International Working Women’s Day: Origins and a Way Forward

Contact: AF3IRM Seattle, [email protected]

International Women’s Day, though presently pinkwashed, was originally created as part of the organizing strategy of Socialist parties in the United States and Europe. Previously called International Working Women’s Day (IWWD) it signified a day of striking, political organizing, and dismantling capitalism with the express goal of prioritizing the reduction and eventual eradication of the exploitation of proletarian, or working class, women. This is an important distinction because as one of IWWD’s original founders and pioneer for women in socialism, Clara Zetkin, points out, even a shared victory like women’s suffrage does not translate into a shared struggle or shared goals between classes: where proletarian women sought to use their right to vote as another tool to dismantle oppressive systems, “The bourgeois feminists want to participate in public life because they hope to support and preserve the current bourgeois social order.” As AF3IRM Seattle, we are committed to the work of the proletarian women before us, no longer will we uphold the bourgeoisie and classist order that is the gatekeeper to welfare and thriving. 

We want to tap into the original purpose of today and imagine a world where we are all liberated from the oppressive forces of capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and their offspring, imperialism and colonization. And in alignment with the first International Working Women’s Day in 1921 (and its previous iterations dating back to 1910), today and every day we are centering and prioritizing the voices, experiences, and needs of the most marginalized, particularly women and girls who are Black, Indigenous, or brown, those in the global south or experiencing poverty, and folks without stable housing.

We want to tap into the original purpose of today and refuse to preserve the current social order.

We want to tap into the original purpose of today and say fuck white neoliberal capitalism.

Neoliberal ideas won’t save us; they don’t serve nor protect us from the injustices inflicted upon our bodies as proletarian women. 

With that said, we need to talk about the sex trade.

This seems to be the untouchable conversation even in the most supposedly radical, socialist, communist, anti-capitalist circles. Critiques of the sex trade as exploitative or harmful are often met with knee-jerk responses and canned catchphrases that prevent any meaningful dialogue on the topic. These catchphrases serve to shame and silence people— especially BIWOC— from speaking out against something that is directly impacting our lives and communities. 

If you are feeling the temptation to label this as “some real SWERF shit,” all we ask is that you swallow the urge and remind yourself that only diehard capitalist enablers believe that a critique of an industry is a critique of its workers. You’re not capitalist enablers, probably, and neither are we. We believe it is the person that matters, never the system. Systems of oppression are what need to be abolished in order for our loved ones to thrive and live without fear. We know the costs of speaking up against a self-serving, capitalist industry and know it takes the grace and patience of a community to teach, learn, and unlearn together. 

So let’s talk.

Private Equity

Somehow this conversation has been misrepresented as being about a woman’s right to sell sex when in fact it is about a woman’s right not to be bought and sold, not to have her body commodified and colonized, not to feel coerced by capitalism and white supremacy into a market where she is the product. 

This is less about a woman’s right to sell sex and more about a man’s right to buy it. And it is not a moralistic perspective to believe that people with power, access, money, and true agency should not be able to use that privilege to coerce consent out of people who have little power, access, money, or the agency to refuse that trade. To ignore the privilege of the buyer is to also ignore the historical narrative of colonizers silencing, enslaving, and erasing anyone in their way. The original John didn’t buy— he took, raped, and settled on land and bodies with no regard for anyone or anything besides what served him.

It is a privilege to turn this into a conversation about your right to opt into the sex trade when people in the global south have been fighting their whole lives for the opportunity to opt out. 

As humans in a society, our bodily autonomy is restricted daily. That is part of living together in a community. That is part of having a set of agreed-upon rules to govern us. We are not allowed to sell our organs, only donate them, in large part because the government acknowledged that the normalization of this practice through laws and culture would create a marketplace that would thrive on Black and brown, poor and powerless bodies being literally cut open and torn apart for the benefit of the wealthy. France has outlawed surrogacy for similar reasons and a previously unregulated market for surrogacy in India resulted in thousands of women forced to carry and birth babies for affluent, often-Western families. For the safety of others and the broader community, many of us accept that not everything that seems like a personal choice should get to be a personal choice. Many leftists support stricter gun control laws (and, in some cases, the complete ban of certain weapons for personal use altogether). Many leftists support mandatory vaccinations. We agree we need licenses to hold certain jobs or operate certain machinery– for our safety and the safety of others. So why then do people who otherwise advocate for socialist policies and actively critique the American myth of self-reliance lean so deeply on libertarian values and language when discussing the sex trade?

