This weekend, I am celebrating International Women's Day with fellow women and non-binary activists inside an occupation of Senate House, the administrative heart of the University of London. As I look around at these people, with whom I am united in common goals of free and liberated education, an end to austerity and the protection of workers' rights, I am reminded why radical spaces like these are so important.
I am reminded of the power and importance of solidarity within both the free education and feminist movements, and why left-wing activists must mobilise in force to support actions such as this one. I am reminded that all over the world, women are leading powerful, successful grassroots movements that are consistently overlooked and silenced by our patriarchal society. Above all, I am reminded that direct action is an incredibly empowering tool used by many women and non-binary people to struggle against a sexist system that oppresses us on a daily basis.
It is clear to me that when we demand free education and an end to cuts, we are simultaneously demanding an end to gender inequality within the sector. The pay gap is still a fundamental issue - around 2/3 of workers paid £7 or less an hour are women, and for every £1 a man earns, a woman earns 85p. These figures are even worse among black women - our system is not only inherently sexist, but racist too. In academia, only one in five professors are women, and the work of women theorists and academics is constantly disregarded. In the context of the welfare state, 10% of all women's income comes from benefits, compared with 5% of men's income. So what happens when the white-male-dominated government cuts benefits? Of course, women are hit the hardest.
As I sit here at the heart of the biggest university in Europe, I feel I am at the heart of the pervasive neoliberal agenda that is rife in education at the moment. Anger is growing within the student movement as we are witness the ongoing commodification of education and privatisation of our institutions. As universities and schools look more and more to preparing us for well-paid jobs rather than educating us holistically, students are increasingly regarded as tools to be used to uphold capitalism, and with this move comes the fortification of sexism, as it is my wholehearted belief that women and non-binary people will never be truly liberated under this system which will always prioritise profit over people.
This I why I believe that International Women's Day needs reclaiming. As I browse the IWD website, I see that one of the sponsors is BP, a fossil fuel company and corporate giant which is not only actively contributing to the destruction of the planet, but is also profiting from that wreckage. I also see that the website is arguing for "more women in leadership roles" and for "the growth of women owned businesses". Although I acknowledge and condemn the fact that women are underrepresented in these sectors at the hands of sexism, I nonetheless reject this form of feminism and refute the idea that we will achieve a fair and equal society if there are more women in company boardrooms and positions of economic power. To me, all this would engender is a situation where women are oppressing other women, and that is not liberation. We must never lose sight of the fact that capitalism not only upholds the oppression of women, but in fact relies on it in order to function.
So that's why I am spending International Women's Day inside an occupation. In this autonomous space that we have reclaimed, we are uniting as women and non-binary people and we are discussing and debating our ideas on feminism and left-wing politics, in a way that directly challenges the capitalist, patriarchal system which dominates our lives. By doing so, we are not only envisaging and fighting for free education, but we are actually demonstrating what this vision may look like in the future.
Hope Worsdale is a student at University of Warwick and member of Warwick for Free Education, and a National Committee member of NCAFC (National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts)