Seminar of Communist and Workers’ Parties on the Role of Communists in the Struggle for the Parity and Emancipation of Women

Brussels, 26 March 2010

Lynda Walker, National Chairperson, Communist Party of Ireland


The Communist Party of Ireland welcomes the initiative by our Greek comrades in organising this seminar. We also thank the Workers’ Party of Belgium for their hospitality. The fact that we are here today is an important development, and we feel that this is an opportunity for us as communists to examine our common positions and the ways that we can work together to build the world communist movement.
     In the past the Women’s International Democratic Federation (NGO) provided women from progressive organisations with the opportunity to share our experiences in the struggle against imperialism, apartheid, racism, fascism, and exploitation. The WIDF still exists, and maybe it is an organisation that we should look to for information about changes that are taking place in the world of women.
     Women are not separate from the class struggle, but we recognise that there are specific needs that have to be addressed. This paper gives a brief historical background relating to Ireland and our experience regarding the struggle for parity and the emancipation of women.
     The CPI has been instrumental in organising International Women’s Day events that are directly related to its aims. At our last congress we noted: “Socialist women established International Women’s Day nearly a hundred years ago. It has become recognised throughout the world, but its origins, based on socialism and peace, are often relegated to some kind of liberal and businesswomen’s celebration. The working women of the world and the trade union movement in particular must rescue the 8th of March and reclaim it as their own, pursuing demands that enhance the majority of humankind’s living standards, showing international solidarity with women throughout the world and declaring opposition to war and poverty.”
     However, it must be said that international Women’s Day does not exist for the woman who is in dire poverty, in hunger, the woman who is HIV-positive, and drug addicts and so on. For the vast majority of women in the world our general concerns are about life’s essentials: food, fuel, and housing.
     What has changed since 1910? As we are marking a hundred years since the declaration of International Women’s day by Clara Zetkin and other socialist women, it is relevant to compare the present day with the world that existed at that time. Wars, the arms trade and private armies continue to serve the cause of imperialism. In the early part of the twentieth century the Irish Marxist James Connolly wrote: “Everywhere it [the British Empire] holds down races and nations, that it might use them as slaves, that it might use their territories as sources for rent and interest for its aristocratic rulers.” Alexandra Kollontai echoed these thoughts when she said: “The cause of war is the struggle of national capital on the world market. English and French capital is fighting German capital in Africa, Asia, and on the markets of smaller states.”
     The cause of war continues. The words of Lenin illustrate the depth of the situation when he wrote: “The intensified rivalries of the great Powers in the epoch of imperialism increase the competitive growth of armaments. Arms production, the most lucrative branch of heavy industry, becomes a national and international force and itself acts as an incentive to war . . . War,” said Lenin, “is terribly profitable.”
     For several hundred years our world has experienced much war and suffering resulting from colonialist and imperialist exploitation. On the centenary of International Women’s Day we call for an end to the wars inflicted upon the peoples of the world by the United States and its allies.
     In the struggle for parity, for women’s emancipation and for socialism we understand the reactionary role that the European Union is playing and the role of British imperialism. The European Union is the driving force behind the anti-people and anti-worker policies now being imposed to secure the interests of monopoly capitalism. In an era when control of the world’s natural resources and threats to the environment are becoming more vital, we as communists have to look at how women’s lives are affected and the contribution women can make to helping to change the world.

