The radical history of International Women’s Day

March 3, 2017
The most dramatic celebration of International Women's Day was in 1917 in Russia, when it helped spark the February Revolution.

International Women’s Day (IWD) in Australia has lost its radical edge. In recent years, it has become more about holding cosy breakfasts and receptions where female bureaucrats and businesswomen can rub shoulders with political leaders and congratulate themselves on their “success”.

These events can make us forget that IWD has a radical socialist history of women determinedly marching for their rights. And once it even helped spark a revolution.

IWD was born at the turn of the 20th century, in a time of great social turbulence and huge struggles by ordinary people for a better life. In the late 19th century poor women in the industrial West had entered poorly paid work in large numbers. They were channelled into sex-segregated manufacturing jobs and domestic service. Trade unions were developing and, although the new unions did not permit women to join, strikes broke out among sections of women workers.

In 1909, a strike of 30,000 garment workers in the US, mainly migrant women, almost shut down the garment industry. It lasted three months and won most of the workers’ demands for the right to organise and bargain collectively and for improved wages and working conditions.

First IWD

The next year, in August 1910, women from 17 countries met at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen. Luise Zietz suggested holding an International Woman’s Day the following year to mark the garment workers’ victory and provide a focus for the growing international campaign for women’s right to vote.

Clara Zetkin seconded the request, and the conference of more than 100 women representing unions, socialist parties, working women's clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, gave the suggestion unanimous approval. International Women’s Day was born.

On March 18, 1911, on the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, the first International Woman’s Day was held in Germany, Austria and Denmark to publicise the need for women’s rights and suffrage. A million leaflets calling for votes for women were distributed throughout Germany on the day.

In Vienna, women marched around the Ringstrasse, carrying banners including red flags commemorating the Commune’s martyrs and demonstrating in favour of female suffrage. Throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, there were 300 separate women’s demonstrations.

Russian revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai helped to organise the day in Germany. She wrote: “Meetings were organised everywhere. … In the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask [male] workers to give up their places for the women. Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings.”

The most dramatic celebration of International Woman’s Day was in 1917 in Russia. The women’s main complaints were about deteriorating living conditions as World War I dragged on. The cost of rent and food had more than doubled in St Petersburg.

When workers were locked out of the Putilov armaments plant on March 7 — February 23 on the Gregorian calendar — women took to the streets demanding an end to the war and poverty. The march led to a series of food riots, political strikes and demonstrations. Two days later the Tsar abdicated and the February Revolution began.

With the victory of the Russian Revolution, at Zetkin’s urging, Lenin established IWD as a holiday in 1922. The Chinese Communists followed in 1927. In Spain, following the victory of the Popular Front in the February 1936 elections, La Passionaria, one of the leaders of the Spanish Communist party, led thousands of women to demonstrate in Madrid on March 8, to demand protection for the republic against the growing fascist threat.

After World War II, International Women’s Day was celebrated mostly in the east until it was revived in the US in 1967 by a women’s group called the Chicago Circle, which included daughters of communists who remembered their parents speaking of IWD.


The first Australian IWD rally, organised by the socialist Militant Women's Movement, was held in the Sydney Domain on March 25, 1928. Against a background of increasing unemployment and a number of intense industrial disputes sparked by wage cuts and reduced working conditions, the women called for equal pay for equal work; an 8-hour day for shop girls; no piece work; the basic wage for the unemployed; and annual holidays on full pay.

In 1931, the first IWD marches were held in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney, about 60 women led 300–400 marchers holding banners demanding equal pay for equal work. In Melbourne, 50 women led a march of 150 with a lead banner declaring ''Long Live International Women's Day''.

In 1936 in Sydney, the first IWD Committee comprising a number of women’s groups was formed by the women's committee of the Unemployed and Relief Workers Council and the United Associations of Women. The United Associations had been formed in 1929 by Jessie Street to agitate around feminist rights. It was strictly non-partisan and had little contact with communist or socialist women, who regarded them as “middle class” and “apolitical”.

But the Depression and growing alarm about the dangers of fascism and war drew these women closer together. The change in attitude was reflected in the IWD planning meeting attended by 300 women, representing most of the women's organisations in Sydney.

In 1938, the first major IWD gathering in Perth involved women from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, the Movement Against War and Fascism, Mothers Union, Women's Section of Primary Producers, Young Labor League, Association of University Women, Women's Christian Temperance Union, National Council of Women, Jewish Women, YWCA, Spanish Relief Committee and the Women's Services Guild.

The Sydney IWD meeting of 1939 was described as the largest and most representative yet held. Perth's activity involved 20 organisations and, in Queensland, Women's Progress Clubs throughout the north helped to spread IWD celebrations to new centres.

In the war years, a broader range of women became involved in IWD, but as the Cold War brought anti-Communist hysteria the events became more conservative. The atmosphere of militancy and direct action waned, and in the 1950s and ’60s the day was mainly celebrated with luncheons and afternoon teas.

Women’s liberation

Inspired by the newly-emerging women's liberation groups in the US and Britain, the first women’s liberation group formed in Sydney at the end of 1969, and the first public meetings to get the movement going were held early in 1970.

The Women's Liberation Movement expanded IWD’s critique to include women’s position in the family and other taboo aspects of women’s lives such as rape, violence, sexuality and lesbianism.

The first of the new wave of large IWD marches took place on March 11, 1972. Throughout Australia, women rallied and marched. There was a sense of a new movement and new possibilities.

In Melbourne up to 3000 people marched, including many young women who brought with them a new approach, such as the group of women on bikes with tampons hanging from their hat brims who called themselves “the menstrual cycles”.

Up to 5000 people came to the Sydney rally, inspired by the poster featuring the image of Angela Davis, a US Black revolutionary. The main demands were for equal pay, equal opportunity in work and education, free childcare, free safe contraceptives and safe legal abortion on request.

As the women’s liberation movement took off, new structures sprang up in every state. Collections made at the Sydney IWD march were used to rent the first Women's Liberation House. In Melbourne, the first Women’s Liberation Movement Centre was opened. IWD became the annual central rally of the new movement. In the 1980s and early 1990s socialist women formed the backbone of broader organising collectives.

But as the new century dawned, Labor women took over the organising and IWD became more of a celebration of past successes — for women’s right to vote, attend university and earn a wage, for example — rather than an opportunity to organise beyond those already in the social and labour movements.

Nowhere in the world do women have the same rights and opportunities as men, although only some men benefit from this inequality.

Internationally, more women are becoming poorer and ever more oppressed. Women continue to be poor — most of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women; illiterate — three-quarters of the world’s 960 million illiterates are women; earn less — on average, women receive 30%-40% less pay than men for the same work; and suffer violence — rape and domestic violence are significant causes of disability and death among women worldwide.

In keeping with IWD’s radical past, we should join the class conscious Clara Zetkin who declared early last century: “Women are doubly oppressed, by capitalism and by their dependency in family life”, and recommit to the struggle against sexism and for women’s liberation.

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