Standing up for women's rights: The radical history of International Women’s Day

Cartoon: Charm

Nowhere in the world do women have the same rights and opportunities as men. Internationally, 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.

Women continue to be illiterate — three-quarters of the world’s 960 million illiterates are women.

Women continue to earn less — on average, women receive 30-40% less pay than men for the same work.

And women continue to suffer violence — rape and domestic violence are significant causes of disability and death among women worldwide.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day that seeks to overturn those statistics, recognise rebellion and raise radical demands for equality.

It is a day steeped in the history of militant socialist women determinedly marching for their rights — and once even helped spark a revolution.

First IWD

IWD was born at the turn of the 20th century, in a time of great social turbulence and huge struggles by people for a better life.

The seeds of IWD were planted in 1908, when 30,000 striking garment workers, mainly migrant women, marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. The strike lasted three months and the workers won most of their demands.

A year later, the Socialist Party of America held the first National Woman’s Day in New York City, on February 28, a Sunday, so working women could participate. Thousands showed up to various events uniting the suffragist and socialist causes.

In August 1910, women from 17 countries met at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen. German socialist and feminist 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.

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

The first IWD was held in Germany, Austria and Denmark on March 19, 1911 — the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune. A million leaflets calling for votes for women were distributed throughout Germany on the day and demands such as an end to gender discrimination and rights to work, train, vote and hold political office were at the forefront of the campaign.

The most dramatic celebration of IWD was in Russia in 1917. 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, 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, Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir 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, Isidora Dolores Ibárruri Gómez, known as La Passionaria and one of the leaders of the Spanish Communist party, led thousands of women in a demonstration in Madrid on March 8 to demand protection for the republic against the growing fascist threat.

Australia

The first IWD rally in Australia was organised by the socialist Militant Women's Movement and was held in the Sydney Domain on March 25, 1928. Against a background of rising 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 women; 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, the first IWD Committee comprising a number of women’s groups was formed in Sydney by the women's committee of the Unemployed and Relief Workers Council and the United Associations of Women, a feminist group founded by Jessie Street in 1929.

The United Associations had little contact with Communist or socialist women and 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 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.

The anti-Communist hysteria of the Cold War led to IWD events becoming more conservative. As the atmosphere of militancy and direct action waned 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. It 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 US Black revolutionary Angela Davis. 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 and 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 — rather than an opportunity to organise beyond those already in the social and labour movements.

IWD is celebrated in more than 100 countries and is an official holiday in 27.

Over the years, many celebrations of IWD have strayed far from its political roots.

At the same time, recent IWD’s have seen a revival of militant feminist action, in particular with the call for International Women’s Strikes in the past two years.

These calls have sought to build on the momentum of the new wave of feminism as reflected in the Me Too and Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) movements against gendered violence.

More than 50 countries participated in the International Women’s Strike last year.

These are the kind of initiatives we need to build on to reclaim IWD’s radical spirit.