While observing the International Women’s Day we often forget to debate whether women have acquired somewhat better status in a small part of the world by design or default––or by both.
An impartial discussion on this issue is essential because the capitalist-dominated West appears to have taken much more credit for the change in women’s condition than is due to it.
A close study of the struggle of women’s liberation would suggest that it was more the outcome of the changing socio-economic scenario after the advent of Industrial Revolution and rise in naval trade and less the result of the real efforts made by fairer gender, whom the western society too was not ready to give much liberty. As if that was not enough: the two World Wars in the 20th century further paved the way for the women to come out of the shadow of men.
From the days of the Mother of Feminism, Mary Wollstonecraft in the late 18th century to Simone de Beauvoir in 20th century till now there is a long list of personalities who championed the cause of women. Yet it is a fact that women even the emancipated ones of the West largely owe their present status to the accidents of history. For example, had not seven to eight crores of people, an overwhelming number of them were men, died in the two World Wars there would have been little space for women to come out and take up all the jobs, especially in Europe. It must also be noted that an equally large number of people got maimed and lost their limbs in these two wars.
Had the western society been so generous towards women they would not have waited till 20th century to give the full voting right to them. France, where the Revolution against monarchy took place in 1789, finally gave the voting right to women in the election held there after the end of World War-II in 1945. This is less than five years before the Indian Constitution gave the right to universal adult franchise.
These two unfortunate and senseless wars caused a huge shortage of hands in factories, educational institutions, banking industry, trade and commerce sector, etc. Women were under the prevailing circumstances then allowed to enter all these fields. The post-war re-construction paved their entry into the transportation, railway and engineering sector as well. Their representation in the army, air force and navy increased. The powers that be did so under compulsion and not by choice.
Later the same capitalists started taking the credit for this big rise of women in different sectors. The truth is that they did not miss any opportunity to exploit the same women. The latter had to struggle for equal wages and other benefits in almost all the countries. This movement is going on even now. However, the origin of the struggle for women’s empowerment can be traced to the invention of the steam engine and the subsequent Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century. The advent of steamships gave a big boost to international trade and provided new oxygen to colonial expansion.
A large number of men left the shore of Britain and the rest of Europe, especially from its western half. The rapid industrialisation in the 19th century needed more hands. Gradually, more women started coming out to work. They were employed both in factories and farms. They were not given equal wages and the working hours too were unlimited. They were even deployed in hazardous jobs in coal mines. It is the capitalists and feudal lords who would exploit them for their end. It was they who would decide as to how much and how short should they dress. This aspect has even been highlighted by Karl Marx in Das Kapital.
The struggle of women continued but received limited success. The rise of European imperialism sparked a wave of nationalism in the continent. Germany and Italy got unified and they too joined the race. Women’s right could not get its due.
However, it was not any European country or the United States, but New Zealand which became the first to give voting right to women in 1893, but they were not allowed to contest in the election.
Just before the World War-I, a German Marxist theorist and women’s rights activist Clara Zetkin organised the first International Women’s Day on March 8, 1911.
Gradually, some European countries started giving voting rights to women. But the westernmost countries of the continent, Spain and Portugal, remained under dictatorship for a big part of the 20th century when the same West was espousing the cause of democracy across the world. And what had happened in Germany and Italy in 1930s and 1940s is known to everyone.
Women are getting due representations in Parliament in a handful of Nordic countries in northern Europe. The United States of America, the world’s self-proclaimed Super Power is yet to elect its first woman President in about 250 years of its independent existence. This is the situation when other much smaller and backward countries have elected them a long time back.
Hillary Clinton was the first to nearly achieve this distinction, but then one can not deny the fact that she also comes from a political family and her husband had served as two-time President of the country at the fag end of 20th century. There is now no likelihood of any woman reaching the Presidential race in the election to be held later this year.
No doubt, the situation of women has changed in a large part of the world. But whether it is for good or worse is yet to be ascertained.
Anyway, an objective study of the whole scenario is the need of the hour as we have Presidents like Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil––both known for misogynist remarks.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own