Abayomi Azikiwe, PANW editor, second from left, at anti-war forum in Windsor, Canada on March 17, 2007. He was joined by Andrea Egypt of MECAWI on his right, Margaret on far right and Enver on left of the Windsor Peace Coalition., a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Socialism, Pan-Africanism and International Women’s Day
A century of struggle to eliminate discrimination and exploitation
By Abayomi Azikiwe
Editor, Pan-African News Wire
March 8, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of International Women’s Day. In recent years, as a result of the escalation of the struggles of women for equality and empowerment, the entire month of March has been designated as International Working Women’s Month.
This holiday in recognition of the social status, accomplishments and contributions of women throughout history, was initiated in Europe during the early years of the 20th century. The overall conditions for women in Europe were abysmal during the period of the rise of industrial capitalism.
In 1869 the former British Member of Parliament, John Stuart Mill, became the first western politician to advocate the right of women to vote. Later in 1893 in New Zealand, the settler-colony in the South Pacific became the first country to allow women to vote, although they were not eligible to run for the House of Representatives until 1919.
The indigenous Maori women in New Zealand played a significant role in the suffragist movement and when the male-dominated parliament attempted to divide the struggle for the vote along racial lines, the European advocates for women’s right to vote stood up in support of the indigenous women which granted them suffrage as well. It would not be until 1949 that a Maori woman would hold office in New Zealand.
Efforts to secure the vote on the part of women in the United States would not result in victory on a national level until 1920 when a constitutional amendment was passed. African American women played an instrumental role in the struggle for voting rights going back to the period of slavery and after the civil war.
In the United States, the problems of national oppression after the conclusion of the civil war and slavery would hamper the movement towards women’s right to vote. During the period of Reconstruction in the South, where most Africans resided, women were not allowed to vote, although African men were granted this right for a period of time in the latter decades of the 19th century.
Nonetheless, African women through their mass organizations and social clubs were strong advocates against lynchings that plagued the South and other parts of the country beginning after the Reconstruction period. Ida B. Wells-Barnett would be a tireless writer and spokesperson in the anti-lynching campaign and intervened on numerous occasions in defense of men who were victims of racist violence.
This anti-lynching campaign was accompanied oftentimes with efforts aimed at securing the right to vote for all African Americans. Eventually in 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed during the apex of the Civil Rights Movement that was initiated by the actions of an African America woman, Mrs. Rosa Parks, in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955, when she refused to accept the racist policies of segregation operating in the public transport systems in the South.
Socialism and Women’s Rights
In a book entitled, “The Emancipation of Women,” which is taken from the writings of V.I. Lenin, Clara Zetkin, and with a preface by Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, it states that “International Working Women’s Day or International Women’s Day, March 8, is a day of international unity of working women all over the world in the struggle for peace, democracy and socialism. “ (Third edition issued in 1984 by International Publishers)
This same book goes on to say that “March 8 was instituted as the International Women’s Day on the proposal of Clara Zetkin at the Second International Conference of Women Socialists, held at Copenhagen in 1910, with the aim of mobilizing broad sections of women for the struggle against bourgeois domination. International Women’s Day was first observed in 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. It was first observed in Russia in 1913.” (p. 130)
V.I. Lenin, the founder of the Russian Communist Party, as early as 1895 drafted a leaflet to the “Working Men and Women of the Tornton Mill” inside the country. This was an important distinction because the socialist movement at that time in Russia almost exclusively appealed to working men and not women.
When Lenin was in exile in 1899, he wrote to the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, the predecessor to the Russian Communist Party, and reported on a series of pamphlets he wanted to write for workers inside the country during this period. One of these publications included a pamphlet entitled “Women and the Workers’ Cause.”
