leading spokesperson for the Smash the H-Block Campaign. In January 1981 Ulster Freedom Fighters shot her and her husband in front of their children, despite a secret British Army surveillance on their house. Three people were arrested and jailed for the attempted murder.

Bernadette was, and remains critical, of the Good Friday Agreement and the creation of the power sharing executive in Northern Ireland. Her views have not changed, and history has shown that the power still lies with Britain. She believes that only a socialist republic can deliver justice and equality to all the peoples in Ireland.

In January this year she spoke at the 41st anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On that day in 1972 13 innocent people were killed by British soldiers in Derry. The Saville Inquiry confirmed this, but the report failed to expose or even attempt to explain, the role of Edward Heath’s Tory government and British army chiefs in the events of Bloody Sunday and the subsequent cover-up. In her speech Bernadette linked Bloody Sunday with the Miners’ Strike in 84-5, and the Hillsborough campaign, other tragedies where the Government have consistently covered up the truth, and the families and supporters have had to campaign for years to prove the innocence of their children or friends. She also confirmed her lifelong view of politics: that it is only when people get together to oppose injustice that they will produce a better society.

Let’s look at the endurance of the families who have held this fight. Let’s look at the endurance of Marian Price and Martin Corey and the others and let’s say to ourselves: we have got to get a political programme together here and get the struggle for civil rights, political rights, social rights and economic rights together or we are in, comrades and colleagues, for one hell of a hiding.
To read the full speech go to

Bernadette McAliskey Photo by Stephen Latimer

Bernadette McAliskey Photo by Stephen Latimer

 

Selma James

Selma at the recent disabled peoples protest

Selma at the recent disabled peoples protest

She was born 15 August 1930 in Brooklyn, New York. She worked in factories and then became a housewife and mother. At 22 years she wrote A Woman’s Place and became a regular columnist in Correspondence, a newspaper written by its readers with pages dedicated to women, black people and young people. She said about A Woman’s Place:

When the pamphlet was published I took it into work with me and sold a few copies to the women I knew in the factory. ……It was entirely new then for the opinions of a working class woman, especially a housewife to be published, even by a socialist organisation.

In 1955 she married CLR James who had been deported from England during the McCarthy period. Not just a married couple, they were close political allies for over 25 years.

From 1958 to 1962 she lived in Trinidad with CLR James and they were active in the West Indian movement for independence, after which they returned to England. Selma became the first organising secretary of the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in 1965 and also founded the Black Regional Action Movement and was editor of its journal in 1969.

In 1972 she founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign and in 2000 Selma launched the Global Women’s Strike, which called for investment in caring not killing.
global womens strike

She coined the word “unwaged” to describe the caring work women do, and it has since entered the English language to describe all who work without wages on the land, in the home, and in the community. Selma has made visible the struggles of some of the most vulnerable groups, including sex workers and drawn the connections between them and all other workers. She recounts this campaign in her book Hookers in the House of the Lord (1983).

Selma has been active in politics for over forty years. Her writings are grounded in her own activism and she understands that for many people not winning has been their experience, but she draws courage from her understanding of history;
Information and understanding of how and where we resist and rebel are the basis on which we build our determination to win and our confidence that we will win.

Today her articles and books are being read by a new audience of activists.Her most recent book is Sex, Race and Class.

Selma spoke at the Occupy London Stock Exchange in November 2011:

All power to the 99% is a most anti-racist twenty first century statement. To highlight the 99% versus the 1% is to expose the basic hierarchy in society. It stakes a claim that almost all of us, waged and unwaged, belong together.

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About lipstick socialist

I am an activist and writer. My interests include women, class, culture and history. From an Irish in Britain background I am a republican and socialist. All my life I have been involved in community and trade union politics and I believe it is only through grass roots politics that we will get a better society. This is reflected in my writing, in my book Northern ReSisters Conversations with Radical Women and my involvement in the Mary Quaile Club. I am a member of the Manchester and Salford National Union of Journalists.If you want to contact me please use my gmail which is lipsticksocialist636
This entry was posted in feminism, International Women's Day, labour history, North of Ireland, political women, Socialism, Socialist Feminism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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