Lynn Beaton 1986

International Women's Day and working-class history

Lynn Beaton

THE STRUGGLE of women for their rights and recognition and the role of women in socialist struggles and revolutions around the world throughout history are often overlooked.

Capitalist history, and its assumption that ‘great men’ make it, has totally ignored the role of women. Socialist historians have fallen into the same trap. All too often, the past is shown as a struggle between men. This is as false as the great men’ theory.

Women, after all, have always made up at least half of the world’s population. It is nonsense to suppose that they have somehow been a passive part of that population. They have always taken vital and decisive roles in all historical struggles and at the same time have built their own history.

To deny women their historical heritage does not just deny their strength today, or does it mean that we simply have a one-sided view of history. It means that history itself is distorted, for history is the interaction of men and women struggling within, and to overcome. the class forces which bind them.

March 8 has become recognised throughout the world as International Women’s Day. It is a day set aside to celebrate the struggles and the victories of women throughout history and a day for women to put forward their demands.

To celebrate IWD Workers Press will publish a series of articles in the near future to show the strength and importance of women in some of the great struggles against capitalism.

THE beginning of this century saw women in many capitalist countries campaigning for their rights.

They fought for the right to work and to organise in trade unions for better conditions, for the right to vote and to join political parties, for higher education and improved health care and welfare services.

Women were becoming conscious of the need to challenge their oppression under capitalism and many were drawn to socialism.

In December 1908, the American Socialist Party recommended that its branches set aside the last Sunday in February 1909 to demonstrate in favour of women’s suffrage.

By 1910, the last Sunday -in February had become recognised by the women in the Socialist party as Woman’s Day’. A Special Women’s Day Section’ of the party’s paper said:

The Socialist Party, is organised for the purpose of obtaining political power for the working class and at present the method by which we are trying to obtain this result is through the ballot.

‘We women have no ballots. As women, then, we seek the ballot in order to be more efficiently equipped in our efforts to obtain economic .security and freedom.’

Women in Europe too, had been organising: the main focus of the battles seemed to be , obtaining suffrage and better working conditions.

Women of the Second International had been working in their own countries and recognised the need to bring this work together.

A Second International Conference of Socialist Women was held in Copenhagen immediately before the 1910 Congress of the Second International and was attended by women from seventeen countries.

They unanimously passed a resolution calling for the declaration of an International Women’s Day.

The resolution was moved by Klara Zetkin who had been active in the German trade unions and the Socialist Part of Germany (SDP). She was a member of the Bookbinders’ Union in Stuttgart for 25 years.

She also played an active part in the German Tailors’ and Seamstresses’ Union and became it provisional international secretary in 1896.

In Germany at that time, unions were very male-dominated. It was illegal for women to join any political party. Zetkin worked to unite men and women in trade un ions and to give women political legality in the SPD.

In 1884, several women in Berlin tried to circumvent the law by setting up an Agitation Commission to provide a centre for trade union and SPD activity. Other cities followed this example but the centres were all banned in 1895.

In the same year Zetkin was elected to the national executive of the SPD and new methods to circumvent the laws against women’s political legality were initiated.

In 1908 German women won the right to join political parties and thousands of women who had recently joined trade unions flooded into the SPD.

A year earlier, in 1907, Zetkin had taken the initiative in convening the first international conference of socialist women. Attended by 59 women from fifteen countries, it decided to create an international organisation of all socialist women’s organisations.

The women’s movement was divided between those who simply wanted more recognition for women under capital- ism and those who wanted capitalism overthrown.

These differences were reflected at the first conference. On the key issue of the vote for women, the Austrian, Belgian. British and French delegates argued that the demand for ‘restricted suffrage’ was more ‘realistic’ than a demand for universal suffrage.

What they meant by ‘restricted’ was that the vote should only be given to those with property or a certain income whereas Zetkin and the Russian delegate Alexandra Kollontai argued that suffrage must be given to all.

Zetkin strongly criticised the bourgeois feminism’ behind the appeals for restricted suffrage. despite these differences. the conference passed strong resolutions that socialist parties ol all countries have a duty to struggle energetically for the introduction of universal suffrage for women and that ‘socialist women must not ally themselves with the bourgeois feminists, hut lead the battle side by side with the socialist men.’

The 1910 conference vote was endorsed by the whole Second International Congress. It stated:

In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organisations 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.’

Although the original resolution focused on the special issue f enfranchisement for women, IWD quickly came to represent all of the political and social demands put forward by women. It was celebrated in the US and several European countries in February 1911.

Later that same year the Second International Conference of Socialist Women called for a reaffirmation of the day and proposed March 8 in commemoration of a large clothing workers strike which had taken place in America in 1908.