The book “The Emancipation of Women” notes that “In this pamphlet Lenin intended to describe the position of women factory workers and peasant women and to show that the only salvation for them was through their participation in the revolutionary movement, and that only the victory of the working class would bring emancipation to women workers and peasants.” (p. 6)
In 1907, Lenin wrote in his report to the International Congress of the Second International held in Stuttgart, Germany that the opportunistic practice of the Austrian Social Democrats should be denounced because they, “who, while conducting a campaign for electoral rights for men, put off the struggle for electoral rights for women to ‘a later date.’” (p. 7)
By 1913 Lenin was studying the contradictions emanating from the various forms of bourgeois democracy in the western countries. During this process he examined “the problem of prostitution and showed how, while encouraging white slave traffic and raping girls in the colonies, representatives of the bourgeoisie at the same time hypocritically pretended to be campaigning against prostitution.” (p. 8)
Later in the aftermath of the October 1917 Russian Revolution that established the first socialist state in history, the Bolsheviks enacted policies and laws that created the conditions for the total emancipation of women within society. Lenin and the leadership of the revolution felt strongly that no genuine transformation of capitalist society could take place without the full participation of women in all levels of the party and government.
In a newspaper report published in Izvestia No. 253 on Nov. 20, 1918, it states that “One of the first tasks of the Soviet Republic is to abolish all restrictions on women’s rights. The Soviet government has completely abolished divorce proceedings, that source of bourgeois degradation, repression and humiliation.” (p. 59)
This article continues saying “It will soon be a year now since complete freedom of divorce was legislated. We have passed a decree annulling and removing several political restrictions. Nowhere else in the world have equality and freedom for working women been so fully established.” (p. 59)
Later on in the article it says as well that “The experience of all liberation movements has shown that the success of a revolution depends on how much the women take part in it. The Soviet government is doing everything in its power to enable women to carry on independent proletarian socialist work.” (p. 60)
Women and Historical Pan-Africanism
In Africa the conditions of women were varied based upon the character of the material conditions and the overall development of the productive forces within societies. Some African cultures and civilizations were matrilineal where women played an equal and sometimes dominant role within society. Other societies evolved in a manner where male domination was enshrined within the custom and practice of the social structures.
The introduction of outside influences had a tremendous impact on the status of women in various regions of Africa. The advent of Islam in many cases subordinated the role of women and Christianity played the same role of indoctrinating societies with the notion of the inferiority of the female gender.
As this writer has pointed out in a previous article on women and political leadership in traditional Africa, that “It is of great significance that there were women rulers of highly developed African societies who led anti-slavery and anti-colonial resistance to the onslaught of European imperialism. Questions related to whether the women may have only represented the ruling groups within society or whether they were more compassionate and egalitarian in their style of leadership does not necessarily distract from their important place in history that distinguishes this social phenomena from other societies in Europe and Asia.” (African Warrior Queens: Gender Roles, Political Leadership and Societal Development, nondomesticatedthinker.com)
Chattel slavery in the United States and throughout the western hemisphere had a devastating impact on African women, who in many instances, worked right alongside their male counterparts on the plantations and cities of the antebellum South and the colonies of the Caribbean and Latin America. In the period after slavery women were instrumental in the struggle for total freedom, the right to vote and against racial terror.
As noted above, Ida B. Wells-Barnett had been a fighter for the cause of anti-segregation and anti-lynching since the mid-1880s. Her role as an organizer and propagandist in the United States and the United Kingdom can never be minimized.
Wells-Barnett worked on exposing the hypocrisy of southern violence against African people, illustrating that the charges of sexual criminality against African men were merely a cover to rationalize the brutal terror of the post-reconstruction system of institutionalized racism in the United States.
With respect to the international struggle for the liberation of African people, the Pan-African Conference was held in 1900 in London and laid down a theoretical framework for the unity of peoples of African descent worldwide. One notable activist and educator that attended the London Conference was Anna Julia Cooper of Washington, D.C., who would later write on the history of the Haitian Revolution.
W.E.B. DuBois, the Harvard-educated scholar and later co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909, had also attended the 1900 Pan-African Conference and helped draft its resolutions. In 1919, DuBois would organize a Pan-African Congress in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the First World War.
