The Development of International Women’s Day

Women’s protest march, Petrograd February 1917

Women’s struggle for liberation throughout history, whether alone or alongside men, has been ignored and neglected by many. On the occasion of International Women’s Day I will discuss the revolutionary history of IWD. Not only is this topic important to us for its own sake but also because women’s struggle for emancipation is fundamentally linked with the struggle against capitalism, where they can be seen as interdependent. Women’s achievements in gaining their rights have mainly been accompanied by revolutionary movements and that is what led to the creation of IWD, originally called International Working Women’s Day.

The creation of IWWD in the beginning was linked with female suffrage. But it developed into campaigning for wider aims, ones that correspond with socialist aims, such as the general overthrow of capitalism and the abolition of domestic slavery of women and wage slavery of workers. Let’s first see how this day came about.

  • A story surfaced that a repressed strike in New York of female textile workers took place on the 8th of March in 1857 and that this event led to a rally in commemoration of its 50th anniversary in 1907. However neither of these events seem to actually be true. But many people think that this marked the creation of IWD. And this was because of the widespread propaganda in the Cold War era that tried to detach the socialist/Soviet roots of IWD and replace them with a more international origin.

  • What actually happened is that the creation of the socialist women’s movement led to the creation of IWWD.

  • In 1894, an article appeared in a social democratic women’s magazine by German socialist Clara Zetkin where she firmly differentiates between bourgeois feminism and the proletarian women’s movement. This was an important distinction because it showed how working women were doubly burdened by class and gender and so in turn sought the overthrow of capitalism to end their struggle. In contrast bourgeois feminists were satisfied with reforms and not questioning the major oppressive role played by capitalism.

  • Two years later (1896), a private meeting was held among thirty socialist women from the UK, Germany, America, Holland, Belgium and Poland where they genuinely discussed raising gender and class-consciousness among women workers.

They agreed to uphold a socialist conception as well as a feminist one.

They advocated for female suffrage, legislating women’s labour, social assistance for mothers and children, equal treatment of single mothers, the provision of nurseries, the distribution of free meals and free education in school, and international solidarity. They organized thousands of working women and successfully raised consciousness through the organization of women’s papers and magazines. And they understood the importance of the socialist notion of international solidarity.

  • By the year 1900 women in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) would hold bicameral conferences that focused on issues of proletarian women. And shortly after, the German socialist working women’s movement became the main supporter of the International Socialist Women’s Movement.

  • In 1907 they created a separate International Women’s Bureau to strengthen the links between women workers’ organizations in all countries; to have women workers across nations unite. The women were very active and each of them had various achievements in her own countries.

  • In the USA in 1909 socialist working women designated February 28th. as National Women’s Day. Then two years later, inspired by the American women, German delegate Luize Zietz put forward the resolution to annually commemorate IWWD.

In that same year (1911), in a show of solidarity, socialist women in Boston marched with the suffragists in their struggle for voting rights in February 1911. This also marked the first IWD celebration which took place on March 18th in Europe. What happened is that;

  • In Germany, over a million women took to the streets demanding social and political equality. They organized public political assemblies that gained very high popularity. In Berlin alone, 42 assemblies were held that addressed women’s rights.

  • In Vienna, women rallied and held banners honouring the 1871 Paris Commune, which was the first time workers managed to take power. There women also played a role in the struggle by demanding voting rights, a secular state, divorce rights and education. In Austria this was actually the first time women’s equality and suffrage had been brought up in parliament.

  • Not even a week after the first IWD’s celebration, a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed 146 women, most of whom were young immigrants. This incident inspired many women to campaign for changes in working conditions.

After this first celebration, the women agreed to change the date to March 8th. and women in Switzerland, Denmark, France, Holland, Sweden, Bohemia, and Russia joined as annual celebrants. In 1914 it became a worldwide practice. Nineteen fourteen also marked the year where war broke out in Germany and led to the adoption of nationalism by the SPD and the adoption of the reactionary “social peace policy. Critical demonstrations were repressed by the government, especially the public celebration of IWD. In early November Clara Zetkin strongly spoke out against the war and campaigned for mass action to bring about peace. Due to her daring speech, she was called upon to organise the final Socialist Women’s Conference in April 1915 where the discussion focused on the ongoing imperialist war.

In the early years of World War One, in 1915, women’s consciousness rose and women began to take action. They proclaimed their rights in public and private realms, either as mothers and wives or as housekeepers. In Switzerland Clara Zetkin assembled socialist women from nearby countries to protest against the war. Many people saw these protestors as traitors. Either coming from the East or West, the women who marched on this day, (March 7th, 1915), showed opposition to their countries’ war policies. They also called for the reconstruction of the Second International which had collapsed due to nationalism. Many of these women were faced with consequences. Upon returning to their countries, Clara Zetkin and French socialist Louise Saumoneau were arrested for distributing the manifesto which was illegal. Although the war went on, so did the socialist celebration of IWD and women’s opposition to the system. As the food shortages and surges in prices appeared, women in New York and Italy called for support for women’s rights to feed their families.

