History of International Women’s Day


Historic site in Copenhagen, Denmark where women from around the world gathered for the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910 and passed the resolution
establishing International Women’s Day.

In 1910, a resolution was passed by the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, establishing International Women’s Day. The resolution was unanimously adopted by the more than 100 women delegates from 17 countries attending, among whom were the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament. The resolution was put forward by German communist Clara Zetkin who had first proposed the idea of an annual demonstration in support of working women and women’s rights at the First International Conference of Socialist Women held in Stuttgart, Germany in 1907.

This Second International Conference reiterated the principles adopted at the First International Conference of Socialist Women on the question of women’s suffrage. These principles established the framework for the resolution to establish an International Women’s Day that focused on the question of women’s political rights.

The document states in part:


German communist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), initially proposed International Women’s Day in 1910. She was active in the Social Democratic Party of Germany until 1916, when she co-founded the Spartacus League of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. In 1919 she joined the Communist Party of Germany, which she represented in
the Reichstag from 1920-1933.

“The socialist woman’s movement of all countries repudiates the limited Woman’s Suffrage as a falsification of and insult to the principle of the political equality of the female sex. It fights for the only living concrete expression of this principle: the universal woman’s suffrage which is open to all adults and bound by no conditions of property, payment of taxes, or degrees of education or any other qualifications, which exclude members of the working class from the enjoyment of the right. They carry on their struggle not in alliance with the bourgeois Women’s Righters, but in alliance with the Socialist Parties, and these fight for Woman’s Suffrage as one of the demands which from the point of view of principle and practice is most important for the democratization of the suffrage.”

Stating that the socialist parties in all countries are “bound to fight with energy for the introduction of Woman’s Suffrage” it says that the socialist women’s movement must take part in the struggles organized by the socialist parties for the democratization of the suffrage, while at the same time ensuring that within this fight the “question of the Universal Woman Suffrage is insisted upon with due regard to its importance of principle and practice.”

The resolution to establish International Women’s Day states,

“In order to forward political enfranchisement of women it is the duty of the Socialist women of all countries to agitate according to the above-named principles indefatigably among the labouring masses; enlighten them by discourses and literature about the social necessity and importance of the political emancipation of the female sex and use therefore every opportunity of doing so. For that propaganda they have to make the most especially of elections to all sorts of political and public bodies.”

The delegates resolved,

“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade organizations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Woman’s Day, which in first line has to promote Women Suffrage propaganda. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole women’s question according to the socialist conception of social things.”

A “Woman’s Day” had been organized the previous year in the United States, on the last Sunday in February 1909, by the National Women’s Committee of the American Socialist Party, marked by demonstrations for women’s rights. Women’s suffrage along with the rights of women workers, particularly in the garment trade, were the focus of these demonstrations. This Woman’s Day honoured the thousands of women involved in the numerous labour strikes in the first years of the twentieth century in many cities, including Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. This was a period when women entered the labour force in their thousands and alongside working men fought to organize collectively and to improve their brutal conditions of work.

Later in 1909, needle-trade workers in New York City — 80 per cent of whom were women — walked off their jobs and marched and rallied for union rights, decent wages and working conditions in the “Uprising of 20,000.” The work stoppage was reportedly referred to as the “women’s movement strike” and continued from November 22, 1909 to February 15, 1910. The Women’s Trade Union League provided bail money for arrested strikers and large sums for strike funds during the work stoppage.

Early Celebrations of International Women’s Day

March 19, 1911 was the date set for the first International Women’s Day by the Second International Conference of Socialist Women and, implementing their resolution, rallies held in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on that day were attended by more than one million women and men. “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism” was the call of these rallies. In addition to their demand for the right to elect and be elected, they demanded the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job. A woman socialist wrote at that time:

“The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911. Its success exceeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere — in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.

