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More than a century later

International Women’s Day lives

Published Mar 9, 2011 3:03 PM

March 8 is International Women’s Day. It recognizes the global solidarity of working and oppressed women and hails their struggles.

Although concealed by capitalist governments, political figures and the media, this day has working-class and socialist roots. European socialists — who were fighting for women workers’ economic and political rights — founded it.

German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed International Women’s Day at the Second International Women’s Socialist Conference in Copenhagen in August 1910, and 100 delegates from 17 countries agreed. IWD’s founders maintained that an annual, globally coordinated day of struggle with the same demands would strengthen women’s fights in different countries.

As a socialist, Zetkin aimed to advance the anti-capitalist movement, as she saw socialism as the only way to end women’s oppression. Showing her internationalism, Zetkin also condemned German chauvinism and discrimination based on nationality.

Moreover, Zetkin sought to build solidarity among women in increasingly hostile capitalist countries and to develop an international anti-war movement. So militant was her activism against the imperialist World War I and Germany’s role that she was imprisoned. Protests set her free.

IWD’s socialist founders were inspired by the militant actions of New York City women garment workers, mostly immigrants, and the key role played by socialists. They cited the 15,000-strong demonstration on March 8, 1908, for economic and political rights and unionization. In November 1909 a three-month strike began, known as the “Uprising of the 20,000.”

IWD started a revolution!

In 1911, 1 million women marched for their rights throughout Europe during the first coordinated International Women’s Day.

When Russian women walked out of the textile factories and onto the streets of St. Petersburg on International Women’s Day in 1917, it was earthshaking. They joined hungry women who were attacking grocery stores and bakeries to protest exorbitant food prices.

Their joint mass protest demanded “Peace, land and bread.” Grabbing soldiers’ rifles, they called out, “Put down your bayonets. Join us!” Their fervor grew; soon 90,000 protesters were in the streets. Their militant actions sparked the struggle that toppled the oppressive czarist regime, paving the way for workers’ revolution.

The Soviet Union officially recognized IWD in 1921; it was the first government to enact laws codifying women’s rights. The new socialist country did what no capitalist country had done.

To this day, there is not an Equal Rights Amendment in the United States because of the vociferous opposition of the right-wing superrich. They profit from women’s inequality and the superexploitation of Black women, Latinas, immigrants and other oppressed workers.

Yet socialist Cuba has annually commemorated this special day — in deed as well as word. There, with the guidance of the Federation of Cuban Women, women have continually made gains, which are legally guaranteed.

For decades this vital day, promoted by socialists, has been commemorated by liberation movements, progressive forces and women workers. Creative and militant actions have aimed at imperialist war, capitalist globalization, poverty, exploitation, racism, oppression of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people, and all forms of sexist discrimination and inequality.

The global capitalist crisis and IMF/World Bank-imposed government austerity programs have created more joblessness for women, more migrant workers, low wages and cuts in vital social programs. However, women workers have taken to the streets worldwide to say “No!”

This year women internationally are heartened by their Arab sisters, who are boldly demanding their rights in pro-U.S. dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and other Middle Eastern and North African countries.

In 1970 women of Youth Against War & Fascism and Workers World Party revived IWD’s militant, class-conscious, struggle traditions by marching to New York City’s Women’s House of Detention. They protested inequality, racism, poverty and political repression and expressed solidarity with those imprisoned, including the New York Panther 21.

Last year the International Working Women’s Day Coalition commemorated IWD’s 100th anniversary in New York City. They honored women’s resistance and rallied for unity of struggles at home with those abroad.

At the Triangle Shirtwaist factory site they honored the 146 workers, mostly immigrant women and children, who died in the fire on March 25, 1911, due to capitalist greed. Protests after the fire won important workplace safety regulations.

Today’s capitalist crisis is affecting women workers here, as corporate bosses lay off or underemploy them, cutting salaries and benefits. Unions are under attack by the superrich, their right-wing government mouthpieces and the media.

Women workers are in the forefront challenging these attacks on their lives. Wisconsin public sector employees, with students and youth, occupied the state Capitol. Health care workers have gone on strike. Immigrants have strongly protested racist attacks.

The economic attacks on reproductive and other health care, subsidized childcare and food programs, which mainly hit single mothers, low-wage workers and poor women, are increasingly being met with protests. Communities are mobilizing against state and city budget cuts. The struggle is growing.

The century since International Women’s Day was launched has borne out its founders’ conclusions: Constant struggle is needed under capitalism, and this system will not end women’s oppression and inequality. Only socialism will do that.

The writer’s grandmother, Sophie Stoller, an immigrant garment worker, joined the Uprising of the 20,000 and worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but was ill and didn’t work on the day of the fire.