By 1923, his efforts had reached an impasse and it was the organizational capacity of African American women that would revive the Pan-African Congress in both 1923 and 1927. Both years are significant in light of the legacy and work of Marcus Garvey, who co-founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association, African Communities League earlier in 1914 in Jamaica.
Within the UNIA, women played an essential role in building chapters throughout the U.S. and the formation of auxiliary units of the mass organization. It was through the activities of the UNIA that the parents of Malcolm X, El Hajj Malik Shabazz, met in Montreal in 1919 after the conclusion of World War I and the same year as the Pan-African Congress in Paris that was organized by DuBois.
The same year, 1927, that Garvey was deported from the United States, the Pan-African Congress underwent a revival of interest, which resulted in the convening of a gathering in New York City. This meeting in New York was principally organized by African American women, who were responsible for the Congress.
DuBois, after the lack of enthusiasm shown for the 1923 Congress, appeared to have had doubts about the ability of himself and his colleagues to sponsor a gathering four years later. However, the Circle for Peace and Foreign Relations made a firm commitment to finance and host the Pan-African Congress of 1927.
The Circle had financed DuBois’ trip to London and Lisbon in 1923 for the third Pan-African Congress under his direction. In addition, some of the leading members of women’s organizations had participated in earlier Congresses held in Europe.
Three prominent delegates to the 1927 meeting, Addie W. Hunton, Ida Gibbs and Helen Curtis, had also been active organizers within the Pan-African movement for many years. Addie W. Hunton of the Circle for Peace and Foreign Relations stated in a publicity bulletin entitled, “About the Pan-African Congress,” that the sponsoring women’s group was “an organization of American women who believe in the universality of the race problem.” (PAC Bulletin, 1927)
In a document issued by the organization in 1927, it states that “The Circle for Peace and Foreign Relations was organized for the purpose of promoting more harmonious relations between the peoples of the earth by extending friendly acquaintanceship and understanding between races and nations. Its work, according to the same document, included the fundraising done for the Third Pan-African Congress that was held in London and Lisbon in 1923, support for the education of children in Sierre Leone, land purchases for people living in South Africa, a visit to Haiti by Addie W. Hunton and the hosting of lectures and issuing of news information on Africa and other parts of the world. (PAC Bulletin, 1927)
As DuBois stressed in his article entitled, “Pan-Africanism: A Mission in My Life,” that was published in 1955 in reference to the 1927 conference that, “American Negro women revived the Congress idea and a fourth Pan-African Congress was held in New York.” Later in 1945, the Fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester, England in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War where a program was drafted for the independence struggles that would sweep the continent for the next five decades.
Women Under Neo-Colonialism
During the national liberation struggles throughout Africa the role of women was paramount in the acquisition of independence from the colonial powers. In South Africa, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, Egypt, Nigeria and other states millions of women became major players on the political scene.
These same facts of history were also evident as lessons of social upheaval as African American women continued to play a pivotal role in the post World War II period during the labor, civil rights and black power phases of the struggle for self-determination and social emancipation. The acquisition of the right to vote for all African Americans and the breaking down of legalized segregation were tremendous advances in defeating institutional racism in the U.S.
Nonetheless, the focus of the African American movement would shift toward economic justice, labor rights, human rights, anti-imperialism, peace and independent nationhood by the 1960s and 1970s. It was at this conjuncture that the white-dominated ruling class would renew their resistance to black advancement.
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would take place within the context of an African American labor struggle against racism and for collective bargaining rights. It is interesting that in the first months of 2011, this same question of the rights of labor to negotiate the value of their employment would become the focus of a major struggle in Wisconsin and other states.
Wars of imperialist occupation would continue with the U.S. intervention in Vietnam and Southeast Asia, along with the engineering of an insurgency in Afghanistan in 1979, the occupation of Lebanon during 1982-83, the invasion of Grenada, the destabilization campaigns against Nicaragua in the 1980s and the invasion of Panama, the first Gulf war right through to the present military assaults and occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Libya, these developments have had a significant impact on the social status of women.
