International Women's Day: Past, Present, Future

March 8th each year is International Women’s Day. It is celebrated across the globe, and is a day for campaigners to draw attention to women’s continued second-class citizenship and need for equality. However, it is also celebrated by the very same governments and corporations that contribute to women’s unequal rights.

Here, I look at the roots of the Day in socialist and trade union action, and call for a revival of a Day of protest rather than complacency.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the relatively-young capitalist system had thrown millions of women in industrially-developing countries into factories, domestic service and other work. Many occupations were gender segregated, and “women’s work” – such as textiles – was often in the most appalling sweatshops, with low pay, terrible safety standards, and long hours. But at least workers were together, rather than isolated in the home, so they were able to fight back. Women workers, both unionised and ununionised, organised industrial disputes to win better conditions.

Although women had become part of public life as workers, they were still excluded from public life as citizens – they did not have the vote. Women’s suffrage movements grew across Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere.

It was from this storm of protest and action that International Women’s Day was born.

1907

On March 8th, women demonstrated in New York, demanding votes for women and an end to child labour and sweatshops. It was the 50th anniversary of a major protest by women working in clothing and textiles, also in New York City. The 1857 garment workers were protesting against poor working conditions and low wages. Police attacked and dispersed the women, but could not kill their spirit. The set up their first trade union in the same month two years later.

1908

On the same day a year later, 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay, union rights and the vote, packing out Rutger Square in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Most were garment workers, sick of the conditions in the needle trade factories described as “the vilest and foulest industrial sores of New York”. The employers made the women pay for their needles, thread and even chairs!

1909

Women shirtwaist makers staged a 13-week strike in 1909, known as the ‘Rising of the 20,000’. Their fight won better conditions, and gave confidence to American workers for several generations to come. As strike leader Clara Lemlich said, “They used to say you couldn’t even organise women. They wouldn’t come to union meetings. They were ‘temporary workers’. Well, we showed them!”

The Socialist Party of America declared 28th February 1909 the first National Woman’s Day (NWD), and socialist women held marches and meetings across the country to demand political rights for working women. 2,000 people attended a Women’s Day rally in Manhattan.

1910

Clara Zetkin proposed to the International Congress of Socialist Women that “women the world over set aside a particular day each year to remember women and their struggles.” … “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.” Over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed, deciding that on this day, socialists in all countries should hold big events, involving men and women in demanding improvements for working women.

1911

International Women’s Day (IWD) was held on 19 March, with more than one million women and men attending IWD rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, demanding women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination the first time. A million leaflets calling for action on the right to vote were distributed throughout Germany in the run-up to the Day.

Russian revolutionary and feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, was in Germany at the time, and helped to organise the day. She wrote that it: “exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria … was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere…..in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for the women … Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”

25 March 1911 – The Triangle Fire

Less than a week after that first International Women’s Day, over 140 workers died in the Triangle Fire in New York. Mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, they burned to death when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory where they worked caught fire. They died because working conditions were terrible and safety measures lacking, because capitalists pocket the profit they make from women’s labour rather than spending it on civilised working conditions.

Subsequent IWDs demanded workers’ legal rights and improved safety standards to avert further disasters like this one.

Early IWDs

Organised by socialists, International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8 from 1913 to 1915 with women’s parades and demonstrations in many European cities.

Alexandra Kollontai explained why the early International Women’s Days focused on winning the vote for women:
“in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. ‘Housewives uprisings’ became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany. The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.”

1913-1914

As war loomed, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Women across Europe held peace rallies on 8 March 1913 and again in 1914.

1917

On the last Sunday of February (23rd), Russian women began a strike for “bread and peace”, until four days later the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The provisional Government granted votes to women. 23rd February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia is 8th March on the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere.

The Bolshevik leaders had apparently asked the women workers not to strike, but “when workers were locked out of the Putilov armaments plant on March 7 the women of Petrograd began to storm the streets. The wives, daughters and mothers of soldiers, previously as downtrodden and oppressed as prostitutes, demanded an end to their humiliation and angrily denounced all the hungry suffering of the past three years. Gathering strength and passion as they swept through the city over the next few days in food riots, political strikes and demonstrations, these women launched the first revolution in 1917.” (Cathy Porter, (1980), Alexandra Kollontai, Virago, p:229)

1918 –

In the West, International Women’s Day continued during the 1910s and 1920s, but then died away, only reviving with the new wave of feminism in the 1960s. The first Australian IWD rally took place in the Sydney Domain on March 25, 1928. It was organised by the Militant Women’s Movement and called for equal pay for equal work; an 8-hour day for shop girls; no piece work; the basic wage for the unemployed; and annual holidays on full pay.

