March 8 has been celebrated for more than one hundred years. But the truth is that the origin of this date is a matter of controversy because many of the events that gave rise to it have been forgotten, distorted or made up.
By Laura Requena.
What is clear is that it cannot be traced to a single event; the celebration of this day is crossed by a large number of facts related to crucial moments in the history of the 20th century, such as World War I, the international struggle for female suffrage, the growing rise of trade unions during the first decades of the twentieth century both in the United States and in Europe and Latin America and with the Russian Revolution.
March 8 emerged linked to the struggle for women’s vote and for better working conditions for workers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The industrial revolution, which incorporated women, girls and boys into production, meant for them the transition from the servitude of home that did not end to the servitude of the workshop or the factory. Women suffered long hours of work without rest, salaries in half that of men and were also victims of sexual harassment by employers.
Socialist women created women’s day
The origins of International Women’s Day are linked to the socialist parties of the United States and Europe and in particular to the prominence of women of the North American Socialist Party who, since 1908, established mobilizations of reflection and action called Women’s Day.
On May 3, 1908, at the Garrick Theater in Chicago, the Federation of Socialists women of Chicago, took the initiative to call for a Women’s Day, with the central goal of campaigning for women’s suffrage. The following year, on February 28, 1909, the socialist party held large demonstrations in several cities, to vindicate the female vote.
On August 26 and 27, 1910, the Second International Conference of Working Women was held in Denmark, organized by the Second International. Clara Zetkin, a pioneer of the socialist women’s movement who devoted her entire life to organizing working women, proposed following the example of U.S. women and commemorating Women’s Day in repudiation of the conditions of oppression in which women workers were in the world and in favor of women’s suffrage without restrictions. At the same time, the war in Europe was glimpsed and the Socialists proposed that a call for peace be made that day.
For socialist women and this was also understood by Zetkin, the struggle for female vote was not an end in itself but a necessary step for the political participation of women and a way to unite the class in what was the strategic struggle for socialism. She was clear that even when proletarians and bourgeoisie claimed the right to vote equally, their interests were contrary. Thus, according to her: “The bourgeois feminists want to participate in public life because they hope to support and preserve the current bourgeois social order“, unlike the proletarians who demand the vote above all to improve the combat capacity of the proletariat against the capitalist order. She saw a close relationship between the “feminine question” and the “social question.”
Clara Zetkin knew that without the political participation of women it was impossible to win them for the socialist cause and at the same time only a revolution capable of overthrowing the capitalist order, would be able to lay the material foundations for the total emancipation of women.
The task of putting the socialist parties at the forefront of the struggle for women’s suffrage was not easy. When Zetkin entered the German Labor Socialist Party, women were forbidden from political participation in that country. But she and other women gave a strong battle in the organization they built together with the men, so that little by little the women struggle was also part of the socialist program.
Even though the agreement of that Conference did not set a specific day, because no historical event was commemorated, from then on the International Working Women’s Day began to be celebrated in several countries of Europe.
Parallel to the struggle for women’s vote, women workers had been fighting very hard since the end of the 19th century for their labor rights. In March of 1857, the seamstresses’ union of the Lower East Side Textile Company of New York carried out a march demanding the reduction of their working day. There, as a result of police repression, some workers were injured and/or killed.
Ten years later, also in March of 1867, the strike of the ironers of collars of the small city of Troy, in the state of New York, took place.
In 1909 the great strike of workers from Triangle Blouse Company of New York City takes place. This strike, which lasted three months and is known as the “uprising of 20,000” (by the approximate number of workers from various factories who lent their support), had a huge impact. But the economic shortage took them back to their factories without getting the installation of emergency exits and the ban on keeping the factory doors closed during work, which was one of their demands.
The first International Women’s Day, on March 19, 1911, brought together around one million people across Europe. Six days later, a fire destroys a good part of the facilities of the Triangle Blouse Company. Hundreds of people die, most of them women, ranging in age from 48 to 14 and many others are injured. This tragedy made it possible to verify the relevance of their demands and forced important changes in occupational health and safety standards in the factories.
