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The origins of International Women’s Day

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Born at a time of great social turbulence and crisis, when the imperialist nations were gearing up for world war, International Women's Day comes from a tradition of radicalism and revolutionary spirit. Joy Macready looks at its origins

The main founder of the working class women's movement was the German socialist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933). She edited a paper for working class women, Die Gleicheit (Equality) from 1891 onwards.

Speaking at the Party Congress of the Social Democratic Party, the SPD, in 1896, Zetkin argued for the inclusion of women in the political struggle of the working class at a time when women were not allowed to join political parties in many countries. Following Fredrick Engels, she argued that the root of women's oppression lies within the family - that there is an inseparable connection between the social position of women and private property in the means of production. Without a socialist revolution, women's liberation could not be achieved and, without involving women in the class struggle, the socialist revolution itself would be impossible.

This was a tough argument, because of many men fear that women would take their jobs and undermine their wages. Zetkin countered: "The more women's work exercises its detrimental influence upon the standard of living of men, the more urgent becomes the necessity to include them in the economic battle." Women's wages should be raised to the same level as men's.

Zetkin's next step was to win the struggle against the bourgeois feminists - most of whom defended the idea of an electoral franchise limited by property qualifications, thus excluding most working class women. Zetkin warned that, even where it was possible to combine forces with bourgeois feminists to fight for universal suffrage, on issues like higher wages and decent working conditions, bourgeois women would prove themselves "enemy sisters". Class independence was crucial.

Clara Zetkin took this struggle into the Second International (1889-1914). Just before its seventh congress, in Stuttgart in 1907, she organised the First International Conference of Socialist Women. Fifty-eight delegates from 15 countries were present. It set itself the objective of coordinating the struggle for the vote, building mass socialist women's organisations on a worldwide scale, and coordinating action through an international bureau, headed by Zetkin.

One way of making the masses, men as well as women, more aware of all these issues was to hold a special day of mobilisation on an international scale, similar in scope to May Day. In 1908, on the last Sunday in February, socialist women in the USA initiated the first Women's Day. Large demonstrations took place, calling for the vote, and political and economic rights for women. The following year, 2,000 people attended a Women's Day rally in Manhattan, while up to 30,000 female clothing workers were in the midst of a 13-week strike for better pay and conditions.

Two years later, in 1910, Zetkin came to the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen with the proposal that Working Women's Day become an international event. In 1911, more than one million women and men attended rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden under the slogan: "The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism."

War and the International
The outbreak of the First World War saw the collapse of the Second International, as the leaders in most countries supported their "own" bourgeoisie and abandoned internationalism and socialist revolution.

Middle class feminists like Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst - though militant suffragettes before the outbreak of war - became ferocious patriots. In sharp contrast, Sylvia Pankhurst, who had organised working class women in the East End of London, adopted an openly revolutionary socialist attitude to the war.

In Germany Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were part of an initially tiny group that publicly stood out against the war, denouncing the betrayal of the SPD leaders. The Russian revolutionaries, Alexandra Kollontai, Nadezhda Krupskaya and Inessa Armand, were also powerful opponents of the war. Just before the war they had launched a special paper, Rabotnitsa, the woman worker.

Clara Zetkin, as the secretary of the International Bureau of Socialist Women, called a conference in Bern at the end of March 1915. Women from Poland, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland and Russia attended. This conference was the first to re-raise the banner of internationalism and struggle against the war. It issued a call which concluded:

"The working people of all countries are brothers. Only the united determination of the people can stop the slaughter. Socialism alone is the future peace of humanity. Down with capitalism, down with the war, onward to socialism."

The left wing of the socialist women's organisations paved the way for a series of further international gatherings against the war: the International Socialist Youth and Zimmerwald conferences in 1915, and the Kienthal conference in 1916.

The victory of the Russian revolution in October 1917 rapidly rallied mass forces for a new International and a new, revolutionary women's movement. The victorious Soviet state did all it could to liberate women in the harsh conditions of economic blockade and civil war, granting legal equality and the right to vote, the right to birth control and abortion, setting up nurseries and clinics and many other important measures.

In March 1920, Alexandra Kollontai hailed Working Women's Day in the name of the newly founded Communist International and its affiliated women's organisations:

"Only the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of soviet power will save working women from the world of suffering, humiliations and inequality that makes their life in the capitalist countries so hard. The 'working woman's day' turns from a day of struggle for the franchise into an international day of struggle for the full and absolute liberation of women, which means a struggle for the victory of the soviets and for communism!"