The radical roots of International Women’s Day

Though celebration of IWD today is often dominated by governments and NGOs, the day has its origins in revolutionary struggle.

International Women's Day socialism
Spanish women protesting for abortion rights

It’s easy to forget the radical roots of International Women’s Day, observed all over the world on 8 March. The media and the ruling class try to sell it as part of a series of harmless events, alongside Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. Most of the political coverage will come courtesy of the UN, who each year pick a theme to promote on the day. For 2014 the theme is “Equality for Women is Progress for all”. This is a slogan all socialists can agree with, but the UN and its member states have little interest in achieving genuine liberation for women. In fact the UN has only marked IWD since 1975, but the roots of the day are far older and more revolutionary than mainstream coverage would imply.

IWD was established in 1910 by the International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, and marked properly for the first time in 1911. It was proposed by the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin as a strategy to highlight the struggles of working class women and promote their causes. Her proposal was passed unanimously by over 100 women from all over the world and has been marked annually ever since.

Zetkin’s idea came at a time of huge political upheaval and provided a political focus point for women organising to transform society. The February Revolution in Russia started on International Women’s Day 1917, when women went on strike for bread and peace, a strike which eventually led to the abdication of the Czar.

In Trotsky’s famous History of the Russian Revolution his description of the day is telling of the way that struggles can seemingly appear from nowhere:

The 23rd of February was International Woman’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes….On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support… ‘Thus the fact is that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organisations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat – the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives.

The overgrown breadlines had provided the last stimulus. About 90,000 workers, men and women, were on strike that day. The fighting mood expressed itself in demonstrations, meetings, encounters with the police. The movement began in the Vyborg district with its large industrial establishments; thence it crossed over to the Petersburg side. There were no strikes or demonstrations elsewhere, according to the testimony of the secret police. On that day detachments of troops were called in to assist the police – evidently not many of them – but there were no encounters with them. A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions on them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Woman’s Day passed successfully, with enthusiasm and without victims. But what it concealed in itself, no one had guessed even by nightfall.

Over 100 years later, women are still at the forefront of struggle and revolution. In the last few years they have led struggles in Greece and Spain, while in the UK, where women make up the majority of trade union members, they have led strikes against austerity. In the Egyptian Revolution we saw women on the very frontline of struggle, driving the revolution forwards before leading a fierce battle against the sexual harassment employed by the state and others to crush them.

Zetkin saw International Women’s Day as a crucial way to draw the link between the fight against oppression and the struggle for workers’ power. She argued that working-class men and women had to join together to overthrow capitalism, but that in order to do this an argument had to be waged to take women’s oppression seriously in the movement, and that efforts had to be made to organise amongst women and have them as leaders.

Over a century since International Women’s Day was established we still live in a world rife with sexism, misogyny and the objectification of women. But we also have a huge potential for solidarity and struggle.

Inessa Armand, the first leader of the women’s department after the 1917 Russian Revolution, wrote, “If women’s liberation is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without women’s liberation.”

Today we should celebrate International Women’s Day, but at the same time continue to fight for a world there it is no longer necessary.


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