The hidden history of International Women’s Day

As we celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day, Solidarity looks at the radical history of women workers that it represents

March 8 marks 100 years since the first celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD).
Today IWD is often marked by “events that honour women’s advancement”, as one official website boasts. These events enjoy the backing of major corporations such as Google, Telstra and Qantas, with many of them holding their own brunches or luncheons. This year the Brisbane North Chamber of Commerce is hosting Julieanne Alroe, the CEO of Brisbane Airport.

These events reflect the mistaken belief that getting more women in corporate boardrooms and as prime ministers will do anything to help the majority of working women, aview that ignores the class divisions amongst women.

Attacks on welfare, such as the privatisation of childcare, have had a disproportionate affect on working class women, particularly single mothers. Women have been hardest hit by workplace “reform”, as they remain concentrated in casualised and uncertain employment. Women in Australia still earn 18 per cent less than men. Alongside this is a growth in sexist stereotypes through “raunch culture” that women are pressured to live up to.

The demonstration for Equal Pay planned for IWD in Sydney this year is much closer to the original aims of IWD—and shows that having a woman, Julia Gillard, as prime minister has not seen real gains over demands like equal pay for women workers.

Day for working women
IWD came out of a decision at the International Socialist Conference in Copenhagen in 1910. The German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed IWD as a day to unite the movements of working women that were emerging all over the world.

Zetkin suggested the date March 8 in recognition of the strikes women had led in Manhattan’s Lower East Side two years earlier. Hundreds of women from the sweatshops of New York’s needle trade had flooded onto Rutgar Square, striking against long hours, overcrowding and sexual harassment. They converged in a demonstration demanding union rights and the right to vote. A huge strike wave followed, known as the “rising of the 20,000”.

Zetkin proposed that, “Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage”. Alexandra Kollantai, a leading Russian socialist, added that another central focus should be attaining social security for mothers and children, including maternity leave and health care—things women are still very much striving for today.
IWD was first celebrated in 1911, with meetings and demonstrations in every major European city. Over a million women burst onto the streets. These demonstrations continued each year until they were thwarted by the First World War.

However it was also the war itself that led to the most significant IWD celebration in its history. It was a demonstration on this day in 1917 that sparked the Russian Revolution. March 8 (February 23 on the old Russian Calendar) saw masses of women on the streets, demanding an end to the starvation, carnage and misery—and an end to the war. This coincided with mass strikes among women workers and all over Russia. Widespread discontent, felt particularly by the poorest and hardest working, exploded, overthrowing the Tsar and with him the whole Russian autocracy.

The government that replaced the Tsar was not able to meet the demands of either the IWD mobilisations or the strikes. And increasingly the masses looked to the Bolsheviks, who led a socialist revolution in October.

The new socialist order granted women more political and legal equality than any capitalist country, before or since. Reforms such as the right to vote and divorce were introduced within weeks. The legal concept of illegitimacy was abolished and in 1920 abortion became legal and free. Women were granted equal pay, became exempt from jobs deemed dangerous when pregnant, and were provided 16 weeks paid maternity leave.

Also fundamental to this process was the freeing of women from the burdens and constraints of the nuclear family. As an institution, the family systematically restricts and devalues the role played by women in society. The emerging socialist society aimed to socialise the private responsibilities of women within the family and have them provided publicly by the state. By 1919 over 90 per cent of Petrograd had access to communal restaurants, childcare and washing facilities. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky said, “the revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so called family hearth—the archaic, stuffy, and stagnant institution in which the women of the toiling classes perform the galley labour from childhood to death”.

Before its decline under Stalin, the revolution, like the original organisers of IWD, sought to gain liberation for all women rather than a privileged few.

We need to revive these politics and mobilise women to fight for their rights as workers—to demand childcare, equal pay, and to fight the sexist structures of oppression.

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