On the streets of Petrograd a century ago, International Working Women’s Day (March 8) marked a great leap in the worldwide working class movement. With banners demanding “bread for our children,” the march of working class women ignited the 1917 February Revolution in Russia.
Organized by socialists from North America on Feb. 28, 1909, the first Women’s Day called for political rights for working women. At the Second International Conference of Working Women a year later, Clara Zetkin forwarded the organizing of International Working Women’s Day. The conference concluded that every country shall celebrate the day with the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
More than a hundred years after 1910, what is the aspiration of the working women’s day of militancy?
Women’s Day in the Philippines
“If we stop, the world stops” was the battle cry of the 5.3 million-strong women’s organizations and trade unions that protested in Spain last March 8. From the global north to south, the shouts of women resisting resonated on different rooms, streets, farmlands, rivers and seas, even in the virtual space — anywhere women were.
In the Philippines, women raised banners against the centuries-old pandemic of hunger and poverty. Majority of Filipinos remain landless agricultural workers, and women farmers carry double or triple the burden for the lack of access to and control over resources and economic opportunities. Under the neoliberal policies of the state, as in the recent rice tariffication law, land-use conversion acts, and the privatization of public utilities like water, more and more women lose land, livelihood, and life.
So, women fight. On Women’s Month and throughout the year, they take to the streets and raise the torch of justice, freedom, and equality.
However, state repression and violence eradicate every movement for genuine and radical change. In militarized areas, those who resist are threatened, harassed, and subjected to violence — including warrantless arrests and murder — from mercenary soldiers who serve the powerful and the ruling elite. Some peasant women who have been arrested on trumped-up charges were even jailed with their infants or children.
Women’s resistance and feminism — the advancing of the socio-political-economic condition of women — are vital for a just society in which resources are fairly distributed and no one is exploited, whether for her gender or her labor power.
The global capitalist system has been creating an order where millions of families live in dire poverty while only a few accumulate vast wealth. The mother who strives to feed her children, the wife who enters the economic sphere to build a better home, the woman who works to experience life — her dreams and aspirations belong not only to herself. Hence, the feminist struggle marches along with the people’s struggle. We must not forget that while individual successes are important to the revolution, it is always the collective effort of women that must be recognized and perpetuated.
The struggle of Filipinas in history
Filipina militancy is primarily rooted in the struggle on its native soil, strengthened by lessons of history not only from the local colonial and class struggle but from international solidarity as well. Filipina feminism is established on its own homegrown efforts that both construct and are reconstructed by what is popularly known as western feminism.
From the priestess Caquenga who led the Iraya in a 1607 revolt against Dominican priests in Cagayan to the nuns of the 1970s and 1980s who went to the streets to defy Martial Law and call attention to women’s issues, Filipinas have always protected their people from foreign or oppressive rule. Gabriela Silang of Abra, Teresa Magbanua of Iloilo, Agueda Kahabagan of Laguna, Nieves Fernandez of Leyte, Felipa Culala of Pampanga, Bai Bibyaon of Davao have all led resistance movements against Spanish, American, and Japanese takeover, as well as against the continuous havoc wreaked by imperialism, bureaucrat-capitalism, and feudalism in indigenous lands and communities.
Likewise, historically and quite naturally, militant women — whether they would call themselves feminists or not — come from all social classes and economic/cultural backgrounds. Many Huk guerrillas were former school teachers or farmers; among the members of Gabriela, the biggest alliance of women’s groups in the country, are workers, the urban poor, office ladies, peasants, even celebrities. As in resistance movements in the past, the women joining rallies today, or writing revolutionary songs in the mountains, or reclaiming farmlands from greedy haciendas are doing so anonymously and in massive numbers, working for the true emancipation not only of themselves but of all Filipinos.
The continuing militancy
From the colonial past to the present, powerful countries have been controlling the economic, political, and cultural life of those living in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the “global south,” majority of whom are women. And the leaders of these supposedly sovereign states, carrying their masculine stance, submit to their foreign masters. A country like the Philippines, with vast rice fields and filled with young people, imports rice and exports laborers.
History calls upon us to realize the necessity and inevitability of militant and collective efforts of women in the Philippines and abroad. By uniting the particularities and universalities of our experiences, we can create a wave-upon-wave, solid blow to the common enemy of the oppressed and exploited.
The 1910 International Working Women’s Day has brought to light the contribution of women — working women, ordinary women — to society and country. It gave birth to today’s collective militancy of women, both locally and internationally. It is the mother of modern feminism, the blood that pulsates beneath women’s movements all over the world. As the first International Working Women’s Day changed the fate of all the women, men, and children who came after it, the challenge in celebrating Women’s Day in our time is to strengthen the struggle.
The new generation of feminists remembers our mother as we give birth to a new and lasting world order.
First published in CNN Philippines