Emancipation Comes Through the Rejection of Capitalism: interview

and Amy Goodman

Posted on Znet on March 9, 2018

From Afghanistan to the Philippines to Mexico to Spain, women across the globe are taking to the streets today to mark International Women’s Day. In South Korea, International Women’s Day rallies were held in Seoul as the #MeToo movement sweeps the country. Filipino women rallied in Manila to protest the policies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Afghan women held a rare public rally in Kabul. In Kenya, African women are meeting today to discuss ending violence against women and girls with disabilities. In England, women organized a major march on Saturday to mark the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote. And in the United States, rallies are scheduled to take place across the country today. For more, we speak with Tithi Bhattacharya, associate professor of South Asian history at Purdue University. She is one of the national organizers of the International Women’s Strike.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. From Afghanistan to Philippines to Spain, women across the globe are taking to the streets today to mark International Women’s Day. Protests are also taking part across the United States We’re joined now by Tithi Bhattacharya, an associate professor of South Asian history at Purdue University in Indiana. She’s one of the national organizers of today’s International Women’s Strike here in the U.S.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back. We spoke to you last International Women’s Day. What is the International Women’s Strike in the United States, and how did it begin?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: So, thank you, Amy. It’s good to be back here, and it’s nice to be able to evaluate what has happened since last year.

So, contrary to popular imagination, International Women’s Day actually began in the United States. So, it was in 1909 that the feminist Socialist Party member Theresa Malkiel, she proposed a day, of International Working Women’s Day, for March, for the United States. And she was inspired by a spate of strikes by women in New York City in the garment industry, and a lot of them very young and immigrant women. So, Theresa Malkiel, a Socialist Party member, proposed the International Women’s Day in 1909, and then it was taken up by communists, Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz, at the Communist International in Copenhagen in 1910 and declared as the International Working Women’s Day.

So, you know, just like May Day, it’s the—as a labor struggle, it began in America, but then, over the years, because of various anti-labor and anti-socialist politics and then the Cold War in America, it really died out. I mean, International Women’s Day has been celebrated in radical circles, you know, outside of the United States always, but in the United States it was always marked by sort of Hallmark cards and, you know, flowers and things like that. That core radical, labor, working women’s element was sort of drained out of it in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did International Women’s Strike form, that you’re one of the organizers for?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: So, the International Women’s Strike was formed in the fall of 2016 by international feminists across the globe, inspired by Polish women and Argentinian women, who were basically, in Poland, striking, and huge massive rallies against the abortion ban, and, in Argentina, women protesting against the femicide and killing of girl children. And these were such massive demonstrations that for the first time, I think, feminists across the globe managed to have a conversation about violence against women and how violence against women operate not just upon women’s bodies, but also structurally and institutionally. It was an amazing coalition that was formed in the fall of 2016 to take off as an International Women’s Strike coalition in March of 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Tithi, interestingly, you just came from West Virginia—

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: I did.

AMY GOODMAN: —where this major labor victory just took place. The West Virginia teachers have won. They almost ended their strike last week, but they decided to continue when the Legislature did not comply with their demands. Talk about that strike in terms of women.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: So, like various parts of the country, 75 percent of the teachers in West Virginia are women. And because of this large number of women in the profession, the profession itself has become gendered in many, many ways. So, for instance, a lot of the schools of—West Virginia, as you know, is one of the poorest states in the nation. So, for a vast majority of children going to public school, the school hot meal is perhaps one of the only hot meals they receive during the day. So teachers have to be more than public educators. They have to make sure that the children are fed. And in a derogatory way, this is seen as care work and women’s work. So, you know, that is a sort of sexist interpretation of it.

But the core strength of it lies in the fact that because it is vast majority women and because women play a very significant role bridging the gap between the workplace, the home and the community, that when the teachers went on strike, a vast portion of the community was immediately galvanized in support of the teachers. So churches came out, community members came out, because women are not just teachers, they were mothers, they were church members, they were breadwinners in their family. So they sort of form this astonishing bridge between the workplace and the home, making visible both kinds of labor.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, it’s interesting, you had the teachers packing backpacks of food for the kids, because they get both breakfast and lunch at school. And the famous Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich tweets, “This is our dystopian welfare state: severely underpaid teachers trying to keep poverty-stricken kids alive.”

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to the pair of teachers we spoke to yesterday, one from West Virginia and another from Oklahoma, where teachers are gearing up for a potential statewide strike. These are the states—I think West Virginia is 48th in pay of the 50 states of the United States, and Oklahoma is at the bottom, 50. This is Teresa Danks from Oklahoma.