Historical background

Naturally, this paper can only give a short historical explanation of the political context regarding the question of women’s emancipation. In Ireland the struggle for the parity and emancipation of women has to be considered from the perspective of a people struggling to gain national independence. The fight for national independence brought about a situation where all other causes might be considered secondary. This was certainly the case during what is called the first and second waves of feminism.
     From the 1880s several suffrage organisations were established, but the Irish Women’s Franchise League was formed to ensure that the Home Rule Bill being advocated by the Irish Nationalist Party would include votes for women. It was at this time that future communists such as Charlotte Despard were active, alongside Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, in the fight for women’s rights. John Redmond, the leader of the Irish Nationalist Party and proposer of the Home Rule Bill, opposed women’s suffrage, and a bitter political struggle took place between those who put Irish independence separate from women’s independence. (The Sheehy Skeffington family contributed much to the fight for the emancipation of women. Charlotte Despard and Hanna were to undertake a six-week tour of the Soviet Union in 1930.)
     Women and women’s organisations have played a significant role in the fight for national independence. One of the first women’s organisations to be formed, in 1881, was the Ladies’ Land League, an organisation established to fight for land rights for the landless and fair rents for tenant farmers. Inghinidhe na hÉireann (“Daughters of Ireland”), 1900–1914, was formed to promote “everything Irish” and Cumann na mBan in April 1914 to support the Irish Volunteers, a nationalist army established in 1913.
     Women’s emancipation should be linked to the cause of labour, and James Connolly recognised this. His weekly speeches and articles show that he had a deep understanding of conditions that women face and the potential that they held. He wrote: “None so fitted to break the chains as they who wear them, none so well equipped to decide what is a fetter. In its march towards freedom, the working class of Ireland must cheer on the efforts of those women who, feeling on their souls and bodies the fetter of the ages, have arisen to strike them off, and cheer all the louder if in its hatred of thraldom and passion for freedom the women’s army marches ahead of the militant army of labour. But whosoever carries the outworks of the citadel of oppression, the working class alone can raze it to the ground.”
     Women participated in the 1916 Easter Uprising, and the Irish Citizen Army, the first workers’ army in Europe, formed by Connolly. Under British rule, women in Ireland were given limited franchise in 1918. The first woman to win a seat in the House of Commons at Westminster was an Irish woman, Countess Markievicz, in 1918; she did not take the seat, because as a candidate for Sinn Féin she abstained from participating in the British Parliament. She became a minister in the first Dáil (Irish parliament) in 1918, and was elected Minister for Labour in the second Dáil in 1921.

The South

The partition of Ireland in 1922 meant that the struggle for labour and for Irish independence was fragmented. James Connolly’s maxim that “the cause of Ireland is the cause of labour and the cause of labour is the cause of Ireland” was recognised by a minority of political parties. The Communist Party of Ireland, when it was formed in 1933, recognised this as a principle. The reactionary nature of both regimes, in the Irish Free State a Catholic nationalist government and in the North a right-wing unionist government under British rule, meant that the fight to build the unity of the working class on an all-Ireland basis was fraught with all kinds of difficulties. Although women’s emancipation should be an integral part of the labour and national struggles, this has not often been the case.
     The forces that won the civil war following the murder of the revolutionary opposition leaders of 1916 were of the Christian-democratic type, with the consequent view that women were the supporters of men and that their place was in the home. This led to restrictions in the rights of women being incorporated in the 1937 Constitution, affected their right to work following marriage in the civil service, in teaching, and in local government, and extended into the broader employment field. Custody of their children was vested in the father; their right of inheritance was limited. During that time the climate was very hostile to the full participation of women. Nevertheless during this period women trade unionists, led by women who had been involved in both the trade unions and the independence movement, led demands for equality and joined with other women’s organisations, such as the Irish Housewives’ Association, to keep up pressure for women’s demands.
     By the end of the 1950s and early 1960s some of these demands had been met, such as custody of children and rights of inheritance. However, the rise of the women’s liberation movement and revolutionary and independence movements abroad, with demands at home for better economic and social rights by the left, led to a rise of the women’s movement to push for full rights. These came from the Communist Party, which had a very active women’s group, the trade unions, and social protest groups such as Dublin Housing Action Committee, set up by the party and other left groups to fight dreadful housing conditions. The Irish Women’s Liberation Movement came to the fore in 1970 when influential women in journalism and the law and academics came together with the women in the left movements demanding reproductive rights, the right to divorce, employment and social welfare rights, and for the right be part of the political process. These led to the establishment of the Council for the Status of Women, which produced two reports, which in turn led to the Government setting up the Law Reform Commission and the consequent changes in the law regarding the rights of women.
     Ireland’s entry into the Common Market also brought changes, but, contrary to the much-stressed view by politicians and women of the elite class that it was the EC that gave women rights, it was the pressure of the women’s movement and the need for equal competition laws across all states to ensure that low-paid women in one country did not give that country an unfair competitive advantage that motivated the EU to give comparable rights to women at that time. The market also now needed women’s paid wages to expand debt to families for rising house prices and to boost consumption.