Global poverty is a direct result of the ravages of the world capitalist system which thrives on the exploitation of the land, labor and resources of peoples throughout the planet. In the midst of the imperialist interventions and occupations over the last four decades, the structure of international finance capital has changed significantly.
Within the United States there has been de-industrialization, downsizing and re-structuring of institutions both within the private sector and the public service. In education the enormous cuts and defunding of public schools is explicitly designed to undercut any possibility of success.
In Africa and other so-called developing regions of the world, the role of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, along with other financial institutions based in the West, are continuing to dictate policy both domestically and internationally to the states of Africa, Asia, South Pacific, the Caribbean, South and Central America. Even under a society legally independent of the former colonial power, the economy of the newly-independent state has not necessarily been transformed to serve the interests of the majority within the country.
Kwame Nkrumah noted in 1963, “As nationalist struggle deepens in the colonial territories and independence appears on the horizon, the imperialist powers, fishing in the muddy waters of communalism, tribalism and sectional interests, endeavor to create fissions in the national front, in order to achieve fragmentation. Ireland is the classic example, India another.” (Nkrumah, Africa Must Unite, p. 173)
Nkrumah continues saying that “The French dismembered the Federation of West Africa and that of Equatorial Africa. Nigeria was broken into regions and is anticipating further partitions. Rwanda and Burundi has been fragmented with independence. Because we in Ghana survived pre-independence attempts to split us, the British foisted on us a constitution that aimed at disintegrating our national unity. The Congo, hastily invested with independence, with malice aforethought, immediately became the battleground of imperialist-fomented division.” (Africa Must Unite, p. 174)
With specific reference to the impact of western domination of African women, Molara Ogundipe-Leslie says that “economic changes in Africa following the intrusion of the West were inextricably linked to political changes in society which again affected cultural attitudes to the woman. The creation of a new class of subordinates—missionaries, clerks, police and soldiers changed social aspirations in society.” (Journal of African Marxists, No. 5, 1984, p. 84)
Ogundipe-Leslie continues saying “The traditional political structures were either completely abandoned or so distorted as to sweep away any female participation in the handling of local power and administration. The modern societies have now inherited these male-dominated structures and with them the hardened attitudes of male superiority and female exclusion from public affairs which the colonial systems introduced.” (p. 84)
This same author stresses in her conclusion that “to attain the basic needs of women, there must be a battle against the poverty and exploitation of women in society. Women must be able to control and benefit from the products of their labor, which need to be more valued and compensated.” (p. 91)
In the post-colonial period the revolutionary regimes of Africa set out to ensure the liberation of women as a pre-condition for the development and total transformation of society. Not only would women play a key role in the attainment of national independence but their contributions in the period of nation-building were essential.
One of the early countries to gain independence during the post World War II period was the Gold Coast, later renamed Ghana under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. As Salome Donkor points out in an article entitled “How Nkrumah Empowered Ghanaian Women,” It says that “study revealed that the role of women was evident in the support they gave to the main political party of the time, the Convention People’s Party (CPP) and it is also on record that women traders were keen supporters of the CPP government and also offered financial assistance ansd supportive services.” (Modern Ghana, Sept., 2009)
This writer continues noting that “Soon after the formation of the CPP in 1949, for instance, some of them, notably Akua Asabea, stood shoulder to shoulder with their male counterparts like Kofi Baako and Sacki Scheck as they toured the country and addressed large rallies to spread the message of ‘Independence Now’ for Ghana. During the early period of the struggle in May 1951, the CPP appointed Hanna Cudjoe, Ama Nkrumah, Letitia Quaye and Sophia Doku as propaganda secretaries with the responsibility of organizing the CPP Women’s League.”
A major development occurred in 1960 when Ghana became a republic after three years of independence from Britain starting in 1957, when Hanna Cudjoe, who was the Head of the Ghana Women’s League, and the Ghana Federation of Women, led by Evelyn Amarteifo, were merged to form the National Council of Ghana Women (NCGW) to replace the women’s section of the CPP. A Representation of the People Bill was passed in 1960 in Ghana which allowed ten women to be elected unopposed to the national parliament.
