‘The working women’s day of militancy.’ That was how the Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai described the first ever celebration of International Women’s Day in March 1911. That probably isn’t how most people view International Women’s Day, which is on Friday of this week, if they have heard of it at all.
In Britain the event is largely confined to media discussions on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour or in the Guardian, and local events sponsored by councils and businesses. But International Women’s Day had very different origins. It was originally named International Working Women’s Day, and was called for by socialists to organise and celebrate the struggles of women workers.
Clara Zetkin, a leading socialist and revolutionary in Germany, proposed the day at an international socialist conference in 1910. The date of 8 March was chosen because it commemorated a demonstration of some of the most exploited women workers in New York two years earlier. On 8 March 1908 hundreds of women garment workers had filled Rutgers Square in the city’s Lower East Side to protest against child labour and sweatshop working conditions, and to demand union rights and the vote for women.
These women, most of them immigrants, worked long hours in overcrowded and degrading conditions. Their anger would erupt the following year in a 13-week strike, which became known as ‘the uprising of the 20,000’. This was part of an upsurge of militant struggles of women textile workers in the US.
The strike marked a turning point, showing that women were not passive drudges that bosses could exploit at will, but active class fighters. As one of the leaders of the strike, Clara Lemlich, explained, ‘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 FIRST International Women’s Day demonstrations took place in Europe in March 1911. ‘Its success exceeded all expectation,’ wrote Alexandra Kollontai. ‘Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere. In the small towns and even in the villages halls they were packed. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings.’ In many big towns in Germany up to 30,000 women joined the marches.
Demonstrations of working women took place in nearly every major European city on International Women’s Day every year until 1915, after the outbreak of the First World War. The main demand of these marches was for ‘universal suffrage’. Every country in Europe at the time still denied women the vote. Clara Zetkin argued the main slogan should be, ‘The vote for women will unite our struggle for socialism.’
Revolutionary socialists argued that winning the vote for working class women would not just improve their lives-it would weaken the hold of capitalism over all workers. They said that women’s oppression was rooted in capitalist society. ‘Neither as a person nor as a woman does she have the possibility of living a full life as an individual,’ wrote Clara Zetkin.
‘For her work as wife and mother she gets only the crumbs that are dropped from the table by capitalist production.’
INTERNATIONAL Women’s Day could help to unite men and women workers, and win them to the idea that women’s liberation was in the interests of the whole working class. As Alexandra Kollontai said, ‘After each Working Women’s Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. The day of working women’s militancy helps increase the consciousness and organisation of proletarian women. And this means that its contribution is essential to the success of those fighting for a better future for the working class.’
Revolutionary socialists had sharp arguments with the upper and middle class feminists who were also campaigning for votes for women. These feminists wanted equality with men of their own class, but they did not want to challenge the capitalist system which gave them riches and privileges. So many feminists argued that women’s suffrage should be based, like that of men, on how much property someone owned. ‘What is the aim of the feminists?’ asked Alexandra Kollontai.
‘Their aim is to achieve the same advantages, the same power, the same rights within capitalist society as those possessed now by their husbands, fathers and brothers. What is the aim of the women workers? Their aim is to abolish all privileges deriving from birth or wealth. For the woman worker it is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman.’
Revolutionary socialists argued that there could be no unity or ‘sisterhood’ between rich and poor women. As Alexandra Kollontai put it, ‘The paths pursued by women workers and bourgeois suffragettes have long since separated. ‘There is too great a contradiction between the interests of the woman worker and the lady proprietress, between the servant and her mistress.’
‘The liberation struggle of the working class woman cannot be-as it is for the bourgeois woman-a struggle against the men of her own class,’ wrote Clara Zetkin. ‘Hand in hand with the men of her own class, the working class woman fights against capitalist society.’
The different interests of upper class and working class women would come to the fore on the most significant International Women’s Day-in Russia in 1917. Tens of thousands of women workers took to the streets and sparked off the revolution which ousted the tyrannical Tsarist regime. There had been a growing mood of angry discontent in Russia after three years of slaughter at the front, and immense poverty and hardship at home.
International Women’s Day that year coincided with strikes, including some at the huge Putilov armaments factory. Thousands of hungry women poured onto the streets to join the strikers’ meetings and marches. The women demanded, ‘Bread for our children,’ and, ‘The return of our husbands from the trenches’.
One eyewitness described, ‘When workers were locked out of the Putilov plant 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.’
Women workers were at the forefront of the battles which culminated in the successful socialist revolution in October 1917. For a few short years this revolution achieved more for women than any Western capitalist state did in the following decades. Laws were introduced which made divorce easier, created nursery provision, communal laundries and restaurants, gave women maternity rights and made abortion legal.
ALTHOUGH IN many ways women’s lives have changed dramatically over the last century, the battle for our liberation is still to be won. Despite all the talk of ‘post-feminism’, women still face sexism in every area of life-at work, in parliament, in the courts and in our personal lives. The arguments put by revolutionary socialists like Zetkin and Kollontai about how to win women’s liberation are still as powerful today.
A minority of women may have been able to secure managerial jobs or well paid careers. But this hasn’t put an end to the sexism they face. Moreover millions of working class women still struggle with the ‘double burden’ of exploitation at work and responsibility for childcare at home. The gulf between the lives of rich and poor women is as great, if not greater, than at the beginning of the last century.
What does the woman executive have in common with the women facing exploitation and sexual harassment in the sweatshops of the Third World? Condeleezza Rice is one of the most powerful black women in the world. As Bush’s National Security Adviser she is pushing the US war drive. Anne Krueger is the deputy managing director of the IMF. She is leading demands for harsher austerity measures to be imposed on the men and women of Argentina.
What do these rich women have in common with the low paid women workers on the checkout at supermarkets in the advanced countries? A new generation has been radicalised in the anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movement. The wave of protest which has swept the globe-from Latin America to South Africa, from the US to Europe-has involved huge numbers of women. Their struggle captures the spirit of anger and defiance of the early celebrations of International Women’s Day.
The hope for women’s liberation lies in deepening and extending that fight into one which not only challenges but overthrows the capitalist system that gives rise to women’s oppression.
As Clara Zetkin put it, ‘We will only conquer the future if we win women as class fighters.’
Where now for pro-choice fight?