The North

From 1968 the fight for civil rights was a major movement, and politics in the North took on a more fluid nature. Democracy was enveloped with repressive measures of the British and Unionist Government. The British army was brought onto the streets, and internment without trail was introduced in August 1971. Many women took part in civil disobedience campaigns and civil rights action. At a civil rights march in Derry in January 1972 the British army shot twenty-eight people, thirteen of whom were killed. This resulted in a reaction, and more and more young people joined the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The Loyalist paramilitaries also grew, and the bomb and bullet campaign, alongside the violence of the army and the police, overshadowed the situation.
     Much of the burden of a violent and repressive society has fallen on women in Northern Ireland. Women in their accustomed roles of wife and mother have campaigned on behalf of imprisoned relatives, have fought against the use of plastic bullets, and have agonised over children or husbands involved with the security forces or various paramilitary groups or engaged in anti-social activities. To a lesser extent women have also themselves been active in such organisations and activities and experienced imprisonment and strip-searching. Fears and anxieties generated by the situation have particular relevance for working-class women, who were confronted with the “Troubles” on a daily basis. It is against this backdrop that we have worked.
     In America and parts of Europe the growth of the women’s movement began in the late 1960s; but in the North, because of the fight for civil rights, it was the mid-seventies before the women’s movement began to grow and to work on specific political campaigns relating to women. Communists, not taking into account the potential and diverse aspects of this social movement, often viewed the growth of the women’s movement and feminist politics with suspicion.
     Building on our experience in the civil rights movement, in which communists played a leading role, we helped to establish the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights Movement in 1976. When it was formed it had the high ideal of uniting women into one organisation to fight for women’s rights. The NIWRM had its successes under difficult conditions, trying to work across the sectarian boundaries, and communists played a leading role in attempting to build a progressive women’s movement. Single issues such as the need for rape crisis centres and women’s refuges were recognised and supported by the CPI. In Northern Ireland from the 1970s to the early 1990s women in nationalist areas who suffered domestic violence were in a “double prison”: if they called the RUC (police) to their home to deal with a violent husband they would be branded a traitor to their community. They were faced with a hard choice.
     In 1979, under the auspices of the NIWRM, CPI members helped set up the first women’s centre in Belfast. This initiative itself needs to be analysed, as we now have many such centres in the North. The NIWRM set out to be a broad organisation of people that drew its support from the trade union movement and women in working-class communities. In was no accident that the NIWRM sought and got the affiliation of a number of trade unions, including the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, Belfast Trades Council, Unison (NUPE at that time), the Transport and General Workers’ Union, Post Office Engineering Union, TASS, and Queen’s University Students’ Union.
     Members of the Communist Party of Ireland took a leading role in the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Women’s Committee, and in 1975 the first equal pay case in the North was won though communist leadership. During and before the 1970s, to the present day, women and men campaigned and won some legal changes. These included the extension of the Sex Discrimination Order (NI), divorce legislation in 1979, married women’s property rights, and recognition of rape within marriage as an offence, and some changes in benefit legislation.
     Women from the left, communists, republicans and trade unionists attempted to work for unity of working-class women. They tried to work on issues that were common to all; but in the face of the violence and sectarianism the problems were immense.
     It was through the NIWRM that affiliation to the Women’s International Democratic Federation took place in the 1970s to early 1990s. In the WIDF we contributed to conferences in a whole host of countries and invited international guests to Ireland. These included Freda Brown, president of the WIDF, Ruth Neto from Angola, Vinie Burrows, US permanent NGO representative for the WIDF at the UN, Angela Davis from the United States, Thbeka Mjolo from the ANC, the Cuban Federation of Women, and many others. A delegation of forty Irish women attended the World Congress of Women in Moscow in 1987. This group was made up of women from the length and breadth of Ireland, including communists, trade unionists, and women activists. The WIDF provided opportunities for us to share our experiences in the struggle against discrimination, fascism, apartheid, racism, and exploitation.

Developing action and ideology

Within communist parties as well as within socialist countries the development of policy and ideology regarding women’s emancipation was not as vigorous as it could have been, and this may have contributed to the destruction of the socialist countries in eastern Europe, where the battle of ideology was lost. The first socialist states enacted laws granting full equal rights for women. The social system introduced free health care, free child care, creches, and extra parental leave—demands that are still to be achieved in the twenty-first century in capitalist countries. These gains have all been eliminated with the dismantling of socialism. But the experience of women in those countries, while appreciating these rights, was that there remained inequality in the sharing of domestic work, in the segregation of jobs in practice, and consequently a gap in pay. They also experienced inequality in power and politics. This proves that certain practices of an outdated economic system do not automatically disappear when a new system replaces it, and it requires the active participation of those concerned to raise consciousness and to move forward. Women in the former socialist countries have cause to mourn the disappearance of so many rights that they once took for granted. They are now the victims of unemployment, discrimination, emigration, absolute poverty, prostitution, trafficking in women and girls, and slave labour.