These women were Susana Al-Hassan, Ayanori Bukari and Victoria Nyarko, representing the Northern Region of the country, in addition to Sophia Doku and Mary Koranteng, from the Eastern Region, and Regina Asamany of the Volta Region. The other women who took seats in the Ghana parliament in 1960 were Grace Ayensu and Christiana Wilmot, for the Western Region, Comfort Asamoah, for the Ashanti Region, and Lucy Anim for Brong Ahafo.
These developments made Ghana one of the first countries to develop quotas for the participation of women. Later in 1965, President Nkrumah selected Madam Susan Al-Hassan as the Minister for Social Welfare and Community Development along with other women who were appointed as district commissioners.
Other African revolutionary parties and governments encouraged the participation of women in the political process. Guinean President Ahmed Sekou Toure, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Guinea (PDG), noted in an essay that “We must promote a social policy that will free our women, who for too long have been subject to degredation and depersonalization, a policy which will rehabilitate the social castes which were considered ‘inferior,’ a policy which will wipe out any discrimination and injustice, owing to the dynamic and revolutionary contents of a new regime founded on the will and interests of the people.” (Toure, The Role of Women in the Revolution)
President Samora Machel, the first leader of independent Mozambique beginning in 1975, said in 1976 at a meeting of women in Maputo that, “One of FRELIMO’s (the ruling party that fought for national independence from Portugual) fundamental concerns is the Mozambican woman, the question of the Mozambican woman. One of the issues that most concerns our organization is Mozambican women’s emancipation.” (Samora Machel, An African Revolutionary, 1985)
International Women’s Day 2011
There were numerous commemorations of International Women’s Day in Africa during 2011. In Nigeria an interview coinciding with IWD was conducted by LifeMag with Nigerian Senator Kofworola Akerele-Bucknor, who was also a past deputy governor of Lagos State.
Akerele-Bucknor said in regard to the status of women in Africa’s most populous state that “Nigerian women have really come a long way and they are making so much progress in every field of development in the country. There is no sector you won’t find the Nigerian woman holding her own and sometimes even calling the shots.” (LifeMag, March 13)
The Senator continues saying that “They are to be found all over performing excellently and they are still marching on. But when it comes to the political front, there’s a serious problem because political parties are being run mainly by men and women are being heavily marginalized. But this is an area that is so crucial as it impacts fully on all the other aspects of life and so, if women are not permitted to play significant and meaningful role here, there is no way they can see to their welfare and well being in these other areas of life no matter how educated and determined they are.”
In the Southern African nation of Zimbabwe an article published in the Herald newspaper noted that “While more and more women have received basic secondary, college and university education in Zimbabwe, most have been going for the softer ‘feminine’ areas. Even in the media, political and to some extent business reporting have been tagged ‘a male beat,’ leaving women to explore other areas like health, etc.” (Herald, March 7)
Nonetheless, this same article points out that “In certain sectors of the economy, the numbers of women have continued to grow and we have seen female pilots like Captain Emilia Njovana and Captain Chipo Matimba among others turning the table and sitting in the cockpits of huge airplanes, while men attend to passengers. We have seen bold women like Vice President Mai Joice T.R. Mujuru, Deputy Prime Minister Thokozani Khupe taking up leadership positions in the male-dominated field of politics.”
Zimbabwe Vice President Mujuru told thousands of women gathered for the celebration of IWD at Chinhoyi University of Technology on March 10 that women could play a significant role in the struggle to defeat the economic sanctions imposed on the country by the U.S., Britain, the EU and other imperialist states. In doing this she called upon women to harness the traditional culture and scientific knowledge to circumvent efforts of the western capitalist states to undermine the country’s future.
