100 years of International Women's Day

February 29, 2008

International Women's Day, observed on March 8, is a testimony to women struggling to better their lives.

In 1908, socialist women in the US called the first Women's Day: thousands of people took to the streets calling for women's suffrage and equality.

In 1909, 20-30,000 women garment workers struck in New York city for 13 weeks to improve their conditions. This struggle became the impetus for a global Women's Day.

During the second wave of the women's liberation movement, IWD became a day to raise demands centred on full legal, social and political rights; economic equality; reproductive control over one's own body; and 24-hour child care. Later the movement took up other fights and encompassed differing views on the nature of women's oppression and how to overcome it. The struggle took different forms, however the one unifying event was IWD, with political marches and a variety of political and social events.

Today IWD tends to be celebrated more symbolically with a week of social events. Typically, a prominent woman addresses a dinner, outlining the gains women have made, sometimes speaking of the continuing barriers, such as the "glass ceiling". Many of the issues faced by the majority of women are not taken up.

Today, with women an increasing majority of the working poor and welfare recipients in Australia, it is useful to remember the working-class roots of IWD. While many symbolic and legal barriers in the First World have been removed, the overall global economic and political disadvantage of women has not been overcome.

The women's rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries polarised along class and, in the case of the US, race lines. Bourgeois women's groups fought for the same rights as those of the men of their class — the right to vote based on the ownership of property, thus excluding the majority of women (and men in many countries).

Working-class movements sprang up that struggled against exclusion and exploitation, and the left wings of these movements mobilised women to struggle against their oppression. This led to bitter divisions within the socialist movement, with some holding the traditional view that women were subservient and should be economically and legally dependent on men.

This struggle was particularly polarised in the mass socialist movement in Europe. Clara Zetkin was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) who tirelessly organised working women in the fight for their rights. She played a major role in the 1907 Second International Congress in Stuttgart, which endorsed the right of women to work, the creation of women's organisations in all socialist parties and campaigning for women's right to vote.

Zetkin's leading role was internationally recognised at the first International Conference of Socialist Women in the same year. She was elected secretary of the International Women's Bureau, and with Rosa Luxemburg proposed to the international socialist movement that March 8 be celebrated annually as International Working Women's Day.

Despite situations where political parties were banned and under severe repression by the state, women workers organised and mobilised for IWD. In Russia, Alexandra Kollontai organised illegal educational activities on the oppression of women in 1913. In 1914 a newspaper for women, Rabotnitsa (Woman Worker), was established, with the first issue due out on IWD. The women managed to put out seven issues before the outbreak of war later that year.

These activities culminated in the Petrograd demonstration by women textile workers in 1917. More than 200,000 women took to the streets on March 8 (February 23 by the Russian calender) demanding bread, opposing autocracy and calling for "the return of our husbands from the trenches". This day marked the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution, which gave women legal rights far ahead of many rights won in the West for another 50-60 years and some still not won today.

Around this time the communist movement established IWD and working-class women's mobilising as a priority. IWD became a rallying point with a class basis. In Australia, the Communist Party formed in 1920 and IWD continued to focus on struggles of working women and the unemployed during the destitution imposed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.

IWD maintained a class focus until the second wave in the 1960s, when the movement took up the central demands that affected all women. It became a unifying focus of struggle for women regardless of class, race and ethnicity in the ensuing struggles.

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