The real history of International Women’s Day
March 8, 2013
Do you have $100+ to spare? Then you could attend an International Women’s Day luncheon hosted by the Chamber of Commerce or various business organisations. But, although IWD has become mainstream in recent years, it was historically a socialist event and that is how we commemorate it
Clara Zetkin, a leading member of German Social Democratic Party (SDP) in the early 1900s, argued that the working class would never win its battles without women and raised the issue of special party work among women. Under her leadership a working women’s movement grew rapidly in Germany, and the female membership of the SPD rose from 10,500 in 1907 to 150,000 in 1913.
Zetkin proposed the establishment of an international women’s day at the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in August 1910, inspired by American socialists who had held women’s demonstrations and meetings the year before. The slogan for IWD was to be: “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
In 1911, more than a million women and men took up the idea of IWD enthusiastically, with rallies and marches in Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Denmark and other major industrial cities of Europe. According to the Russian revolutionary socialist Alexandra Kollontai, “Germany and Austria were one seething, trembling sea of women… Meetings were organised everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed full.”
In subsequent years and throughout World War One, IWD continued to provide a focus for activists. In 1913 and 1914 women across Europe held peace rallies on or around 8 March. In 1915, socialist women held a march in Bern, Switzerland, in opposition to their own countries’ war effort, which was treason in wartime. They took a manifesto home to be distributed secretly in their countries. In 1917, female socialists in Turin hung posters addressed to women throughout the working class neighbourhoods protesting rising food prices. And in 1918 in Austria, 3,000 women, despite the ban on demonstrations, marched in small groups past the parliament and the Palace of Justice demanding peace.
In Russia Alexandra Kollontai played a leading role. She brought the idea of IWD to Russia and helped organise events in the pre-war years. In Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1913, Bolshevik women workers organised a “scientific morning devoted to the woman question” (this sort of subterfuge was necessary under tsarism). Kollontai wrote:
“This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely packed. Members of the party spoke. But this animated ‘close’ meeting had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings, intervened and arrested many of the speakers.”
In 1914 police again intervened and arrested many people. Some women were nonetheless able to celebrate IWD with flash meetings around the city, and similar small actions were possible in 1915 and 1916.
Peace and bread
By 1917, deteriorating living conditions had resulted in strong feelings. Frustration with food shortages and interminable queues had already produced food riots, and the large number of women workers in large factories had already carried out many strikes.
What happened in Petrograd combined food riots, economic strikes and a political strike. And it was all sparked by women determined to celebrate International Women’s Day.
The local Bolsheviks judged the time unripe for militant action. So when a group of women from the Vyborg district asked for advice on how to celebrate IWD they were told to “refrain from isolated actions and follow only instructions of party committee”.
The women decided to strike anyway. In spite of all directives, women in Petrograd chose to protest and strike for “Bread and Peace” on 23 February (8 March on the Gregorian calendar). Demonstrations organised to demand bread were supported by the industrial workforce. Women textile workers in several factories went on strike and sent delegates to metal workers for support. The women workers marched to nearby factories bringing out over 50,000 workers on strike.
By 25 February, the strike had spread to 240,000 workers. Mass demonstrations surged through the town. The following day large parts of Petrograd were in control of the insurrection and when soldiers went over on 27 February, the tsar abdicated.
General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District summarised the problem facing the authorities: “When they said, ‘Give us bread!’ we could give them bread and that was the end of it. But when they said, ‘Down with the autocracy!’ we could no longer appease them with bread.”
Happy International Women’s Day!
Pictured: Si Se Puede by Robert Valadez, Chief Theresa Spence, Dr. Angela Davis, Vandala Shiva, Amy Goodman, Malala Yousafzai, Leila Khaled, Pussy Riot & Zapatista women.