The funny thing is that this message applies to every single capitalist country in the world with the exception of Cuba and Venezuela who find themselves in a transitionary period from capitalism to Socialism.
— Lenin, on the significance of militant materialism
— Lenin, on the significance of militant materialism
Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.
But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.
But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organized.
Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.
Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the U.S.A. organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first “Woman’s Day”. The initiative on organizing a woman’s day thus belongs to the working women of America.
In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin  brought forward the question of organizing an International Working Women’s Day. The conference decided that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day a “Women’s Day” under the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”.
During these years, the question of making parliament more democratic, i.e., of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women, was a vital issue. Even before the first world war, the workers had the right to vote in all bourgeois countries except Russia.  Only women, along with the insane, remained without these rights. Yet, at the same time, the harsh reality of capitalism demanded the participation of women in the country’s economy. Every year there was an increase in the number of women who had to work in the factories and workshops, or as servants and charwomen. Women worked alongside men and the wealth of the country was created by their hands. But women remained without the vote.
But in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. “Housewives uprisings” became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany.
The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.
It was decided to have a Woman’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under the banner of socialism.
The decision taken at the Second International Congress of Socialist Women was not left on paper. It was decided to hold the first International Women’s Day on the 19th of March, 1911.
This date was not chosen at random. Our German comrades picked the day because of its historic importance for the German proletariat. On the 19th of March in the year of 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.
After January 11, efforts were made in Germany and Austria to prepare for Women’s Day. They made known the plans for a demonstration both by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before Women’s Day two journals appeared: The Vote for Women in Germany and Women’s Day in Austria. The various articles devoted to Women’s Day – “Women and Parliament,” “The Working Women and Municipal Affairs,” “What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?”, etc. – analyzed thoroughly the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All the articles emphasized the same point: that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.
The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911. Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.
This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.
In 1913 International Women’s Day was transferred to the 8th of March. This day has remained the working women’s day of militancy.
Women’s Day in America and Europe had amazing results. It’s true that not a single bourgeois parliament thought of making concessions to the workers or of responding to the women’s demands. For at that time, the bourgeoisie was not threatened by a socialist revolution.
But Women’s Day did achieve something. It turned out above all to be an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters. They could not help but turn their attention to the meetings, demonstrations, posters, pamphlets and newspapers that were devoted to Women’s Day. Even the politically backward working woman thought to herself: “This is our day, the festival for working women,” and she hurried to the meetings and demonstrations. After each Working Women’s Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. Organizations improved and political consciousness developed.
Women’s Day served yet another function; it strengthened the international solidarity of the workers. The parties in different countries usually exchange speakers for this occasion: German comrades go to England, English comrades go to Holland, etc. The international cohesion of the working class has become strong and firm and this means that the fighting strength of the proletariat as a whole has grown.
These are the results of working women’s day of militancy. The day of working women’s militancy helps increase the consciousness and organization of proletarian women. And this means that its contribution is essential to the success of those fighting for a better future for the working class.
HAVANA — Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women “is an extraordinarily interesting and unusual book,” said Isabel Monal at the launching of the new Spanish-language edition of this book by Pathfinder Press at the Havana International Book Fair. Monal, a well-known writer and editor of the magazine Marx Ahora (Marx now), began her long history of revolutionary activity as part of the underground struggle against the Batista dictatorship in the 1950s.
“The connection between Marxism and cosmetics might be considered something unusual,” said Monal, “and I think that as the book gets around, some people are going to ask, ‘What does all this have to do with today?’” But it has everything to do with today, she said.
The panel of speakers, which also included Martín Koppel, speaking on behalf of Pathfinder Press, discussed the book’s explanation of how the owners of the cosmetics industry in the capitalist world exploit the economic and sexual insecurities of women to sell their products and boost their profits.
The presentation of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women was held Feb. 15 at an open-air patio of the Cuba Pavilion, a popular cultural center in the heart of Havana. The pavilion was bustling with families buying books and cotton candy for their children. Fairgoers flocked to attend poetry readings, photo exhibits and plays.
The book launch was chaired by Isabel Moya, director of Editorial de la Mujer, the publishing house of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC). Moya had spoken here three years earlier at the presentation of the first Spanish-language translation of the book, released by the Cuban publishing house Ciencias Sociales. The new Pathfinder edition includes Moya’s remarks at the 2011 presentation.