March 8, 1917: Prelude to the October Revolution
On March 8, 1917 (February 23 in the old Russian calendar), women workers took to the streets to protest against Russia’s participation in the war, inequality in working conditions and food shortages. Women decided to summon the public agitation and that popular outbreak carried out by the workers, put an end to the Romanov dynasty and spontaneously began the February revolution, the prelude to the October Revolution.
The Russian Revolution made huge advances in women’s rights, not even imagined for women in the rest of Europe. Not only were they the first to get the right to vote but the new workers and popular government that emerged in October ended with all vestige of legal inequality. They carried out measures to preserve and maximize the role of women in production and for their political participation, under equal conditions. Legalized abortion, tried to end the domestic slavery of women and socialize these chores setting up a network of public services. They also carried out a titanic struggle for maternity protection and to protect abandoned children.
The isolation of that revolution, civil war and the difficult material conditions, did not allow to advance as desired. But even so, in the first years, the Soviet government gave women what no other government in the world, laying the foundations of new human relations and between the sexes, on new economic and social bases. It is from there that, in 1921, the Conference of Communist Women of the newly founded III International set March 8 as International Working Women’s Day.
The abandonment or change of character of this date and its subsequent institutionalization
Stalinism was a huge setback for women. Abortion was forbidden and the idea that the State completely socialize domestic and care tasks was abandoned.
During the 1930s, March 8 became in the Soviet Union a day to “glorify motherhood”. After the 1930s, March 8 ceased to take place in many countries or was given a different character. It stopped being a day of struggle and for vindication.
At the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s, the feminist movement sought to resume the commemoration of this day. The explanation of its origin was taken from 1955 in France in the communist newspaper “La Humanité,” where it was said that this day was born in honor of the strike in a textile factory, in 1857, in New York, during which employers would have barricaded the doors of the factory and set fire, with 129 workers inside. Other sources claimed it was on March 8, 1908, which was a Sunday. This version was considered good for more than 20 years until the Canadian historian Renée Côte investigated all the archives of Europe, USA and Canada and found no clue of that fire. Many other researchers came to the same conclusion that there was no documentary evidence about the burning of the textile factory in any of those two years.
All of them affirm that the myth that places the origin of March 8 in those two dates, was created by confusing and mixing the data of other strikes, with the intention of hiding its communist origin, erase from memory other events and the dates of the socialist congresses that determined Women’s Day.
In 1975, the United Nations (UN) instituted March 8 as International Women’s Day, removing the worker adjective and ignoring the events of March 8, 1917, in Russia. In 1977 UNESCO declared March 8 as a tribute to the dead workers in 1857.
We must rescue March 8’s socialist and class character!
Much has rained since Clara Zetkin proposed in 1910 to carry out in all countries, the International Day for the rights of working women. In many countries women got the vote, political participation, divorce and a minority became businesswomen, bankers, ministers or presidents. But millions of women throughout the world continue to face daily machismo, feminicide, overload of domestic and care jobs, labor and wage inequality and even extreme poverty and misery. What shows that under this corrupt capitalist system and increasingly in crisis, there is no possible equality. That is why there is a growing and massive struggle of women that was expressed on March 8 and will do so again this year.
It is now when the lessons of March 8, 1917, become for us, more essential than ever. The Russian Revolution started with the most oppressed and exploited sector of the working class and today we also see how women are at the head of many struggles. A hundred years later, it is crucial to recover the red thread of the history of those women who dared to revolutionize the world and their own lives and who fought for a new world without exploitation and oppression of men by men and specifically of women by men. And they demonstrated that it is only possible to begin to lay the foundations to end the oppression of women, through a workers’ and popular revolution that aims to fight for a socialist society.
Artícle published in: www.corrienteroja.net, 2/5/2018
Translation: Corriente Obrera.