1960 was the 50th anniversary of International Women’s Day, and 729 delegates from 73 countries met in a conference in Copenhagen. It agreed a declaration of support for the political, economic and social rights of women.

1971

As feminism grew in the early 1970s, IWD saw a demonstration of 5,000 women in London demanding childcare, equal opportunities and easier access to safe abortion.

1982

Women in Iran discarded their veils on IWD, protesting against the rise of clerical rule after the overthrow of the Shah.

IWD in the Stalinist states

Alexandra Kollontai persuaded the Bolsheviks to officially recognise International Women’s Day, but it remained a working day until May 8 1965, when a decree of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet International declared Women’s Day a public holiday in the USSR “in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in rear, and also marking the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggle for the peace”.

By then, however, the USSR had long since stopped being anything like ‘socialist’, and Women’s Day became an object of scorn for millions of women and men living under dictatorship, who saw it as yet another propaganda event by a tyrannical regime. When those regimes fell to popular resistance around 1989, Women’s Day was promptly scrapped. Attempts to re-establish it have failed, although in Hungary, Poland and Romania, there is still a custom of giving women flowers – and employers giving gifts to female employees – on Women’s Day.

The United Nations

The United Nations designated 1975 ‘International Women’s Year’, then in 1977, passed Resolution 32/142 inviting each country to proclaim, in accordance with its historical and national traditions and customs, any day of the year as United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.

It has steered IWD away from its radical past, co-opting it into the political mainstream.

Corporate sponsorship

Even corporations – such as Deloitte, HSBC and Aviva – now sponsor International Women’s Day, although I have found no evidence that they do so by increasing the wages of their lowest-paid women workers! They prefer celebrations such as the “leadership development sessions, career workshops and corporate citizenship events” organised by consultancy and outsourcing company Accenture.

There is now a vast array of non-political IWD events, respectable public presentations, celebrations of high-flying women, and events promoting women’s health, leisure and achievement. In some countries, Women’s Day is similar to Mothers’ Day. Although these may have given International Women’s Day a profile, and some may be quite worthwhile and enjoyable, they have taken focus away from working-class women’s grievances. Many IWD events are now a world away from the protests that began the Day, and which are still needed today.

Back To The Future

Millions of women still work in sweatshops and other jobs with low pay and poor conditions - as well as unpaid in the home. The majority of the world’s 1.3 billion absolute poor are women; three-quarters of the world's 960 million illiterates are women. On average, women workers are paid between 30 and 40% less than men.

The rise of religious fundamentalism has seen women lose freedoms and rights, whether that be attacks on abortion rights in the USA's Bible belt, or acid thrown in the faces of women who refuse to wear the veil.

There is not a country in the world where women have full equality with men.

Since socialist women founded International Women’s Day, it has been adopted by non-socialist feminists, governments and organisations which have little to do with women's rights. It is now more likely to be marked by an aromatherapy open day than by a march for women’s rights. We should return to the original purpose of the Day: to mobilise support for working-class women’s demands, and to celebrate the contribution that women make to the struggle for human liberation.

The 2005 Congress of the Trades Union Congress passed a resolution calling for IWD to be designated a public holiday in the United Kingdom. In 2006, RMT successfully proposed to TUC Women's Conference that we wanted not just a holiday but a demonstration for women's rights every year on or around 8th March. The first of these is to be held this year, in the form of a rally at TUC Women's Conference in Scarborough. In future years, we hope to see thousands march through a major city demanding equality on March 8th each year.

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IWD 2007 - A MESSAGE FROM IRANIAN FEMINISTS

[There is a lot about women's campaigns in Iran here
and a petition about the arrested women here ]

Happy International Women's Day!

Please join us in an ongoing electronic Iran vigil in solidarity with
women's rights activists in Iran at:

http://opinionware.net/iran_vigil

On Sunday, 4 March 2007, the police and security forces violently
attacked and arrested 33 women's rights activists as they stood in
peaceful protest outside the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. The
activists had gathered in solidarity with the five women who were being
tried in connection with demonstrations held on 12 June 2007 to demand
equal rights for women.

As of this writing, (8:49 a.m. GMT, Thursday, 8 March 2007), three of
the activists who were arrested on Sunday remain in detention in section
209 of the infamous Evin Prison - one of the main sites of the execution
of thousands of political prisoners in the 1980s.

