1970: Reviving the fighting spirit of Int'l Women's Day
Published Feb 23, 2005 10:37 AM
It's March 7, 1970: A militant crowd of
more than 1,000 women and male supporters are surrounding the Women's House of
Detention in Greenwich Village, chanting "Free our sisters! Free ourselves!"
Women prisoners wave from the windows, shouting, "Power to the people!"
Cops push against protesters holding banners demanding free and legal
abortions, equal pay for equal work, no job discrimination and freedom for women
The crowd yells, "Women, let's unite and
On this day in 1970, the Women's Caucus of Youth Against War and
Fascism (YAWF) re-ignited the celebration of International Women's Day as a day
of revolutionary struggle in the streets against women's oppression. YAWF was
the youth group of Workers World Party during the Vietnam War.
began with a spirited rally in Union Square, chaired by Deirdre Griswold of the
YAWF Women's Caucus. Speakers included representatives from many women's
organizations: African American attorney Flo Kennedy, about her work to repeal
New York's anti-abortion laws; Sue Davis of the YAWF Women's Caucus on the
revolutionary history of IWD; Dr. June Finer of the Medical Committee on Human
Rights on health care for women; and Kathy Ellis of the New University
Conference on the fight for daycare.
The Women's Caucus of the Young
Lords Party--the revolutionary Puerto Rican youth group--sent a delegation. Iris
Benitez, lieutenant of information for the Young Lords, spoke about how Antonia
Martinez had been killed the day before in a struggle against ROTC--the U.S.
military's Reserve Officers' Training Corps--at the University of Puerto Rico.
(WW, March 26, 1970)
After the rally, protesters marched to the Women's
House of Detention at 6th Avenue, between Greenwich Avenue and the Jefferson
Market. Before its relocation to Riker's Island in the mid-1970s, the jail
housed political prisoners--from Ethel Rosenberg to Angela Davis.
time of the 1970 demonstration, two members of the embattled Panther 21--Joan
Bird and Afeni Shakur-were held inside. The Panther 21 were members of the Black
Panther Party who were arrested in a government Cointelpro frame-up.
most of the women at the "House of D" were in jail for alleged crimes of
survival, driven by poverty and desperation into prostitution or theft.
The arrest of three YAWF women at the protest led to the formation of a
Women's Bail Fund. To show solidarity with their sisters in prison, the group
raised money to help other women get out of jail and back on their feet
Griswold, now editor of Workers World newspaper, says of that
1970 protest, "Marching from the rally to the House of Detention drew attention
to the plight of poor and working-class women in particular, and to women
political prisoners. This revival of IWD was important because it took the day
from being just a historical commemoration back to what it was originally--a
struggle of the most oppressed women for their rights."
IWD, traditionally held on March 8, began in 1908 as a day of
action organized by socialist working women in the U.S.
misconception about IWD is that it began simply as a strike by women garment and
textile workers in New York, either in 1857 or in 1908. However, research by
feminist historian Temma Kaplan shows that this explanation is erroneous, and
perhaps arose in an attempt to separate IWD from its communist origins. Although
there were strikes by women shirtwaist workers during those years, these were
not related to the establishment of an International Women's Day. (Feminist
Studies, Spring 1985, 163-171)
Instead, in 1907, German socialist Clara
Zetkin orga nized an International Conference of Socialist Women where
participants, including Russian Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai, discussed ways to
publicly support a struggle for women's equality and liberation.
women in New York City acted on this discussion in 1908 by holding a mass
meeting on women's suffrage on March 8.
The next year the American
Socialist Party instituted an annual "woman's day."
In 1910, Zetkin
proposed an International Women's Day at the Second International Conference of
Socialist Women in Copenhagen, and European socialists began to celebrate IWD in
1911. (Marian Sawer, "International Women's Day," Canberra Times, Feb. 17,
The focus of these efforts was not to set up a day of speeches and
floral bouquets, but rather to bring poor and working-class women, and women of
oppressed nationali ties, into the class struggle to liberate these women, as
well as their sons, husbands, brothers, fathers and comrades.
described IWD as "a day of international solidarity in the fight for common
objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under
the banner of socialism." ("International Women's Day," Encyclopedia of Marxism,
The fiery power of working women in class struggle erupted
on International Women's Day in Russia in 1917 in an event that culminated in
the first of two revolutions that year. In St. Petersburg (later Petrograd), in
an IWD walk-out, thousands of women needle-trade workers marched through the
streets, chanting their demand for "Peace, bread and land!" As working-class men
joined them, the crowd swelled to 90,000, and the spark of revolution lit that
day led first to the overthrow of the czar and a class struggle that culminated
nine months later in a communist revolution in Russia.
Reviving IWD as
a day of struggle
Spanish women demonstrated against the fascist
forces of Gen. Francisco Franco to mark International Women's Day in 1937. And
Italian women observed IWD in 1943 with militant protests against fascist
dictator Benito Mussolini sending their sons to die in World War II. (WILPF
But in the U.S., during the Cold War
witch-hunts of the McCarthy era, IWD demonstrations in the streets ended. By the
1950s, IWD celebrations were mainly small, in-door commemorative
Yet by the 1960s, a revolutionary wind was blowing new force
into the struggle against women's oppression. Many women, of all nationalities,
were increasingly inspired by the power of a people's fight--the Black civil
rights and anti-war movements, La Raza and the American Indian
The women's liberation movement emerged out of the confluence of
these great mass movements. And many women began to study Marxism and communist
history, inspired in part by the Vietnamese women "holding up half the sky,"
armed and fighting in a communist-led war for national liberation.
1968, socialist Laura X wrote an article calling for a renewal of IWD after
watching Pudovkin's 1929 Soviet film, "The End of St. Petersburg," which
highlighted the 1917 women workers' demonstration on IWD. The next year she
joined with members of Berkeley Women's Liberation to organize an IWD street
demonstration, which she believed to be the first such in the U.S. since 1947.
In 1970, 30 events took place world-wide on International Women's Day.
(Laura X, ncmdr.org)
The YAWF revival of celebrating IWD as a militant day
of struggle in the streets that year arose from bi-weekly meetings of the
group's Women's Caucus. YAWF women combined theory with practice. They read and
discussed Frederick Engels on "The Origins of the Family, Private Property and
the State." And they studied other socialist writings, including works by
Zetkin, Kollontai and V.I. Lenin, that chronicled the revolutionary communist
origins of IWD.
Armed with an understanding of the revolutionary roots of
IWD, they called for the 1970 rally at Union Square--site of many historic
socialist and labor rallies.
Today, the importance of that 1970 rally and
the march to the Women's House of Detention blazes out from the past. With that
event the YAWF Women's Caucus re-ignited the celebration of International
Women's Day in the streets of New York in a militant, communist
Remembering the fighting spirit of that day in 1970, Griswold
explains how its lessons are crucial in today's struggles. "Economic pressures
today in the U.S. are forcing more and more women into the army or into prison.
"They need an alternative--a multinational, international movement
against women's oppression that is part of a world-wide struggle against
imperialism and war."
Naomi Cohen, Sue Davis, Kathy Durkin and Sharon
Eolis also provided information for this article. More articles on
the struggle for women's liberation and Workers World Party's ongoing
role will appear in WW during Women's History Month.
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
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