Gradually more and more countries observed IWD. In Russia in 1913, IWD was held for the first time – six days early because of a fear of interference by the police. Celebrations took place in six cities; in St. Petersburg so many people came to the meeting that the large hall, which held more than a thousand, overflowed on to the street outside.

Unlike the German situation, women had always been part of the Russian trade union movement. In the early years of this century they organised many strikes and their demands were very advanced and focused on the special needs of women workers.

Demands were made for pregnancy leave, for half-pay during confinement leave, for relief from carrying heavy weights during pregnancy, for two one-hour breaks per day for nursing mothers, for a policy against the firing of pregnant women and an end to a policy of not hiring married women.

On IWD in 1913, the Bolshevik newspaper ‘Pravda’ commemorated the day with a special six- page issue and, at the St. Petersburg meeting, one of the main speakers, a textile worker, Ianchevskaya summed up the feeling of the assembly by saying: ‘The women workers’ movement is a tributary flowing into the great river of the proletarian movement and giving it strength.’

IWD became a regular and very militant display of the strength of women workers in Russia. Each year involved meetings, marches and rallies and often led to confrontation with the police who made mass arrests.

On March 8 1917. women textile workers decided to call a general strike against the advice of all political parties. The textile workers called on women standing in bread lines to join.

When they discovered there was no bread, women began to smash the bakeries and poured into the city centre. They made makeshift banners calling for ‘Bread’. A great mass of women stormed across the Neva bridge and thronged the streets.

Over the next few days the movement grew in size and spirit and was soon invading army barracks to seize guns and calling on male workers to join them. By March 12. Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. The Provisional government which replaced him became the first government of a major power to grant women the vote.

After the October Revolution of the same year, IWD was declared a public holiday in the Soviet Union.

In China, March 8 was first observed in 1924. A number of demands were raised: Down with imperialism, down with the warlords, fight for women’s liberation, equal rights for women in employment. education, wages and participation in politics, protect child labourers and pregnant women, no child brides, no polygamy, no housemaids, no concubines, no prostitution.

These demands reflect the problems faced by women in China at the time and the way they were tackled by the early Chinese Communists.

It seems that IWD was first celebrated in Britain in 1926, the year of the general strike. After that, celebrations seemed to have been sporadic but mainly involved women from the Communist Party and the Women’s Cooperative Guild, who set up meetings and demonstrations linking specific concerns of women with various important topical themes – mainly round anti-fascist work and anti-war protests.

In Britain after World War II, IWD became institutionalised by the bourgeoisie. Probably in an attempt to cut off the anger which was developing against women who had been elevated to new careers during the war and were now being thrown back to their old, menial jobs.

In 1946 ‘Women’s Own’ ran an editorial which urged women to get involved in IWD and said:

Any sort of share in a communal effort of this kind gives one a sense of “belonging” and if we aren’t sitting at the Central Halls Westminster there is no reason why we shouldn’t be at the village or townhall Sweetcombe-on-Calm helping to express the faith which we as women feel in a world of peace.’

In the 1950s, when women were being urged to stay at home and find fulfillment as wives and mothers, IWD became a very low-key event. Sedate meetings were called by the National Assembly of Women calling for unity among women on the basis of their desire for peace, and concern for their children

This had nothing at all to do with the spirit of IWD as conceived by the women of the Second International.

However in the late 1960s the rumblings of the international crisis brought with it a new wave of women’s activism, reflecting, as had the earlier movement, two distinct strains: bourgeois feminism fighting for more access to the capitalist cake for the middle-class and bourgeois women and socialist women working within the trade unions and working-class movements for better conditions for women workers.

IWD was rediscovered and re-activated in this period by women around the world. In Britain, demonstrations were held around the country in 1971 which proclaimed the arrival of the new movement in Britain and demands were formulated for the day.

Since then it has been celebrated annually, but perhaps the best IWD seen in this country was the rally held last year in Chesterfield in celebration of the strength and inspiration of the women involved in the coal dispute of 1984-85.

The rally was attended by thousands of women from all over the country, many of whom had never partaken in any political activity before the onset of the year-long strike. These women had fought side by side with men to defend their communities and in doing so had asserted themselves as women.

International Women’s Day reminds us that the struggles of women have come a long way but we still have a long way to go.

In the current crisis of capitalism, with the attacks of the Tory government bent on destroying the working class, it is important that we develop a programme and a effective series of demands to ensure that the enormous strength and energy of women is not misdirected away from revolutionary struggle.


First Published: The Workers Press, 8 March 1986.