MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Events



International Women's Day (March 8)

An annual day for recognition of and struggle for women's economic, social and political rights, opportunities for awakening self-consciousness among women workers, and for the unity of the working class.

Origins: Women's Day emerged out of the simultaneously growing worker's, and women's rights movements during the rapidly industrializing period of the early 20th century. In United States in 1908, the Socialist Party's newly formed Woman's National Committee, responded by calling for the Party to designate a day each year to campaign for women's suffrage. "National Woman's Day" began the following year. By this time, mass strikes and demonstrations for women's suffrage and in protest of inhuman treatment in the factories were taking place.

Inspired by the U.S. events, European socialist leaders initiated what would later be known as International Women's Day with a proposal unanimously passed at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women held in Copenhagen, August 26-27, 1910, a month before the Eighth International Congress of the Second International would open, also in Copenhagen. Alexandra Kollontai, a Russian delegate representing St. Petersburg textile workers, wrote, "The growth of the women's proletarian movement over the last three years was noticeable at the opening of the Copenhagen Conference. In Stuttgart [the first women's conference, 1907] the delegates numbered 52, in Copenhagen they already numbered around 100 and represented 17 countries......Socialist parties and trade unions were represented, together with clubs, societies, and unions of women workers adopting a class position.

The 1910 Socialist Women Conference chairwoman was German socialist leader, Clara Zetkin. She would second Luise Zietz's Women's Day proposal, an excerpt of which was published a few days later in Die Gliecheit (Equality), the newspaper recognized by the conference as the organ of the international socialism. The paper, edited by Zetkin since 1892, was identified with the left wing of the German Social Democratic party.

"In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the 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. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women's question according to Socialist precepts. The Women's Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully."

Alexandra Kollontai recollected that the two main issues of the conference were, strategies for attaining universal suffrage for women, and social security for mother and child, including maternity leave and health insurance.

Clara Zetkin had long taken the theories of August Bebel (Woman Under Socialism, 1879) and Frederick Engels (The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State 1884), and applied them in her materialist critiques of the changing objective conditions for the different strata of women and men in her times.

Zetkin and Kollontai's positions on gender-class questions had them at times at odds with the leadership of their parties, but both repeatedly stressed that women's emancipation must be part of the broader class struggle. They agreed there could be no cooperating with the suffragettes at the conference or any other time. But the anticipated "furious battle" with the English delegates who favored work with suffragettes never happened. When English delegate Charlotte Despard failed to make her case, most delegates agreed with the "left" and passed a resolution criticizing the English socialist/bourgeoise suffragette alliance.

Kollontai wrote in Pravda, 1913:

"The paths pursued by women workers and bourgeois suffragettes have long since separated. There is too great a difference between the objectives that life has put before them...There are not and cannot be any points of contact, conciliation or convergence between them. Therefore working men should not fear separate Women's Days, nor special conferences of women workers, nor their special press."

Besides suffrage and maternity rights, also discussed at the Copenhagen conference, were questions of war and peace, women's obligation to oppose chauvinism and bring up their children in a spirit of anti-militarism, the demand for an 8-hour working day, the struggle against domestic manufacture and, a lively debate over night work.

As suffrage goals became realized in most countries around the world International Women's Day continued as a day of international solidarity of women in their struggle for economic, social and political equality. (S. Ryan, condensed from an article by same in Socialist Women, Winter, 2001.)

Further Reading: International Working Women's Day by Vladimir Lenin;
International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers [1907-1916] by Alexandra Kollontai.
International Women's Day by Alexandra Kollontai.