International Women’s Day: political crisis as windows of opportunity

6 March 2018, 1031 EST

As we prepare to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, Spanish women are getting their banners, pickets and hashtags – #yoparo (#Istop) – ready for a feminist general strike. The strike’s motto is “If we stop, the world stops” and it calls for all women to stop all professional activities during the day, all household chores and to restrain from buying anything and spending any money at all. There will also be marches at the end of the day in Spain’s main cities. The women associations who are organising the industrial action indicate that the strike is motivated by the fact that women are still doing the biggest chunk of unpaid labour, are for their most part in precarious jobs, and are paid less for the same job (from 14 to 30% less) in Spain, the glass ceiling and the ubiquitous sexual harassment. They also demand the government to put in place more and better measures for the eradication of sexual and gender-based violence. Strikers also demand public authorities to pass laws that help combat sexism in advertisement and to develop educational programs that teach children about equality and respect.  

It was the Russian feminist and Marxist Alexandra Kollontai who came up with the idea of the need to celebrate the International Women’s Day on March 8th. As the founder of the Zhenotdel or “Women’s Department” in 1919, she worked to improve the conditions of women’s lives in the Soviet Union, and saw the Women’s Day as “a link in the long, solid chain of the women’s proletarian movement. The organised army of working women grows with every year”   As a foremost champion of women’s equality like the other Marxists of her time, she opposed the ideology of liberal feminism, which she saw as bourgeois because of the exclusive focus on increasing women’s participation in all areas of political and public life. The Spanish feminist strike this year shows however how both, socio-economic rights and civil and political rights cannot be separated, and although the measures taken definitely target the economy, the aim is to obtain gender equality in all fronts.

Last month we celebrated 100 years since women obtained the right to vote in the United Kingdom. And we are not even talking about all women here: just women over 30. Celebrations for women’s universal right to vote will not take place until 2028. At the time, women were considered as incapable of having independent political opinions and even left-wing parties thought that if women were given the right to vote, they would massively support right-wing forces. It is not as if there was no precedent in women’s universal voting rights. The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893 and then Australia in 1902. In 1907, Finland became the third country to do so, and was followed by Norway and Denmark. Sweden waited until the end of the Wold War I. And although some US States allowed women to vote, the rest of the country had to wait until the 19th constitutional amendment of 1920. Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands gave women voting rights after WWII and Spanish II Republic gave women voting rights for the 1933 general elections. In Switzerland, however, women could not vote until 1971. Saudi Arabia finally gave women voting rights in 2015.

Determinants of women’s voting rights

 A comparative study indicates that Catholicism had a lot to do in preventing governments from giving women voting rights, but interestingly, there is also a correlation between giving women voting rights and having a high GDP per capita. Furthermore, women’s right to vote is associated to episodes of political instability. Indeed, women first obtained the right to vote and to participate in political life after episodes of political conflict, and from there they were able to put pressure on governments in order to obtain socio-economic rights.

First, it is evident of course that the strongest determinant of women’s suffrage were intra-state wars. It is precisely after WWI and the socio-economic context that ensued that a majority of countries established women’s suffrage. WWI reinforced the argument that women deserved voting rights. For example, even if Woodrow Wilson had opposed at the beginning to the 19th Constitutional Amendment, he changed his mind after WWI and argued that their contribution to the labour force during war needed to be compensated. Second, suffragettes organised in order to create a sense of national cohesion that could help them obtain a favourable public opinion. With the exception of some feminist-pacifist organisations, the majority of the suffragettes strategically supported their countries during WWI. For example, in the UK, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies set up an employment register so that the jobs of those who were serving could be filled by women during the war. In 1919, the NUWSS renamed itself as the National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship and focused on a campaign to equalise suffrage. At the same time, the government liberated several imprisoned suffragettes. And third, there is a norm diffusion effect amongst neighbouring countries, such as for example, from New Zealand to Australia, and from Norway to Denmark and Sweden. In sum, WWI constituted a major window of opportunity that feminist activists knew how to seize.

What is interesting here is that women’s suffrage had extensive implications in national political preferences. For example, after women could vote, public expenditure in social services became more popular and more social rights were guaranteed. Some scholars have even claimed that having women in the political arena is correlated with better labour laws for workers. Other authors claim this makes sense because having women in political institutions make it easier to pass reproductive rights laws or gender equality legislation.

What does this mean for Spanish society today?

Another window of opportunity at national and transnational level is now open. Spain has suffered from economic recession for the past 10 years. The recession has had a stronger impact on the working class and on women. Public healthcare services and funding has been cut, and social laws such as the Dependency Act passed in 2006 during the Socialist government of Zapatero to support care of dependent people has been de facto dismantled. These economic adjustments had increased the double burden of work at home and outside for women. Furthermore, the Gender Pay Gap in Spain also deteriorated in the years of the economic crisis; from 2008 to 2012 the Spanish GPG increased by 3,2 percentage points. The proposal to restrict even more abortion rights in Spain in 2014 was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. The Spanish population massively demonstrated on Spanish streets and outside its borders until the conservative government withdrew the law and Mr Gallardon, the Spanish Minister of Justice who had proposed it, resigned from his post. This victory gave strength to the Spanish feminist movement which has since then become stronger and more visible. In addition, the international context of mobilisation brought by the #metoo movement has received a lot of attention in the country, with cases of sexual abuse and murder that were before in local news and were not paid too much attention occupy now the first page and are treated as a societal issue. In sum, the feminist movement in Spain has never been stronger, and if the March 8th strike is successful in attracting a good part of the female population, we might remember the day as the beginning of the transformation of Spain towards a more egalitarian society with political, social and economic implications as big as the ones resulting from the implementation of the women’s suffrage.