The role of communists today

The emancipation of women will only come about when we have a political and economic system that is able to support the needs of all the people. However, as communists we fight for the short-term and long-term needs. Being specific about the parity and emancipation of women, the Communist Party of Ireland has played a small but significant role. Today is an opportunity for us to critically examine our policies both nationally and internationally. Within communist parties and the communist movement we need to examine our structures and policies to see where we can improve things.
     At our last congress we noted that the women’s movement at home and abroad has helped to raise issues relating to gender inequalities. Sometimes this has been done in a very positive way, working for example in the trade union movement to help expose the fact that the majority of women in paid work are in low-paid part-time or contract work, with little or no security.
     Feminist politics has also helped to encourage women to examine the exploitation that they face in both their personal and their public life; feminist writers have brought to light the lives of women in history. The Communist Party rejects the narrow politics of radical feminists that identifies only the patriarchal nature of society and does not recognise the class exploitation. As communists we need to analyse the contribution that feminist ideology has made to Marxist ideology as well as recognising the negative aspects of feminism. We welcome the opportunity to develop our thinking around these ideas. We recognise that a feminist movement made up of people with middle-class ideology—not necessary middle-class people—is influential in preventing the class struggle from going forward. As communists we also recognise that women face specific problems relating to the law, family life, and work. This means that we have to be ready to identify and challenge the problems when we see them.
     In the meantime, in Ireland certain demands are being made by all progressive organisations dealing with women’s issues, which will help to eliminate the worst elements of discrimination and the exploitation of women. Working-class women must fight for their rights, by organising in the work-place and in the community. Schemes of charity and social welfare dependence will not raise women to independent status, action separate from class politics.
     Globalisation is worsening the working conditions and forcing the concentration of wealth into fewer hands. The continued absorption of the world’s land, mineral resources, food and water by the richer countries is causing a massive increase in famine and wars. Public services are being dismantled across the world. This is led by the G20 countries, and the European Union is a leading force in this intensification. Women work predominantly in the lower-paid public services; they suffer higher unemployment. The attack on trade unions is being intensified, and the rights already established to wages, the length of working day and working life is under vicious attack.


The partition of Ireland means that we live under two separate jurisdictions. Despite the existence of the border between the northern six counties and the southern twenty-six, the ideologies and attitudes that cast Irish women in the role of social inferiors are not contained by boundaries. The influence of the church, church dominance in the educational systems and the issues raised by the national question are all factors that must be taken into account when exploring the shared oppression of Irish women, north and south. Women in Northern Ireland are caught up in a tangle of constant comparison between two different societies: comparing themselves with the situation experienced by their sisters in the Republic but perhaps to an even greater extent with the position of women in Britain. Demands often tend to be formulated based on the latter, while the shaped experience of repressive attitudes and common issues provide a point of contact with women in the South.
     The crisis of capitalism provides us with an alternative to develop unity of the left through struggles on key social issues. The relative peace that we now experience gives us the opportunity to build an anti-imperialist struggle that recognises our common needs and rejects sectarianism. Women north and south and across communities have linked together in peace project initiatives that are a step towards helping to build unity of the working class. Present-day demands relate to pay, employment, child-care provision, and pension rights, and we specifically condemn the cover-up of child abuse by the Catholic Church. We call for a “Women’s Right to Choose” regarding the right to abortion and other reproductive rights. Approximately four thousand women travel each year from Ireland, North and South, to obtain abortion in private clinics in the UK. The demand to change the law relating to abortion is a class issue that has been ongoing for over forty years. Our demands relating to the elimination of poverty and opposition to the privatisation of water go alongside the need to stop attacks on public services. Whilst our ultimate aim is a socialist united Ireland, we believe that we must fight exploitation and assert issues of personal and sexual freedom on a daily basis.
     Finally, we recognise that there are many in other parts of the world that are living in atrocious conditions, facing hunger, war, and violation. It may be that our words are of little comfort to them, but nonetheless we send our utmost message of solidarity to you on this day. We express our solidarity with all those struggling for social equality and for national independence. In particular, we send greetings to Palestinian women and to the women of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. The example of Cuba is now inspiring millions throughout Latin America and beyond to resist imperialism and to build a better future. We celebrate the gains that Cuban women have made and the outstanding contribution they have made to winning and sustaining the Cuban Revolution.
     Once again, we thank you for organising this event and we hope that new lines of co-operation can be established.

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