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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.