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Socialist-Feminism & the work of ROSA

This is a discussion document written for a ROSA national meeting in April of 2016. It documents some of the work of ROSA in the last three years and makes the case for socialist-feminism.

ROSA was established in March 2013 by women in the Socialist Party, and has subsequently flourished into a broad-based activist group in Dublin, with fledgling groups in Cork and Limerick and supporters further afield. It’s acronym stands for Reproductive rights, against Oppression Sexism & Austerity, and it’s open to anyone who supports this message to get involved in. ROSA is named after Rosa Parks, the inspirational black campaigner who famously refused to give up her seat for a white passenger, sparking the Montgomery bus boycott of the Civil Rights Movement, and also after Rosa Luxemburg, exceptional and leading socialist theoretician and activist of the early 20th century, killed for her anti-war stance and revolutionary politics in 1919.

ROSA was first established in the context of the emergence of a new social movement for abortion rights after the details of the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, victim of Ireland’s Medieval abortion ban, became public. Those who set up ROSA were part of this social movement and argued within that movement, that it was vital that we expanded our demands beyond seeking X Case legislation, shifting focus to the demand to repeal the 8th amendment – the constitutional abortion ban. ROSA was established to assist the building of a grassroots pro-choice movement that prioritised the building of an active movement ‘from below’, rather than a central focus on lobbying / influencing those in power through slowly persuading them to change their views over time. Furthermore, ROSA wished to activate, organise and empower the growing interest of many sections of young people, especially young women in feminism, in LGBT rights, and in anti-capitalism. With that in mind, we established ourselves as a distinctly anti-capitalist feminist organisation that has a remit to campaign against all forms of oppression, and social and economic inequality and injustice. Our first public material from March 2013 had the following broad demands and programme:

  1. Legislation must include women’s health, as well as life
    2. Repeal the 8th Amendment
    3. Stop the hypocrisy of exporting abortion. Women should choose, without
    veto from doctors or the state. Abortion should be provided through
    the Irish health service, without cost and shame for women
    4. Fully free and available contraception
    5. Programme of secular & progressive sex education in schools
    6. Separate church and state. Independent, representative and non-denominational
    schools and hospital boards
    7. No to sexism and objectification of women’s bodies; end the social ills
    of rape culture & violence against women
    8. Equal and decent pay, massive state investment in job creation and free
    childcare are vital to give women real choice
    9. Stop the assault on the public sector – austerity is crippling women and
    children. Investment, not cuts; in welfare, health, education, social services,
    women’s refuges, survivors of abuse services etc.
    10. Tax the super-rich; don’t pay the debts of the banker elite; a struggle
    of women, young people and workers and the unemployed in general for
    public ownership of wealth and resources in Ireland and Europe as a challenge
    to the rule of capitalism that has inequality and poverty at its heart

Since ROSA was established, we have campaigned on many issues including – marriage equality, violence against women, rape culture, anti-racism & more. ROSA activists have also regularly stood in solidarity with many other movements, including the water charges revolt and mass protests, the trans* rights movement and refugee solidarity.

ROSA has also organised protest rallies for International Women’s Day in 2013, 2014 and 2015. International Working Women’s Day was initiated by women leaders in the socialist and Marxist global working class movement over a century ago. In this way, the traditions of International Women’s Day are radical – that of mass struggle and with women standing in solidarity with, and playing a leading role in the working class and socialist challenge to the profit system, and integrally connecting the specific demands of women for votes, for equality etc., to that movement. ROSA’s actions for International Women’s Day have in a humble way, contributed to re-connecting an often tame and commercialised International Women’s Day to these traditions.

Abortion rights revolt

The main aspect of our campaigning work has been our contribution to the abortion rights movement. Since ROSA was established, it has strove to try to popularise the idea of the need for a referendum to repeal the 8th as a pre-requisite for abortion rights for women, trans* men and non-binary people who need these rights. We have done this through regular street stalls, leaflets, public meetings, street meetings, protest rallies etc. In the run up to the Marriage Equality referendum, we campaigned to have two vital equality-based referenda on that day both to affirm LGBTQ and women’s rights. We received huge support from this idea of striking a major blow to the Catholic Church’s connection with the state in one day. Though this did not come to fruition, the resounding ‘Yes’ to Marriage Equality that was achieved by the LGBTQ movement has been a huge boost to the fight for a repeal 8 referendum. ROSA popularised the slogan “Women Can’t Wait – Repeal the 8th” and it is now the central slogan and rallying cry of the abortion rights movement. Through our work on street stalls in particular, we have received massive support, and have anecdotally experienced what recent polls back up, namely that there is huge support amongst ordinary people of all ages and genders for increased abortion rights, and that a dynamic intervention into this by the pro-choice movement will result in a pro-choice majority in society, which is the clear direction of travel. The attitudes of ordinary people are light-years ahead of the political establishment, and ROSA has consistently based itself optimistically on this reality, trying to activate and mobilise this support and progressive sentiment, as much as is possible.