Free Market

Just as a call for prison abolition does not serve to silence those who found sobriety, connection, or community while incarcerated, a call for the abolition of the sex trade does not negate the experiences of those who have found financial stability, empowerment, or autonomy through the sex trade. The positive experiences or benefits that individuals may find in a problematic, racist system do not justify the continued existence, expansion, and normalization of that system. 

We can know that in the short term a system may have provided certain utility or value to some, but still, we can raise our expectations and demand more in the long term: we can demand that no one should have to participate in an oftentimes exploitative and problematic system in order to gain access to sobriety, connection, community, financial stability, empowerment, or autonomy. 

We can seek out true liberation, but it starts with being able to have a more nuanced dialogue about the real impacts of the sex trade on Black, Indigenous, and brown bodies, minds, hearts, and families. We can seek out true liberation, but it starts with centering the most marginalized among us. We can seek out true liberation, but it starts with no longer relying on dismissive language meant to silence women of color who have seen the ways the sex trade has been used as a colonizer’s tool to weaken our communities and homelands, profit off of our bodies, and convince us that we should like it. 

Saying that without the sex trade certain groups of people— Black femmes, trans youth and adults, houseless folks, and other populations made vulnerable by oppression — would be unable to pay their bills should radicalize us and embolden us to dismantle the systems that make this so, not normalize the funneling of these groups into an industry that is violent for the majority of workers even those that want to be there.

Profit Margin

Full decriminalization relies on the same set of flawed values and logic that trickle-down economics does. The idea that fully decriminalizing the sex trade— allowing buyers, pimps, brothel owners, and traffickers unfettered access to those living in poverty without fear of repercussions— will somehow result in less trafficking, less exploitation, and more wealth generated for all people selling sex holds zero water. Deregulation of the market never serves marginalized groups, nor does it offer any protection for the vulnerable against poverty, exploitation, coercion, and violence.

To think the free unregulated market will benefit workers in the sex trade when it has not benefited workers in any other industry is at best misguided and at worst an intentional choice to prioritize patriarchal and imperialist systems over the mental, emotional, and physical safety of women as a whole. 

It is not radical to push for full decriminalization. It is not radical to ignore centuries of historical trauma, the adultification of Black girls and hypersexualization of BIWOC, and the suffocating confines of capitalism and rebrand it as empowerment, as liberation, as agency. It is not radical to be anti-capitalist except for when talking about the commodification of women’s bodies. That’s neoliberalism dressed up to look like feminism and to say otherwise is blatant ignorance to issues concerning the welfare of those in the sex trade.

The American Dream

We, like many Black, brown, and Native activists who came before us, patently refuse to buy into The American Dream. It is not our dream to finally reach the forever-moving goalposts of Western, white, American values. Our dream is not to finally be deemed productive enough or beautiful enough to deserve resources or wealth.

We dream of a world where our land and bodies are not conquered, carved up, and sold to the highest bidder. Our bodies are sacred and held by something bigger than Western achievement. We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams of liberation and self-love. We dream of a return to true community care, where our choices as individuals are informed by the wisdom of our foremothers and by the impact that will be felt by our great-great-great-great granddaughters. 

Yes, it is radical and unpopular and un-American to say our individual autonomy is not more important than our collective future. And we are saying it.  

We believe no one selling sex should be arrested or have to interact with the police. We also imagine a future with true equity and mutuality, robust restorative justice programs, and an abundance of resources— all of which would serve to prevent violence in our communities and remove any attempt at rationalizing over-policing and the carceral state. Decriminalizing pimps and buyers does not allow space to dream of equity and mutuality, because in order to justify the lack of consequences for these men, we also need to justify and normalize financial and social capital as a tool to coerce consent out of people with less power. 

We believe in true liberation for all. Getting there requires us to be aggressively critical of the status quo, especially the systems that we are personally benefiting from, and it requires us to listen to those with lived experiences different than our own. We invite our critics to sit with us as we un/learn together. 

Today is a good day for difficult conversations that don’t just challenge the bourgeois social order but that also challenge us to think more critically about our role in the social order. Today is a good day to say fuck capitalism and the settler-colonial state.