International Women’s Day, which marks its 100th anniversary this year, is now celebrated across the world on 8 March.
Some use it to emphasise sisterhood against women’s oppression. For others it is a chance to celebrate women’s achievements.
There will be events to celebrate women in business and politics, and raise awareness of women as survivors of domestic violence, rape and war.
The best will see discussions about the struggles of working class women for equality, and of the idea of International Women’s Day as an event to celebrate the struggle of women workers.
Everyone agrees that women have come a very long way since the first International Women’s Day in 1911. Its history is one of working women joining with working men to fight oppressive employers and the system.
Clara Zetkin, a revolutionary socialist in the German Social Democratic Party, first proposed it in 1910. Zetkin had been elected leader of the Women’s Bureau and had won the argument that socialists must campaign for the vote for working class men and women.
Zetkin chose 8 March because on that day in 1908 some 15,000 women workers in the needle trades in New York marched. They were demanding the vote, better pay and a life worth living.
The Socialist Party of America then declared the first ever National Woman’s Day, celebrated in the US on 28 February 1909.
Later that year the New York Shirtwaist workers went out on strike in “the uprising of the 20,000”. Some of the very young immigrant women had voted to start a union and were immediately sacked.
When their jobs were advertised other workers walked out. They picketed the company for five weeks facing down attacks from the company’s hired thugs and police harassment.
Union officials tried to bring out other workers but then Clara Lemlich, a young worker, addressed a mass meeting crowd in Yiddish, the language most of them spoke.
She called for a general strike against the long hours, insulting bosses and disgusting conditions. This inspired a walk out by 20,000 garment workers across New York.
The strike saw a debate between wealthy reformers who supported the action and socialists, who intervened in the dispute. Socialists argued that the women garment workers had the same concerns as their male co-workers.
This meant that a united fight involving working class men and women was the only way to win real change.
Terrified that they would lose a fortune in the next fashion season, the employers finally agreed to a shorter week, paid holidays and to pay for all the workers’ tools.
It was a fantastic victory.
It was these struggles that socialists wanted to celebrate when Zetkin proposed International Women’s Day at a conference of socialist women in Copenhagen in 1910.
The disaster of the First World War wrecked the workers’ movement as social democratic parties across Europe sided with their own ruling class against other rulers.
But it was working class women and men who marched during the war for “bread and peace”.
Then in Russia in 1917 women again demanded bread and peace in demonstrations that began the February revolution, leading to the overthrow of the dictator, the Tsar.
When International Women’s Day was raised again in the 1970s it came out of the struggles against all forms of oppression—racism, sexism, women’s oppression and homophobia—and against imperialism and the Vietnam war.
Now the revolutions across the Middle East have seen women and men striking and protesting together against crushing poverty and brutal dictators.
The women who have played a key role in Western governments over the last three decades—such as Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Angela Merkel—were happy to do business with these tyrants.
The struggles of today mean that International Women’s Day can again be an event when we learn from the struggles of the past.
This can help us organise for women’s liberation from capitalism—and the ruling class men and women who benefit from our oppression.
For Socialist Worker meetings on International Women’s Day see page 12