Among the dozens in the audience were members of the Federation of Cuban Women and others who had come for the event. Many others who had been passing through the pavilion or were waiting for another program to start, sat down to listen.
Moya introduced the two panelists and Mary-Alice Waters, one of the book’s authors, its editor, and president of Pathfinder Press as well as a member of the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party.
Monal said it was a pleasure to present a book by Pathfinder, “which has a long history of struggle.” Those who produce and distribute Pathfinder books, she said, “have never lowered their banners.”
As a young supporter of the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro, Monal was arrested and jailed, first in Cuba and later briefly in the United States while transporting guns to the revolutionary forces in Cuba — just as the Batista dictatorship was overthrown on Jan. 1, 1959.
Over the years she has been one of the staunchest defenders of Marxism in Cuba, teaching philosophy at the University of Havana and working as chair of Marxist Studies at the Philosophy Institute.
Monal is well known for insisting on studying Marx and Engels themselves, as opposed to the falsifications of Marx and Engels found in textbooks that came from the former Soviet Union.
A popular introduction to Marxism
“The publication of this book could not be more timely,” said Koppel. He pointed to the waves of strikes and demonstrations in Cambodia and Bangladesh in recent months by hundreds of thousands of mostly women garment workers fighting for an increase in the minimum wage and against brutal job conditions, as well as protests in India by thousands of women against gang rapes.
“Millions of workers who are women are joining class battles, gaining consciousness and confidence to fight, including against their second-class status,” he said.
Koppel noted that Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women is, among other things, a popular introduction to Karl Marx’s Capital, “one of the best books we can read to help us understand women’s oppression and the fight to end it.”
The book was born in 1954, when Militant editor Joseph Hansen, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, wrote a humorous article deriding an advertising campaign by the U.S. capitalist “merchants of beauty” who were seeking to revive sagging profits at a time of economic recession, when women were spending less on cosmetics. The owners of the cosmetics companies were trying to convince women “that they simply had to have some new product in order to be happy and compete successfully with other women for a job and for a man,” Koppel said.
Hansen’s piece sparked a debate among Militant readers, including some who accused the author of ridiculing working-class women and of criticizing their “right” to use cosmetics and to seek “some loveliness and beauty in their lives.”
In several articles reprinted in the book, Hansen and Evelyn Reed respond to these critics. They explain how in our class-divided society the capitalist ruling class imposes on working people the standards of what is deemed beautiful and moral.
In the new edition, Moya notes how the capitalist rulers “get the exploited classes to internalize views about female beauty that the ruling powers themselves developed, and how, at the same time, obeying this cultural dictate is required for [women] entering the labor market.”
Capitalist production transforms commodities into objects endowed with remarkable powers, Monal explained — what Marx called commodity fetishism. “Things that man himself created come to dominate us,” she said, including cosmetics and fashions.
“It’s normal for cosmetics to exist — they’ve been around for millennia,” she noted. But under capitalism, “they have become a means of influencing our thinking, a means of domination” by the owners of capital.
The pressures derived from the norms of beauty dictated by the ruling class “weigh heaviest on women,” said Monal. The capitalists manipulate “the normal fact of sexual desire among human beings” to reinforce women’s subordinate status, trying to convince them that they will not succeed without buying this or that product.
Quoting the preface by Waters, Koppel added that on an international scale, “the siren song of commodity fetishism is an imperialist weapon like none other” against the peoples of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Among the targets of this offensive is Cuba, which is “incessantly bombarded by the cynical promotion of ‘demand’ for must-have brand name products of capitalist industry.”
A class question
Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women explains that these questions can only be understood as class questions. The subordinate status of women began only with the rise of class-divided society. “Understanding that women were not always an oppressed sex helps us understand that they will not always remain so,” Koppel said.
Eliminating women’s second-class status, however, will only become possible through “a revolutionary struggle by workers and farmers to take state power and overturn capitalist rule.”
Koppel pointed to the example of Cuba’s socialist revolution and the political clarity of its leadership, Fidel Castro above all. By breaking the domination of capitalist commodity production and massively drawing women into political activity and into productive labor outside the home, the revolution has opened the door to get rid of the economic foundations of women’s oppression, he said.
Following the presentation, participants bought close to 100 Pathfinder books on revolutionary politics, including some 40 copies of Cosmetics, Fashions, and the Exploitation of Women.
— bell hooks (via theeducatedfieldnegro)
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