The revolutionary origins of International Women's Day

International Women’s Day began at a time of political and social upheaval more than 100 years ago, on February 28, 1908, when socialist women in the US organised demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding women workers’ political and economic rights and called it “Women’s Day”. In 1909, 2000 people attended a Women’s Day rally in Manhattan.

Later that year, a massive strike broke out in the US when 30,000 mostly women migrant garment workers protested the sacking of female unionists and demanded the right to organise collectively and better wages and conditions. After a three-month campaign, they won some improvements. Inspired by this example, women from 17 countries, meeting in Copenhagen in 1910 for the second International Conference of Socialist Women agreed to a proposal from German revolutionary socialist Klara Zetkin for an International Working Women’s Day of action to be held on March 19 around the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”. March 19 was chosen for its significance to the German working-class movement, because on that date during the 1848 revolution the king had promised (but failed to deliver) women’s right to vote. In 1913, IWD was moved to March 8.

An IWD march by working class women sparked the February 1917 revolution in Russia. Hunger, cold and the effects of the the First World War brought women workers onto the streets of the Russian capital Petrograd (St Petersburg) on March 8 (February 23 in the Julian calendar then still in use in Russia), defying the law. They demanded “bread for our children” and “the return of our husbands from the trenches”. The next day the women were joined by hundreds of thousands of male workers in a protest calling for an end to the war and the despotic monarchy.

The figure most identified with the birth of IWD is Zetkin. Through the 1890s, she developed a socialist women’s program and practice within the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which became the model for women in socialist parties around the world and provided the political basis of the first IWD. Zetkin was a pioneer theorist of women’s status in capitalist society. Her first major analysis of this issue was presented in an 1889 speech delivered at the Paris International Workers Congress. She argued that women should not be subject to domestic slavery, but should have the right to work outside the home for the same wages as male workers.

Working-class perspective

Zetkin was also involved in campaigns for the right of women to vote. The suffrage movement involved working-class, middle-class and capitalist women. Zetkin analysed the different perspectives within the suffrage movement and stated at the 1906 Social Democratic Women’s Congress: “The middle-class women really wish to obtain this social reform because they think it is a measure which will strengthen and support the whole of middle-class society. The working women demand the suffrage not only to defend their economic and moral interests of life, but they wish for it as a help against the oppression of their class … and they are particularly eager for it in order to aid in the struggle against the capitalist class.”

Zetkin participated in preparing the 1889 Paris international congress of socialists and was one of eight women (out of 400) delegates elected to the congress. At the congress, she said that the fundamental interests of working women were identical with those of working men, liberation of working class women could come by allying with working men under the banner of socialism. The congress adopted a resolution “that male workers have a duty to take women into their ranks upon a basis of equal rights, and demand in principle, equal pay for equal work for the workers of both sexes and without discrimination of nationality”.

In 1891, Zetkin started editing Die Gleichheit (Equality), as an international socialist women’s journal. She agued that its goal should be to school women socialists in the principles of Marxism, as opposed to bourgeois-feminist views. By 1914, the paper had reached a circulation of 125,000. The first International Socialist Women’s Conference was held in conjunction with the 1907 Stuttgart International Socialist Congress. Fifty-nine women from 15 countries established the first International Women’s Bureau. Zetkin was elected secretary and Gleichheit designated the official organ.

Internationalism and war

In the lead-up to World War I, political differences developed in the SPD. Along with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, Zetkin remained in the revolutionary wing of the SPD. The reformist wing argued that the extension of the parliamentary franchise to the working class would enable socialists to win a majority in parliament and that socialism could be attained through gradual reforms to the capitalist system. The leading officials and theorists of the SPD while formally reaffirming the revolutionary socialist politics Marxism, in practice operated upon a reformist perspective.

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the SPD voted in favour of granting war credits to the German imperial government — a betrayal of the policy of opposition to socialist support for any imperialist war adopted by an international socialist congress in 1912. Zetkin campaigned against the imperialist war through Die Gleichheit. In 1915, she organised an “illegal” women’s conference attended by 28 delegates from eight countries. Its manifesto, addressed to “Women of the Working People”, asked: “Where are your husbands? Where are your sons? For eight months now, they have been at the front … Millions are already resting in mass graves, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands lie in military hospitals with torn up bodies, smashed limbs, blinded eyes, destroyed brains …”

“Who profits from this war?”, the manifesto asked. “Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armour-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and suppliers of the armed forces’ needs … This war is beneficial for the capitalists in general … The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.” The manifesto ended with the ringing call: “Down with war! Break through to socialism!”

Zetkin was arrested and held in “protective custody” for four months. She was removed as editor of Die Gleichheit by the pro-war SPD leadership in 1917. Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by an SPD government in 1919, shortly after they had led the formation of the revolutionary Communist Party of Germany (KPD), as part of the new Communist (Third) International formed at the initiative of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in the wake of the Russian workers and peasants’ revolutionary conquest of power in October 1917. In 1920, Zekin was appointed by the Comintern’s executive committee as its “international secretary of Communist women”. When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Zetkin, then 76 years old, went into exile in the Soviet Union, dying there later that same year.