“This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”

The following year, women in France, the Netherlands and Sweden joined in actions marking International Women’s Day. In the period leading up to the declaration of World War I, the celebration of International Women’s Day opposed imperialist war and expressed solidarity between working women of different lands in opposition to the national chauvinist hysteria of the ruling circles. For example, in Europe International Women’s Day was an occasion when speakers from one country would be sent to another to deliver greetings.

Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913 (on the Julian calendar, which corresponded to March 8 on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere), under conditions of brutal Tsarist reaction. There was no possibility of women organizing open demonstrations but, led by communist women, they found ways to celebrate the day. Articles on International Women’s Day were published in the two legal workers’ newspapers of the time, including greetings from Clara Zetkin and others.

An essay written in 1920 by a woman communist activist at that time described the 1913 celebration:

“In those bleak years meetings were forbidden. But in Petrograd, at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange, those women workers who belonged to the Party organized a public forum on ‘The Woman Question.’ Entrance was five kopecks. This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely packed. Members of the Party spoke. But this animated ‘closed’ meeting had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings, intervened and arrested many of the speakers.

“It was of great significance for the workers of the world that the women of Russia, who lived under Tsarist repression, should join in and somehow manage to acknowledge with actions International Women’s Day. This was a welcome sign that Russia was waking up and the Tsarist prisons and gallows were powerless to kill the workers’ spirit of struggle and protest.”

Women in Russia continued to celebrate International Women’s Day in various ways over the ensuing years. Many involved in organizing landed themselves in Tsarist prisons as the slogan “for the working women’s vote” had become an open call for the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy.

The first issue of “The Woman Worker” (Rabotnitsa), a journal for working class women, was published in 1914. That same year, the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to create a special committee to organize meetings for International Women’s Day. These meetings were held in the factories and public places to discuss issues related to women’s oppression and to elect representatives from those who had participated in these discussions and the resulting proposals to work on the new committee.

International Women’s Day 1917 in Russia

In Russia, International Women’s Day 1917 was a time of intense struggle against the Tsarist regime. Workers, including women workers in textile and metal working industries, were on strike in the capital city and opposition to Russia’s participation in the imperialist war raging in Europe was growing. On March 8 (February 23 on the Julian calendar), women in their thousands poured onto the streets of St. Petersburg in a strike for bread and peace. The women factory workers, joined by wives of soldiers and other women, demanded, “Bread for our children” and “The return of our husbands from the trenches.” This day marked the beginning of the February Revolution, which led to the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of a provisional government.

The provisional government made the franchise universal, and recognized equal rights for women. Following the October 1917 Revolution, the Bolshevik government implemented more advanced legislation, guaranteeing in the workplaces the right of women to directly participate in social and political activity, eliminating all formal and concrete obstacles which previously had meant the subordination of their social and political activity and their subservience to men. New legislation on maternity and health insurance was proposed and approved in December 1917. A public insurance fund was created, with no deductions from workers wages, that benefited both women workers and male workers’ wives. It meant that women were now treated second to none as neither they nor their children were dependent on spouses and fathers for their well-being.

After 1917

March 8 as International Women’s Day became official in 1921 when Bulgarian women attending the International Women’s Secretariat of the Communist International proposed a motion that it be uniformly celebrated around the world on this day. March 8 was chosen to honour the role played by the Russian women in the revolution in their country, and through their actions, in the struggle of women for their emancipation internationally.

The first IWD rally in Australia was held in 1928. It was organized by the communist women there and demanded an eight hour day, equal pay for equal work, paid annual leave and a living wage for the unemployed.

Spanish women demonstrated against the fascist forces of Gen. Francisco Franco to mark International Women’s Day in 1937. Italian women marked IWD 1943 with militant protests against fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for sending their sons to die in World War II.

In this way, since 1917, International Women’s Day has been both a day of celebration of women’s fight for their empowerment and a day to militantly affirm the opposition of women to imperialist war and aggression. Its spirit has always been that to win the rights of women and the fight for security and peace, women must put themselves in the front ranks of the fight and of governments which represent these demands.

(Reproduced from TML Daily, 2010)

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