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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 political prisoners.

The crowd yells, "Women, let's unite and fight!"

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.

The day 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.

At the 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.

But 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 financially.

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."

Red roots!

IWD, traditionally held on March 8, began in 1908 as a day of action organized by socialist working women in the U.S.

A common 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.

Socialist 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, 1997)

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.

Kollontai 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, marxists.org)

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 Newsletter, findarticles.com)

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 meetings.

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 Movement.

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.

In 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 tradition.

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.