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International Women’s Day Is Not for Corporations

Corporate giants like Shell might try to co-opt International Women's Day – but they'll never be able to erase the radical history of generations of socialist women who fought to establish this day across the world.

In a scarcely believable publicity stunt for International Women’s Day (IWD), Shell is changing its name to “She’ll” in the name of female empowerment. It’s part of the global oil giant’s new “She Will’ initiative to highlight women in leadership positions at the company.

The tagline? “#MakeTheFuture gender balanced.” For a company whose business practices are destroying our planet, and our futures with it, I find it hard to believe this is done without irony.

This is the latest attempt by a corporate giant to co-opt International Women’s Day and the feminist movement. In recent years, IWD has been marked by the likes of McDonald’s, who flipped its “M”; KFC, who replaced Colonel Sanders in its logo with his wife, Claudia; and Brewdog, who released a pink beer. This year, search on Google for “international women’s day” and the top result you’ll find is internationalwomensday.coma thinly disguised marketing tool for the likes of Amazon, HCL and Avon.

In co-opting IWD, these corporations not only erase their own exploitative practices – which almost always disproportionately impact women – but also the political meaning and history of the day. International Women’s Day was not always used to launder corporate reputations. It was formed to demonstrate the power that women hold when we organise together. International Women’s Day was born of struggle.

In 1908, thousands of working women marched through the streets of New York, demanding shorter hours, better pay, and voting rights. Shortly afterwards, delegates for the International Conference of Socialist Women met in Copenhagen, where they proposed a proclamation for an “International Women’s Day” to be held every year.

They demanded female suffrage, rights for working women, support for mothers, the provision of nurseries, and free meals in schools. They were explicitly socialist and unashamedly internationalist. They demanded not just equality, but also liberation.

In preparation for the first IWD march in 1911, held on March 19 to commemorate the 1848 revolution in Berlin, women in Germany handed out leaflets reading “Working Women and Girls! March 19 is your day. It is your right. The Socialist women of all countries are in solidarity with you.” More than a million women took the streets.

By 1914, March 8 was the accepted date, and in 1917 IWD took on a world historical significance. Working women walked out of work and held mass protests in Russia, calling for an end to war and poverty. Instead, they demanded “peace and bread.” A little over a week later, hundreds of years of Tsarist tyranny ended, and women won the right to vote.

Coinciding with IWD in 1973, Elaine Brown of the Black Panther Party led thousands of parents and children in a protest against child care cuts in California. In 1980, mass demonstrations were called across India on IWD to protest the government’s handling of rape cases and demanding the revision of laws surrounding rape, building a movement against sexual violence that continues to fight to this day.

This is the history of IWD. It was the creation of working women who knew that capitalism would never work for them. They knew that bosses of any gender would exploit them, pay them poverty wages, and drive down their rights. They knew that this rotten system would never value their domestic labour or childcare. And they knew that their struggles against patriarchal structures were linked across borders. Those struggles continue today.

In Britain, women face the sharp end of the Tories’ austerity policies and cruel border regime. When workers are sacked or when migrants are abandoned in makeshift refugee camps on our borders, it is women who are the hardest hit. Liberal feminism, corporate co-option, and “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” women’s leadership, only reinforce the power structures that cause this kind of exploitation. Shell, Amazon and McDonald’s never have, and never will, represent the interests and cause of women.

Just as the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s was inspired by national liberation struggles across the Global South, today our feminist activism must look to the heroic examples set by women who struggle across the world. Today more than a million women are marching in Chile, where women have led the powerful social movement against neoliberalism that has forced the government to agree to a referendum on its Pinochet era constitution.

Last week, decades of campaigning by a mass movement in Argentina won a concrete commitment from the government to legalise abortion. In Rojava, besieged on all sides by the Turkish military, Daesh and the Assad regime, women have led a social revolution that has created democratic women’s organisations in every field of life, including a women’s assembly with the right to veto any policies affecting women’s rights. And it is women who are on the frontline in the fight to secure our futures, resisting deforestation in the Amazon and the building of pipelines on indigenous land in North America.

Here in Britain, women continue to fight back against Tory cuts to services for victims of sexual violence and domestic abuse. We continue to demonstrate to shut down the inhumane migrant detention centre at Yarl’s Wood. We continue to stand together – cis, trans and non-binary – even as the right-wing press try to whip up a climate of fear. We continue to fight for a socialist, internationalist Labour government.

International Women’s Day was not dreamt up by an ad agency or marketing executives. It can’t be summed up by an empty slogan or facile hashtag. It is marked across the world because generations of working women have organised together and fought for their rights. They knew capitalism would never deliver equality or liberation. Today, we must honour the radical traditions of International Women’s Day and continue to build a socialist, feminist movement that stands for all women, in every walk of life, and across the world.