The socialist history of International Women's Day

Submitted by SJW on 10 March, 2020 - 7:56 Author: Kelly Rogers

International Women’s Day has its roots in some of the most significant moments of our movement’s history. It is our task to remember this history and to turn International Women's Day into a day of strikes and struggle once more.

It was at the second International Conference of Socialist Women, held in Copenhagen in 1910, that the idea of an International Women’s Day was first formally agreed. German delegates Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin brought the proposal in front of a hundred women delegates, from seventeen countries. The resolution read:

“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day (Frauentag), which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception” (emphasis mine).

These delegates had aspirations much grander than simply winning universal female suffrage. They sought the triumph of socialism: the liberation of workers from drudgery and wage slavery, and the liberation of women from the shackles of domestic slavery.

The first official International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 19 1911, a date chosen to celebrate the 1848 Revolution in Berlin. In Germany, more than a million women, mostly (but not exclusively ) organised in the SPD and the unions, took to the streets. They put on dozens of public assemblies, over 40 in Berlin alone, to discuss the issues they were facing in their day-to-day lives and prospects for the women’s movement.

That same year, workers in the United States chose March 8 for their Women’s Day. It was a significant date: In 1857, garment workers in New York City had struck and staged a demonstration against inhumane conditions and low pay. Fast forward to March 8 1908, and again 15,000 women garment workers, many of them Jewish immigrants, went on strike and marched through New York’s Lower East Side to demand higher pay, shorter working hours, voting rights and an end to child labour. ‘Bread and Roses’ became the slogan of the garment workers’ struggle: they didn’t merely seek money enough to eat, but fulfilling and enriched lives worth living.

From 1914 it became common practice to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. A famous poster depicting a woman dressed in black and waving a red flag (which Workers’ Liberty has adopted for its logo) marked the occasion in Germany. It was considered so
dangerous in the run up to the First World War that police prohibited it from being posted or distributed publicly. The day turned into a mass action against war and imperialism.

Three years later, March 8 1917 (in the Gregorian calendar), IWD witnessed the explosion of the February Revolution in Russia. In spite of opposition from Bolshevik men, working class women in Petrograd turned International Women’s Day into a day of mass demonstrations for “bread and peace” - demanding the end to World War One, to food shortages and to tsarism. They marched from factory to factory calling their fellow workers onto the streets and engaging in violent clashes with police and troops. Trostky wrote in The History of the Russian Revolution:

“A great role is played by women workers in relationship between workers and soldiers. They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command: “Put down your bayonets – join us.” The soldiers are excited, ashamed, exchange anxious glances, waver; someone makes up his mind first, and the bayonets rise guiltily above the shoulders of the advancing crowd.”

Not only did these women workers spark the beginning of the Russian Revolution, they were the motor that drove it forward. 7 days later Tsar Nicholas II abdicated.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.