100 years of International Women’s Day
Remembering Clara Zetkin
Published Mar 28, 2010 10:12 PM
In late August 1910, 100 women gathered at the Workers’ Assembly Hall in
Copenhagen, Denmark. Theirs was a historic meeting, the Second International
Socialist Women’s Conference.
Delegates from 16 European countries and the U.S. representing trade unions,
women’s organizations and socialist parties supported universal
women’s suffrage and women workers’ rights, including the 8-hour
day, maternity leave and health insurance.
Their unanimous vote instituted an annual International Women’s Day, to
be commemorated globally with coordinated actions of solidarity and struggle
among women workers. The delegates were inspired by New York City struggles led
mainly by women immigrant workers — a 1908 demonstration and the 1909
three-month garment workers’ strike, “the uprising of the
The delegates also felt stirrings of women workers in their own countries.
European women had been pouring into the workforce, hired to do low-paid,
unsafe and horrific jobs, as growing capitalist economies needed their labor
power. Determined to fight for political and economic rights when they had
none, women workers joined unions and socialist organizations at a time of
great political mobilizing and ferment.
On International Women’s Day, just one year after its founding, 1 million
women marched throughout Europe for jobs and an end to discrimination.
The Copenhagen conference’s chairperson and IWD’s founder was Clara
Zetkin, a leader of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD),
which was a strong force in the Socialist International. She headed the
International Women’s Secretariat.
An adamant fighter for working women, Zetkin had agitated for 21 years to
establish IWD. For 25 years she edited the SPD’s magazine for working
women, “Equality” (“Die Gleichheit”), which had 80,000
readers in 1910.
Zetkin saw IWD as a way to build solidarity among women workers of different
countries while they fought for their rights as workers. By building these
international bonds, she also sought to break down the walls of national
chauvinism and encourage anti-war sentiment.
This came to fruition, as women organized and marched all over Europe on IWD in
1913 and 1914 to protest the looming world war.
Zetkin sought to raise class consciousness among women workers, to build the
working-class movement, and to push the class struggle forward to challenge
capitalism, which she saw as the source of women’s oppression and
exploitation. She aimed to win political women workers to a socialist
perspective, which she saw as critical to building the anti-capitalist
Illuminating the strong role women workers play in the class struggle, Russian
textile workers led a 90,000-member strike for “peace, land and
bread” on IWD in 1917, which led to the czar’s ouster. This paved
the way for a workers’ revolution which established the Soviet Union, the
first country to legalize women’s equality in 1921.
Zetkin had many conversations with Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin that
demonstrated a high level of understanding of women’s oppression. They
discussed what concrete steps to take to bring about women’s emancipation
Internationalism then and now
As a principled internationalist, Zetkin fiercely opposed imperialist war. She,
along with her close friend Rosa Luxemberg and others in the SPD’s left
wing, defied their party’s pro-war majority and declared their opposition
to Germany’s entry into World War I.
Zetkin was jailed repeatedly for her opposition to the war. In 1915 she
organized the International Socialist Women’s
Conference in Berne, Switzerland, which was attended by delegates from warring countries
who called for peace.
In 1915 the British journal “Labour Women” wrote, “[Zetkin]
is socialist in her very fiber and she is a fighter ready to face death rather
than give way in any issue of import in the people’s struggle.”
After the war Zetkin left the SPD and was one of the founders of a new German
Zetkin deplored the injustice of racism and protested U.S. Jim Crow laws. In
the 1930s she joined the international campaign against the convictions of the
Scottsboro defendants, nine African-American youth who were being railroaded to
prison and execution.
In 1932, as German fascism menaced, Zetkin, despite death threats, addressed
the Aug. 30 opening of the Parliament (Reichstag) as a CP delegate. Nearly
blind at age 75, Zetkin began the session with a one-hour militant denunciation
of war and fascism.
After the CP was outlawed in Germany, which was only months after
Zetkin’s final stand in Berlin, she went to the Soviet Union, where she
passed away in 1933.
The world has changed a great deal since Zetkin founded IWD in 1910. Struggles
persist against imperialist war, high food prices and for working women’s
and children’s needs.
However, decades of colonialism, imperialism and national oppression —
with the underdevelopment of continents; theft of land and resources; and
global exploitation of labor, including forced migration and sweatshops —
have greatly broadened the Copenhagen demands of 1910.
A global socialist women’s conference today would first invite women from
Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean — those
whose countries have been oppressed by capitalist exploitation and imperialist
war and occupation. Invited would be working and oppressed women from all
communities in the U.S. — women who toil in the offices, factories and
fields — documented and undocumented; the unemployed; those hit by
foreclosures and evictions; those without health care, child care or adequate
food; youth, seniors, the disabled and prisoners.
Their grievances and issues would be heard and demands formulated. That
conference would strongly oppose racism, anti-immigrant biases, sexism,
lesbian/gay/bi and trans oppression and all bigotry.
Clara Zetkin was right on these counts that are ever more timely: International
solidarity among working women is essential, as is the urgent need for women to
organize to get rid of capitalism and fight for socialism.
That is the legacy of 100 years of International Women’s Day.
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