The vigil pages link you to Iranian and international information
sources and a number of electronic solidarity actions that you can
participate in. Help send a strong message to the Iranian authorities to
demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detainees, and
support women's campaign for change in Iran.

Refuse to Choose:
Reject US Intervention!
AND
Support Local Action!

This vigil is organized by Sirens of Solidarity.

=== BACKGROUND ===

IWD 1979

A day before International Women's Day, on March 7, 1979, less than a
month after the formation of the Islamic Republic, large numbers of
Iranian women took to the streets in many cities across Iran to protest
Khomeini's edict to the Transitional Government to bar unveiled women
from working for the government or entering government buildings. This
was the first post-Revolution attack by Islamists, one of many to come,
against women's rights. And women's spontaneous, decentralized and
self-organized protests during March 7th, 8th and 9th, as they were
about to celebrate International Women's Day for the first time in over
25 years since the US-backed coup d'etat that brought Shah back to power
in 1953, were the first popular acts of resistance against the Islamic
regime.

In 1979, women's movement was on the one side attacked by the Islamic
militia armed with knives, daggers, acid, brass knuckles, clubs, flails
and chains while they were deserted from the other side by
Islamo-liberal, nationalist and Marxist-populist parties whose
ideological sexism and political shortsightedness led them to the theory
that women's rights were of lesser significance to the nationalist,
anti-imperialist and/or class struggles. Both the Islamic fundamentalist
forces and their organized political opponents
- before the latter were violently eliminated in wave after wave from
the stage by the former - labeled women's protests and resistance as
"westoxicated" and "bourgeois" in their socio-cultural orientation.
Within a very short time, the Islamic regime enshrined in the
constitution and in the country's legal code a set of discriminatory
laws that reduced women's social and legal status to that of half-a-man.

IWD 2007

Over the past 28 years, these laws and their corollary ideological
social and cultural practices have had innumerable tragic effects on the
lives of more than half of the Iranian people across class, ethnic,
religious and generational lines. The view that women's issues are
secondary to larger and more urgent national concerns - such as current
threats of US intervention and war - is as wrong today as it was in
1979. Today, it is clear that in 1979 women were the vanguard, the first
line of popular resistance against the dehumanizing and repressive
Islamic state. Women are the vanguard again. Currently.
Today.

Over the past few years in particular, women's rights activists have
mounted a strong de-centered and multivocal force for changing the
Iranian constitution and laws. They have initiated a highly creative
grassroots campaign, "One Million Signatures Demanding Changes to
Discriminatory Laws," (http://en.we4change.com/) which demands changes
to discriminatory laws against women. This campaign is an outgrowth of
and a follow-up to a peaceful protest with the same aim that took place
on June 12, 2006 in Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran. The security forces
violently attacked the protesters and arrested over 70 of them.

On Sunday, March 4, 2007, 33 women's rights activists were arrested as
they gathered in a peaceful vigil in front of the Revolutionary Court in
Tehran. The police and security forces again violently attacked and
arrested these activists outside the court, where they had gathered in
solidarity with five women who had been charged and were being tried in
connection with the demonstration held on June 12, 2006.

As the global Bush block prepares for opening yet another war front,
this time in Iran, it is imperative for the progressive international
anti-war, feminist and social justice movements to keep informed of the
political dynamics inside Iran and support local initiatives for change
at the same time as we campaign against U.S. imperialist interventions.
The current moment/movement in the struggle for equal rights in Iran is
both radical and relevant: The women's campaign has clearly-articulated
demands that have wide appeal to diverse demographics, its organization
is de-centralized thus flexible and resilient, and its activities are
fully public thus forcing a bottom-up democratic change in Iranian
political discourse.

As the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq have clearly established by now,
US-led interventionist war does not bring 'democracy' to the invaded
land. That is the given. What is also established is that under a puppet
regime the social conditions and/or the legal status of women will not
significantly improve (as in Afghanistan) or will drastically
deteriorate (as in Iraq). While the US government covertly and overtly
supports, funds and arms an array of conservative and regressive
political players outside Iran - from the Shah's son to the Mojahedin -
in preparation for a regime change in Iran, it is crucial that we
support Iranian women's indigenous, self-organized resistance movement.
A campaign for equal rights is not a by-product of an independent
democratic movement but the very foundation of democracy and self-rule.

On IWD 1979, international progressive voices and forces failed to raise
and stand in solidarity with Iranian women. We cannot allow ourselves to
remain uninformed or silent again.

The Electronic Vigil in Solidarity with Women's Rights Activists in Iran
will be ongoing until further notice.