International Women’s Day – 100 years of struggle

Speeches of the International Women’s Conference Copenhagen 2010

The international women’s conference in Copenhagen on March 6 – 7, 2010, was organized to mark the 100 years of the International Women’s Day, which was proposed by Clara Zetkin and decided at a women’s conference in Copenhagen in 1910, in connection with the conference of the Second International in the city.

The women’s conference in 2010 was organized by the Women’s Committee of Enhedslisten/the Red-Green Alliance in cooperation with EL-FEM, the European Left women’s network. Organising this event was made possible– in particular to facilitate the participation of many EL-FEM women – with the financial support of the European Left. The speakers and participants came from a wide variety of countries: Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Poland, Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Cyprus, and Iraq/Britain.

As organizers of the conference we are very grateful that the “transform!europe” network has offered to publish the speeches of the conference in a booklet to make it possible for them to be read by a wider audience. These speeches will not only inspire, but can also be used in future discussions and work among feminists and the radical left.

Eight competent speakers covered an overview of the achievements of women over the past 100 years, but were concentrating on the main focus points of the women’s struggle of today. It was concluded that there had certainly been gains – the vote, equal rights and gender equality in legislation – but that very many of these gains have not been put into effect. At the same time women of today are faced with huge problems such as wide-spread poverty on a global scale, economic crisis and the economic liberalization of and attack on public welfare, the unchanging gender pay gap, low representation in parliaments, councils and boards, trafficking, war and oppression.

The speeches and the ensuing broad discussions among the participants of the conference underlined the necessity to continue the debate with regard to several topics, which are of crucial importance in the women’s struggle ahead. The speakers and the participants were not in agreement on some of the issues mentioned here, which make it all the more important to continue the discussion:

  • The need to reclaim feminism as a crucial part of socialism – to develop Marxist/socialist feminism as the ideology of liberation of socialist and progressive women of today and to integrate it into radical left/socialist parties and organizations. The historical conflict between Marxism and feminism has been very detrimental to both fights but above all for feminism, which suffered systematic subordination to the labour movement.
  • There will be no socialism without democracy and no democracy without women. A discussion about the nation state as a reactionary construction was raised and it is worth continuing to work more with the arguments. But can a welfare state be organized without a nation state?
  • An interesting discussion took place on the right to vote – one of the primary gains originating in the women’s conference in Copenhagen of 1910 – and on how to politicize the issue of political participation: Does this mean working in opposition to the system or working inside it (a parliamentary system).
  • The controversial ideas of Frigga Haug that women are not only victims but have a share in their own oppression (reproducing the social conditions they are in).
  • How to view the issue of labour and women at a time of neo-liberalism and dissolution of the family. This question was also seen in relation to the discussion about Marx’ concept of labour and that of the feminist movement of the 1970s and ‘80s, which raised the important issue of expanding the concept of work – i.e. to housework, reproductive work, which officially is not considered “productive” work, because it does not produce any surplus value.
  • The use of quotas and the empowerment of women in other ways. Quotas are useful for both sexes. Quotas as a tool of gender mainstreaming are a tool of law and procedures, but it takes much longer to change the way people think and the culture they live in than it takes to change the law.
  • The public welfare system and the need to preserve it in order to promote gender equality and the economic independence of women as opposed to financial and multinational capitalism – a male system.
  • Awareness of the neo-liberal strategy and its undermining of democracy and strengthening of militarization – the dangers that it presents to women and the working class movement. Can women create a feminist peace movement to counter increasing militarization, surveillance and the undermining of democracy in this connection?
  • The EU 2020 strategy aims at undermining effectively the public sector and at privatizing in a lot harsher and more fundamental way than previously; this should also be seen in connection with the conclusions that the public welfare sector contributes to support and liberate women. This EU-strategy is a male strategy. What can women do about this?
  • How to fight trafficking – focusing on where the money is made. On the one hand it is important to combine the work to reduce trafficking and prostitution with an effort to improve social conditions because women are forced into trafficking and prostitution because they are poor. But can prohibiting the buying of sex also be one of the means to fight trafficking and prostitution? There were conflicting views at the conference with regard to this, as others would see women in prostitution as sex workers whose work conditions should be improved and protected. This is a difficult discussion, which needs to be pursued in a way that advances women’s rights and lives and does not deepen the gap between feminist views.
  • Is “state-feminism” transformative or counterproductive? Can “small steps” and legislation be used to promote equal rights, equal pay in real life today? State feminism can’t fundamentally change society. On the other hand, something can be done, for example, about sexual harassment, originating in the patriarchal system, without any fundamental change of society. Something can be done about the pay gap by trade unions, for example. Quotas can be used to strengthen democratization and have more women in parliaments.
  • Is “state feminism” counterproductive in the sense that it demobilizes the grassroots, while they are waiting for a decision by the court? The grassroots have to be numerous, strong and offensive for state feminists to have any chance to change anything. State feminism needs grassroots pressure. The same applies to gender mainstreaming, a central EU-policy.
  • How to contribute to changing the situation of women in Iraq and elsewhere by women’s movements in the industrialized world. A discussion about war, conflict, and women and how to build a feminist peace movement needs to be pursued, which can also combine with the struggle of women in war and conflict zones in the Global South. There is also an important discussion on the role of religion/repressive regimes with regard to women, and how to support oppressed women in the South. Global solidarity between women should be reformulated before this background and made much more concrete.

We hope that with the publication of this booklet by transform we will have provided the tools to intensify the future work of EL-FEM and many other women’s networks and organizations – as well as European left parties.

Inger V. Johansen, Gunna Starck, Gitte Pedersen,
The Women’s Committee of the Red-Green Alliance
May 19, 2010

Download pdf on the left.

The printed version of the booklet can be ordered at:



Inger V. Johansen, Gunna Starck, Gitte Pedersen: Preface
Johanne Schmidt-Nielsen: Welcome speech
Sandra Beyer: Introductory speech: Women‘s rights 100 years after – a tentative overview
Susanne Empacher: Socialism and feminism
Drífa Snædal: Iceland: Women and Crisis
Annette Groth: The Undermining of the Welfare State and Increasing Precariousness – The Consequences of Neo-Liberalism on Women in the EU and Elsewhere
Drude Dahlerup: Is ‚State-feminism‘ Transformative or in Fact Counterproductive? – Summary
Line Barfod: Human Trafficking – Women and Children as the Slaves of Today
Gona Saed: Women in Armed Conflict Areas