Socialist origins of International Women’s Day
Women in struggle and solidarity
Published Mar 19, 2009 8:31 PM
On International Women’s Day this year, we express our solidarity with our
heroic sisters in Gaza who have endured the horrific U.S.-backed Israeli siege
and who are standing up with courage and resilience. We hail our Palestinian
sisters in the occupied West Bank who face the Israeli Defense Forces and
hostile settlements daily. We hail our sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan and
everywhere who face U.S. war and occupation.
International Working Women’s Day was founded in 1910 by European women
socialists as a coordinated global day of protest and solidarity among women
workers. They were inspired by the 1908 New York City march of immigrant women
workers for their economic and political rights, and the three-month garment
strike there a year later, by mainly women immigrants, and they felt the
ferment by women workers in their own countries.
In solidarity with our immigrant sisters, we embrace our Haitian sisters who
face deportation; our Latina sisters who daily face the terror of deportation,
jail, separation from their children and abuse; and our Muslim and Arab sisters
who face bigotry and so much more.
We thank our sisters at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, who
heroically took risks by occupying their factory. By their actions, they aided
all workers facing layoffs and plant closings, and played a leading role in the
The historic socialist and working-class essence of International Women’s
Day remains, despite capitalist government and media cover-ups of its real
nature. Its history is rife with struggle and solidarity. It has been
celebrated by socialist countries and parties, national liberation,
anti-imperialist and anti-corporate movements on many continents.
Capitalist crisis impacts women
International Women’s Day and global solidarity among women workers has
taken on new meaning in this age of capitalist globalization. The gargantuan,
worldwide economic crisis is impacting working-class and oppressed women
Globalized capitalism is not kind to women. Over 100 million women have been
forced to leave their homelands to search for employment as international
migrant workers. They face terrible working conditions, are frequently denied
pay, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and often lack economic or human
rights or legal protection. Women are 90 percent of the world’s domestic
workers; many are migrant workers. Even children have been drafted into
Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, yet earn only one-tenth of
its income and own one percent of its property. Women are 75 percent of the 1.3
billion people who subsist on less than one dollar a day. Most of the
world’s 800 million poor and hungry are women and children, although
women produce 60 percent of the world’s food supply. Poor children are
increasingly at risk for starvation due to exorbitant food prices.
Sexual trafficking of women and children has intensified. The global market
garners $42 billion annually for profiteers who exploit women and children,
including those from Eastern Europe, where jobs and social protections were
lost and poverty grew after the fall of socialism.
The crisis of violence against women, which is rooted in class society,
property ownership and patriarchal relations, is exacerbated by global
corporations, which, in their drive for higher profits, superexploit
women’s labor while mistreating women and disregarding human rights for
As the world financial crisis unfolds, a new United Nations study estimates
that up to 22 million women worldwide will lose their jobs, with children hard
hit. Women workers are likely to have lower-paying, part-time or temporary
jobs, with few benefits, little job protection and meager, if any, resources or
However, working women, including migrant workers, are fighting for their
rights worldwide, aided by women’s, human rights’ and community
groups, trade unions, progressive organizations and governments, and
Imperialism and globalized capitalist private ownership are at the root of
women’s economic inequality worldwide. This cries out for a socialist
solution—with public ownership of industries, where production is for
human need, not profit, where society guarantees jobs, health care, education,
housing and nutritious food for all, and where all wealth and resources are
World’s women need socialism
Cuba, despite a U.S. blockade, has shown by its living example that socialism
can provide the basis for women’s equality. Under the Federation of Cuban
Women’s leadership, women have made great strides.
This historic day’s founder was Clara Zetkin, a leader in the German
Social-Democratic Party and head of the International Women’s
Secretariat. Her party, which in 1910 had 82,000 women members, supported
women’s rights, including universal suffrage and the right to organize
politically as women. European women were then pouring into the workforce,
where they held low-paid, horrific jobs. They were joining unions and socialist
parties at a time when socialist ideas were burgeoning.
Zetkin proposed—to an International Socialist Women’s Conference,
in August 1910 at the Worker’s Assembly Hall in Copenhagen,
Denmark—that an International Working Women’s Day be set aside
annually to recognize the worldwide struggle of women workers and build
solidarity. More than 100 women from 17 countries, representing trade unions,
women’s organizations and clubs and European socialist parties,
unanimously voted for Zetkin’s proposal. It said in part, “In
agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of
the [working class] in each country, the socialist women in all countries shall
organize a Women’s Day every year.”
Zetkin, a political strategist, likely saw organizing for this special day as a
crucial step in building an anti-capitalist movement and hoped that a yearly
coordinated multicountry protest on the same day for the same demands would
strengthen it and make it more powerful and would also strengthen ties between
women in different countries.
Zetkin aimed to foster cooperation between women in unions, women’s
organizations and socialist parties so they would unite and fight jointly. This
collaboration would not only raise class and socialist consciousness, as Zetkin
hoped, but it could also win the most political women workers to a socialist
perspective and organization and push forward the class struggle.
One year later, Zetkin’s strategy took hold. More than one million women
poured into the streets in four European countries on March 19—then
IWD—to demand jobs and an end to discrimination. Russian revolutionary
Alexandra Kollontai said the first “Working Women’s Day was one
seething, trembling sea of women. ... certainly the first show of militancy [in
Europe] by working women.” (www.leftwrite.wordpress.com)
In the pre-war years, International Women’s Day saw European women
protesting the looming World War I. A 1917 strike begun on IWD by Russian women
garment workers demanding “bread and peace” led to the czar’s
ouster, which opened the gates to the workers’ revolution. In 1921, the
Soviet Union was the first government to legalize women’s equality.
Some of Zetkin’s issues still resonate today: the struggles against
imperialist war and high food prices and for better conditions for women and
There are also many different issues and struggles today for women worldwide.
The history of colonialism, imperialism and national oppression, with the
deliberate underdevelopment of continents, theft of land and resources,
superexploitation of the global work force, and the propagation of all forms of
oppression and bigotry, greatly broaden the demands from those raised at the
1910 Copenhagen conference.
An international socialist women’s conference today would first extend
invitations to women from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the
Caribbean—those whose countries have been oppressed by U.S. imperialism,
militarism and economic oppression. It would address their issues as well as
those of working and oppressed women within the U.S. It would demand an end to
racism, anti-immigrant attitudes, sexism, homophobia and all forms of
Clara Zetkin was absolutely right about these key points: international
solidarity among working women is essential and so is the urgent need for women
to organize to get rid of capitalism and fight for socialism.
Adapted from a talk at a WW Forum on March 13.
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