From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
‘In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage’
With the passing of this resolution in 1910 International Women’s Day was born. Since then 8 March has been celebrated with demonstrations and meetings all over the world, yet many know little about the women and the tradition that first inspired the event.
The idea for the day came from Clara Zetkin, a leading socialist in Germany at the time. She was a powerful tribune for the millions of working women organising in trade unions and fighting for the right to vote. Zetkin felt the day could be used as a way of winning more women to socialist ideas. It was to be an opportunity to agitate about the issues of the day rather than a time for empty speeches.
Today International Women’s Day is seen by many as a celebration of the women’s movement. Zetkin argued, however, that working women could not be part of one movement with middle or upper class women.
‘The liberation struggle of the working class woman cannot be – as it is for the bourgeois woman – a struggle against the men of her own class... The end goal of her struggle is not free competition against men, but bringing about the political rule of the working class. Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the working class woman fights against capitalist society.’
Even the date chosen was a reflection of these ideals. Zetkin had heard that on 8 March 1908 US garment workers, having fought a winter long strike, held a militant demonstration in the heart of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Their courage and demands for equal pay, childcare for working mothers and the vote inspired socialists across the world.
The very first International Women’s Day was a huge success. In Germany even the smallest towns had packed meetings while in the big cities demonstrations of up to 30,000 women workers took place.
But the most memorable year was 1917 in Russia. Thousands of women textile workers took to the streets in recognition of International Women’s Day, ‘driven to desperation by starvation and war’, as one eye witness said. These protests sparked mass strikes across Petrograd and led ultimately to the workers’ revolution that brought Tsarist oppression to an end.
Legislation brought in by the new workers’ government was the first to attempt to make the dream of women’s liberation a reality at last. Lenin, one of the leaders of the revolution, said in 1919:
‘In the course of two years of soviet power in one of the most backward countries in Europe, more had been done to emancipate woman, to make her equal of the “strong sex”, than has been done during the past 130 years by all the advanced, enlightened, “democratic” republics of the world taken together.’
Even today, 75 years on, no other government has approached the record on women’s rights attempted by this fledgling socialist state.
The eventual defeat of the revolution through the rise of Stalinism has led many to the conclusion that women’s liberation can never be achieved.
In the first of our articles to commemorate International Women’s Day we try to answer the question: Will women always be oppressed?
We also interview a Brazilian woman socialist, whose experiences organising among women in the Amazon show that the tradition which first inspired International Women’s Day is still alive today.
Finally we look at one of the most controversial debates around at the moment – women’s fertility.
Last updated: 8 March 2017