According to Vice President Mujuru, “Technology can only come to complement and improve upon what our people have known over the ages. Much of the things we need as a country have been part of our ancestors and some of it is in our people's right now.” (Herald, March 11)
Taking up the challenge of education in post-colonial Africa, the Women’s University in Africa, based in Zimbabwe, is specifically designed to provide opportunities for training and experience. Vice-Chancellor of Women’s University, Dr. Hope Sadza, spoke of the motivating factors behind the opening of the higher education institution in an interview published in the Herald on March 12.
Sadza says that the “Under-representation of women in all spheres of life was the major driving force” in opening the institution. She recounts that when she was a “Public Service commissioner, I used to hear women saying that they couldn’t take up certain positions in organizations because they were not qualified.” ( Herald, March 12)
The Vice-Chancellor went on to say that “I then asked myself what could be the reason. I found that they didn’t have time to go to school because of family responsibilities. They were poor, they had no easy access to resources, they had no role models and mostly as women we don’t believe in ourselves. This university is a platform where women can come out and prove their abilities.”
Since the realization of an independent democratic government in the Republic of South Africa in 1994, women have made gains in government, education and business. It was noted in the Sowetan Live on March 9 that “Today we celebrate the progress and strides in the economic, social and political development that women themselves have advocated and struggled for.” (sowetanlive.co.za)
The article also says that “We are pleased that in 2010 the African Union launched the decade for African Women. This is a period for women in Africa to celebrate achievement and mobilize for the future.”
Nonetheless, this publication cautions that “This decade, however, will mean little if governments fail to ratify and implement the protocol to the African Charter on human and people’s rights on the rights of women….Earth-shattering movements for change are taking root across Africa, and women are at the forefront.”
Women and the Struggle for Socialism Today
As the world economic crisis of the capitalist system intensifies, further attacks and challenges will arise for women and all working and oppressed peoples. The African continent and the African Diaspora will continue to be a focus for imperialism in its ferocious quest for resources and cheap labor to exploit.
The only rational solution to the problems of underdevelopment, national and gender oppression must be designed to break with the stranglehold of neo-colonialism in a struggle that overturns and reverses the legacy of European domination and its imposition of all forms of inequality and exploitation. Even within the industrialized capitalist states, the contradictions of over-production and ever-increasing assaults on the working class and the oppressed, illustrates clearly that the genuine liberation and transformation of African societies can only take place under socialism.
Socialism is the only system designed to meet the fundamental needs of the people. It is the only form of government and economy that can provide the social wealth needed to enhance equality, self-determination and an improved standard of life.
As Nkrumah pointed out in “Class Struggle in Africa,” "The African revolutionary struggle is not an isolated one. It not only forms part of the world socialist revolution, but must be seen in the context of the Black Revolution as a whole. In the U.S.A., the Caribbean, and wherever Africans are oppressed, liberation struggles are being fought. In these areas, the Black man (and woman) is in a condition of domestic colonialism, and suffers both on the grounds of class and color.” (Nkrumah, p. 87)
Nkrumah goes on to conclude that ”The total liberation and unification of Africa under an All-African socialist government must be the primary objective of all Black revolutionaries throughout the world. It is an objective which, when achieved, will bring about the fulfillment of the aspirations of Africans and people of African descent everywhere.”
With the escalation of mass struggles throughout the region of North Africa and in other parts of the continent, the stage is set for another fundamental leap in the consciousness and political direction of the African Revolution. Nonetheless, the imperialist intervention in Libya and the presence of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) on the continent poses a challenge to the current awakening of the workers and youth.
Inside the United States and other western imperialist states, the workers and the oppressed are also beginning to rise up against the worsening conditions of capitalist oppression and exploitation. Although the façade of social superiority and chauvinism has been promoted by the ruling classes within the industrialized states to divide the working class in the West from the masses of workers, farmers and youth in the developing countries and the socialist states, as time move forward the peoples of the world not only realize their commonality of interests but are seeking ways to work closely together to ensure their future under socialism and proletarian internationalism.
This realization of the inextricable unity among the workers and oppressed of the world is the greatest weapon in existence against imperialism and its continuing dominance. Women and all other working people will of course play the leading roles in the monumental struggle to liberate humanity from all forms of injustice and exploitation.