Breaking unjust laws

The Abortion Pill Train and the Abortion Pill Bus, in October 2014 and October 2015 respectively, were two of the most important actions that ROSA has organised. These actions were organised partnership with the heroic, Netherlands-based Women On Web, an organisation of pro-choice doctors who provide safe abortions with pills through the post for those in need in countries like Ireland where abortion is banned. The Abortion Pill Train was also participated in by Action for Choice, the Anti Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit TDs and pro-choice activists in the North. Student leaders with USI and other groups also supported the Abortion Pill Bus. These audacious actions popularised how to access, and in the case of the Abortion Pill Bus, directly provided, safe illegal abortions for women in Ireland who need them. Crucially, these actions made a mockery of the state’s abortion ban and anachronistic abortion laws. Despite ROSA activists and Ruth Coppinger TD flagrantly breaking the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (passed by Fine Gael and Labour Government in 2013, this law criminalises anyone who gets or helps a woman to get an illegal abortion in the state, with up to 14 years in prison), the only intervention from the State that we experienced was the Gardai in Galway politely requesting that the bus moves to a more suitable place to park. Both actions were organised by ROSA in the full understanding that the state would be impotent to repress the protest action, precisely as the establishment is fully aware that to jail any pro-choice activists would provoke a social movement from below that would inevitably usher in a lifting of the abortion ban.

The Abortion Pill Bus was also timed to intervene into the debate in society about abortion rights. At this moment, there is ample pressure on the political establishment on the question of the 8th amendment, an important achievement of the abortion rights movement of recent years. The 8th amendment is a major political issue. In this context, there is a concerted attempt to limit the discussion to only very specific circumstances in which abortions might be permitted – for example cases of pregnancy as a result of rape and Fatal Foetal Abnormality. While clearly these are very important reasons to lift the abortion ban, and the appalling treatment of women who experience these traumas is an indictment of the state, this is about limiting abortion rights and continuing to deny women the full reproductive rights that they need. By focusing on the fact that women need and get abortions for various reasons every day, the Abortion Pill Bus helped to push the debate beyond the limited parameters that the establishment are attempting to keep it in.

A new feminist wave

With the global resurgence of feminism, and the glimpses of a new feminist wave in Ireland and around the world, it’s crucial that we learn lessons from past struggles, and analyse how we can most effectively challenge and end all forms of oppression.

ROSA completely rejects pro-capitalist/neo-liberal/commercialised feminism, that seeks to feminise the ruling elite, keeping in place a system that serves to oppress women. The mass struggle for women’s legal equality, equal pay and sexual liberation of the 1960s and 1970s of second wave feminism made very important gains for women. When such women’s movements linked up with men and women in the trade union and working class movement, as the abortion rights movement in Britain did, or as the women’s youth and student movement did in France 1968 in a mass movement and General Strike, they proved especially powerful.

Despite the gains of struggles of the past, we see not only has equality not been achieved decades later, but that in many ways that things have gone backwards. Recent decades have seen a proliferation of sexism in the mass media, promoting an ideology that dehumanises women, that portrays them as objects for possession – precisely the culture that promotes macho ideas and violence against women in society.

Capitalism and Oppression

Global capitalist crisis and austerity has meant a further attack on gains made for women. Neo-liberal capitalism means an attack on public services, increased low pay and poverty and wealth inequality, all of which disproportionately affects women, particularly women workers and poor women. The housing and homelessness crisis is acute, is caused by a neoliberal approach to housing that turns a human right into an opportunity for profit, and will increase the frequency of injury and death of women who are trapped in abusive relationships.

Capitalism, a system that puts the drive for profit first, has women’s oppression stitched into it. Capitalism has historically promoted the ideology of the patriarchal family, using this as a means of social control. Hours of unpaid labour are done by women and men – rearing children, looking after sick and elderly relatives, psychological care and attention of family members – that is vital to capitalism’s smooth operation, including its need for a healthy workforce to make its profits. But it’s still the case that women disproportionately bear this burden. Surveys show that in all countries in the world, women do on average significantly more housework and care-work than their male counterparts, for example.

Women entering the workforce en masse has been a source of progress with women being out of the isolation of the home. However, it’s also been a source of low paid workers for capitalism – more opportunities for capitalism to profit from women’s inequality – and increased the stresses on women working inside and outside the home. On a global level, poor women and women workers of colour are exceptionally exploited by the system of capitalism.

Capitalism, a system that puts the drive for profit first will always find a way to profit from, and therefore to perpetuate, women’s inequality. Globally, beauty and fashion are massive profit-making industries that thrive upon keeping girls and women insecure, with body and self-esteem issues, meddling with our mental health in the name of selling products and making a profit. Self-esteem of girls in the US, for example peaks at age 9.

Irish capitalism’s church-state link

Important protests have broken out in many countries against victim-blaming. Putting the blame on the victim in sexual violence and intimate partner violence cases is something that capitalist states around the world are complicit in, and this state is no different. Furthermore, this state is exceptionally backward, as Irish capitalism, a weak form of capitalism has historically relied on the Catholic Church for an ideology to repress people, and handed over power to the Church to control public services like health and education. Full separation of Church and State is a pre-requisite for women’s and LGBTQ equality, and a strong Left challenge to the backward political establishment is vital to put this on the agenda.

Solidarity with all the oppressed

Capitalism as a system must be challenged, in order to build the basis to end women’s oppression. Similarly, capitalism is inherently racist and war-mongering. Islamophobia has been drummed up for the last decade and half to justify the murderous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Refugees are met with racist Fortress Europe. The #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US has highlighted the inherently racist nature of US capitalism, evidenced by the frequent state killings of African Americans. There is a need for all oppressed groups, not only to stand in solidarity with each other, but also to link up with a broad anti-capitalist struggle of all working people against the rule of the 1% super-rich.

The alternative to capitalist private ownership of wealth and resources and the rule of the 1% super-rich, is democratic socialism. Socialism means the democratic public ownership of key wealth and resources – a society and world in which profit is no longer the driving force, but people’s needs and the protection of the environment.

Socialist-feminism, that links the building of a powerful women’s movement that stands in solidarity with the working class and all the oppressed, to a broader challenge to capitalism, is the most effective challenge to women’s oppression.


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