Two years later in 1917 the most dramatic and memorable celebration of IWD took place in Russia. Feminist Alexandria Kollontai led a protest that focused on the surge in rent prices in St. Petersburg, which more than doubled. Many female and male workers faced layoffs and went on strikes. Factories were closing because of a shortage of energy to run the plants. By February over half a million Russian workers took to the streets in protest. On IWD women seized the occasion’s opportunity and led a demonstration from factories and breadlines and were joined by many male workers.

After two day’s of confrontation with the demands of the women, the Czar ordered an end be put to the women’s protests. Thus began the Russian February Revolution. Two days later the Czar was forced to renounce his position and an election of a constituent assembly marked the first government in Russia to grant women voting rights. The Bolsheviks eventually took power in October 1917. After the Bolsheviks took power, Russia witnessed a remarkable advance in women’s rights. First and foremost was female suffrage. Women were also granted the right to divorce, decriminalization of prostitution and homosexuality, legalized abortion, and establishment of the Ministry for the Protection of Maternity and Childhood. Because of this the Russian Revolution became a source of inspiration.

Back to Germany. In 1918, after the collapse of the second German empire, the SPD no longer saw any point in continuing the celebration of IWD, arguing that the holiday’s objective had already been achieved, i.e. female suffrage. However, the newly formed German Communist Party kept the celebrations going. In 1922, with the help of Clara Zetkin, Lenin established IWD as a communist holiday. That year the Chinese communists began celebrating it too. In Spain on IWD of 1936, a leader of the Spanish Communist Party, Dolores Ibarurri, led a demonstration of thousands of women that demanded protection against the spread of the fascist threat.

Up until the mid-nineteen seventies, IWD was celebrated mainly in socialist countries but is now celebrated in over a 100 countries and is an official holiday in 27 countries. Its history represents working women who were conscious of the huge role played by class distinctions in the oppression of women and so they chose to fight towards the abolition of class systems. They understood that real feminism was not about the empowerment of women who upheld systems that oppress working class women, but rather about the emancipation of women as a caste. Of course, nowadays, under capitalism, IWD tends to be commercialized and romanticized where women are celebrated alongside commodities whose main purpose is to profit from women’s insecurities and encourage fetishism; thus completely straying from its socialist roots. But this does not erase the fact that the participation of women in struggles against oppressive systems has always been taking place. Women have been labour organizers, union members, strikers, agitators, and rioters; not only in the West, but all over the world.

Due to industrialization, Latin American women have been gaining consciousness of the possibility of their own liberation. They became members of revolutionary organizations in Cuba, Nicaragua, Salvador, Guatemala, and Chile. In Afghanistan, around 1980, a schoolgirl led schoolchildren to demonstrate against the Kabul government, when seventy of them were killed. Afghan women demonstrated daily to commemorate their memory and created the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan which organized women and girls into the resistance. 

In Algeria in 1981 the family code was revised and it returned women’s legal status to that of minors. They held demonstrations with lawyers, labour union reps and former freedom fighters where they managed to collect 10,000 signatures on a petition that opposed the code. In Iran women who were protesting against Khomeni’s leadership, alongside men, were beaten, stoned, and stabbed. In 1981 he ordered the shooting of 50 schoolgirls for counter-revolutionary activity. In total, he executed around 20,000 women. In Jerusalem in 1989, Israeli, Palestinian and European women created a huge March for Peace from the west to the east of Jerusalem. This is a little known fact but women were actually in the forefront of the Israel-Palestine peace movement. Israeli women led demonstrations and risked contact with Palestinian women. For taking this risk, they were attacked by men and beaten by the police. During the March for Peace, three thousand women were killed.

It’s important to keep in mind the fact that working class women who play a role in both the labour force and household and reproductive activities face even greater obstacles in political opposition involvement than do men. Their work is exhausting, low paid and is usually restricted to domestic areas where class-consciousness is much less likely to arise. These women get paid considerably less than men do for one job and absolutely nothing for the other job that they are supposedly biologically bound to. In many cases they get paid in negatives if you take into account domestic abuse. So they are doubly oppressed because of their class and gender. But despite these barriers, many of them have managed to act in opposition to oppressive regimes. 

The struggle for women’s rights, especially those of working class women, continues and International Women’s Day is an occasion to draw attention to and further advance this essential part of the struggle for human liberation in general.


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