TERESA DANKS: I’m still looking at other efforts to raise money to help teachers not have to pay out of pocket, because on top of our low salaries, our high insurance and all the other problems that are happening in the classroom, teachers are paying out of pocket for everything. And it’s got—we need our classrooms funded properly so that teachers don’t have to do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Katie Endicott, what words of wisdom do you have for Teresa Danks, or experience from this, one of the longest wildcat strikes in West Virginia history?

KATIE ENDICOTT: Teresa, I can tell you that everything that you are saying, we have been saying the same thing. It feels so familiar to me to hear the situation that you are in in Oklahoma. And one of the things that we have made it very clear about here in West Virginia is that, yes, we were striking for us, but we wanted to inspire teachers all across the nation. The last chant that we had, as soon as—or the first one, as soon as we found out that we won, was “We are worthy.”

TERESA DANKS: Absolutely.

KATIE ENDICOTT: And what I would tell Oklahoma teachers and educators is that you are worthy. And you need to, like she was talking about, step out in courage.

AMY GOODMAN: So, those are the teachers from West Virginia and Oklahoma. Tithi Bhattacharya?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: So, this is just an amazing—and I don’t want to go out forward and call it a strike wave, but it feels like that. And it is—one of the things that makes it so amazing is that, as you said, they defied the Legislature, but they also defied their union. So, the union came out and asked them to accept a deal from the Legislature, and the teachers unanimously said no. And so, that was a very, very defiant act by—and it was—

AMY GOODMAN: And in Oklahoma, the teachers wanted to go out on strike, have an action on April 2nd. The union said April 23rd. The teachers thought they were missing the momentum of everything that was happening, and so the union has pushed it back to April 2nd.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Correct. So, the problem here is that the gendering of the strike is not being understood sometimes by national media. And I think we have to be very clear that this is—one, that the vast—it’s not just numerical that women are in large numbers in these strikes. It is also the fact that the governor of West Virginia recognized it as such and called all the strikers “dumb bunnies.” And so, the women decided to wear little bunny hats in order to prove that they were really not very dumb bunnies.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, International Women’s Day has become increasingly popular, is being embraced by companies, as well, like McDonald’s, which is flipping its iconic M to become a W. This is coming from a company that has a history of dealing with allegations of sexual harassment and fighting against paying a living wage. Do you consider this a victory when corporations come on board or a co-opting?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Absolute co-opting. And this is where I think the International Women’s Strike, we try to propose a very clear argument about feminism for the 99 percent, not lean-in feminism. So, this is the idea of the lean-in feminism that women’s emancipation comes through more participation in capitalism, whereas the feminist—feminism for the 99 percent, we propose that it is capitalism that causes women’s oppression and, hence, needs to be rejected. So, we do not want more CEOs in corner offices. We want to actually dismantle the system that produces CEOs.

AMY GOODMAN: And very significant that both the mayors of Barcelona and Madrid in Spain, both women, are supporting and participating in this protest today, this nationwide strike in Spain, where the manifesto is condemning capitalism, as well.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Absolutely. And, you know, I would rather be in Spain to watch the train stopdown today, but I think United States is going to be absolutely amazing today, as well. But I think the question of an anti-capitalist feminism is something we have to confront right now, because feminism, for decades of neoliberalism, has been a feminism of the Hillary Clintons and the Sheryl Sandbergs, which is basically breaking the glass ceiling while the vast majority of women are in the basement cleaning up the glass. And so, we want to be able to say that feminism, if it is going to be successful, A, has to be the real emancipation of the vast majority of women, and, B, that cannot be achieved within capitalist structures.

AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, as we wrap up, what are people doing across the United States today?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Oh, it is just going to be very, very amazing, because it is literally across the nation. So, there is going to be marches and rallies in Philadelphia, in California—in Oakland, Berkeley graduate students are doing a work stoppage. There are rallies planned in West Lafayette, Indiana, where I teach. Madison had—their local paper had an amazing letter saying the University of Madison—

AMY GOODMAN: University of Wisconsin.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Sorry, Wisconsin, in Madison, was celebrating March 8th by having a police chief speak on a panel, whereas, actually, International Women’s Day should be an anti-racist day for women of color, for trans women, etc. So, there is a consciousness here of feminism for the 99 percent, which I think is amazing. In L.A., there are marches.

But the most—one of the most significant things is Stamford, Connecticut, where Hilton workers recently—all the housekeepers at Hilton organized an union. So they unionized, and most of them are immigrant workers. And we had María Inés Orjuela speak at our New York rally for IWS. And at Stamford, Connecticut, today, all the housekeepers are coming out in support of International Women’s Strike and are going to rally. And I think that’s the kind of action we want to replicate over and over again across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tithi Bhattacharya, thank you so much for being with us. I’m glad you were able to fly in to the nor’easter from Atlanta yesterday, where you were before West Virginia, associate professor of South Asian history at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, one of the national organizers of today’s International Women’s Strike.

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