Socialist origins of International Women’s Day
Women in struggle and solidarity
By Kathy Durkin
Published Mar 19, 2009 8:31 PM
On International Women’s Day this year, we express our solidarity with our heroic sisters in Gaza who have endured the horrific U.S.-backed Israeli siege and who are standing up with courage and resilience. We hail our Palestinian sisters in the occupied West Bank who face the Israeli Defense Forces and hostile settlements daily. We hail our sisters in Iraq, Afghanistan and everywhere who face U.S. war and occupation.
International Working Women’s Day was founded in 1910 by European women socialists as a coordinated global day of protest and solidarity among women workers. They were inspired by the 1908 New York City march of immigrant women workers for their economic and political rights, and the three-month garment strike there a year later, by mainly women immigrants, and they felt the ferment by women workers in their own countries.
In solidarity with our immigrant sisters, we embrace our Haitian sisters who face deportation; our Latina sisters who daily face the terror of deportation, jail, separation from their children and abuse; and our Muslim and Arab sisters who face bigotry and so much more.
We thank our sisters at Chicago’s Republic Windows and Doors, who heroically took risks by occupying their factory. By their actions, they aided all workers facing layoffs and plant closings, and played a leading role in the national fightback.
The historic socialist and working-class essence of International Women’s Day remains, despite capitalist government and media cover-ups of its real nature. Its history is rife with struggle and solidarity. It has been celebrated by socialist countries and parties, national liberation, anti-imperialist and anti-corporate movements on many continents.
Capitalist crisis impacts women
International Women’s Day and global solidarity among women workers has taken on new meaning in this age of capitalist globalization. The gargantuan, worldwide economic crisis is impacting working-class and oppressed women greatly.
Globalized capitalism is not kind to women. Over 100 million women have been forced to leave their homelands to search for employment as international migrant workers. They face terrible working conditions, are frequently denied pay, subjected to physical and sexual abuse, and often lack economic or human rights or legal protection. Women are 90 percent of the world’s domestic workers; many are migrant workers. Even children have been drafted into domestic work.
Women perform two-thirds of the world’s work, yet earn only one-tenth of its income and own one percent of its property. Women are 75 percent of the 1.3 billion people who subsist on less than one dollar a day. Most of the world’s 800 million poor and hungry are women and children, although women produce 60 percent of the world’s food supply. Poor children are increasingly at risk for starvation due to exorbitant food prices.
Sexual trafficking of women and children has intensified. The global market garners $42 billion annually for profiteers who exploit women and children, including those from Eastern Europe, where jobs and social protections were lost and poverty grew after the fall of socialism.
The crisis of violence against women, which is rooted in class society, property ownership and patriarchal relations, is exacerbated by global corporations, which, in their drive for higher profits, superexploit women’s labor while mistreating women and disregarding human rights for all workers.
As the world financial crisis unfolds, a new United Nations study estimates that up to 22 million women worldwide will lose their jobs, with children hard hit. Women workers are likely to have lower-paying, part-time or temporary jobs, with few benefits, little job protection and meager, if any, resources or property.
However, working women, including migrant workers, are fighting for their rights worldwide, aided by women’s, human rights’ and community groups, trade unions, progressive organizations and governments, and revolutionary parties.
Imperialism and globalized capitalist private ownership are at the root of women’s economic inequality worldwide. This cries out for a socialist solution—with public ownership of industries, where production is for human need, not profit, where society guarantees jobs, health care, education, housing and nutritious food for all, and where all wealth and resources are shared worldwide.
World’s women need socialism
Cuba, despite a U.S. blockade, has shown by its living example that socialism can provide the basis for women’s equality. Under the Federation of Cuban Women’s leadership, women have made great strides.
This historic day’s founder was Clara Zetkin, a leader in the German Social-Democratic Party and head of the International Women’s Secretariat. Her party, which in 1910 had 82,000 women members, supported women’s rights, including universal suffrage and the right to organize politically as women. European women were then pouring into the workforce, where they held low-paid, horrific jobs. They were joining unions and socialist parties at a time when socialist ideas were burgeoning.
Zetkin proposed—to an International Socialist Women’s Conference, in August 1910 at the Worker’s Assembly Hall in Copenhagen, Denmark—that an International Working Women’s Day be set aside annually to recognize the worldwide struggle of women workers and build solidarity. More than 100 women from 17 countries, representing trade unions, women’s organizations and clubs and European socialist parties, unanimously voted for Zetkin’s proposal. It said in part, “In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the [working class] in each country, the socialist women in all countries shall organize a Women’s Day every year.” (www.leftwrite.wordpress.com)
Zetkin, a political strategist, likely saw organizing for this special day as a crucial step in building an anti-capitalist movement and hoped that a yearly coordinated multicountry protest on the same day for the same demands would strengthen it and make it more powerful and would also strengthen ties between women in different countries.
Zetkin aimed to foster cooperation between women in unions, women’s organizations and socialist parties so they would unite and fight jointly. This collaboration would not only raise class and socialist consciousness, as Zetkin hoped, but it could also win the most political women workers to a socialist perspective and organization and push forward the class struggle.
One year later, Zetkin’s strategy took hold. More than one million women poured into the streets in four European countries on March 19—then IWD—to demand jobs and an end to discrimination. Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai said the first “Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. … certainly the first show of militancy [in Europe] by working women.” (www.leftwrite.wordpress.com)
In the pre-war years, International Women’s Day saw European women protesting the looming World War I. A 1917 strike begun on IWD by Russian women garment workers demanding “bread and peace” led to the czar’s ouster, which opened the gates to the workers’ revolution. In 1921, the Soviet Union was the first government to legalize women’s equality.
Some of Zetkin’s issues still resonate today: the struggles against imperialist war and high food prices and for better conditions for women and children.
There are also many different issues and struggles today for women worldwide. The history of colonialism, imperialism and national oppression, with the deliberate underdevelopment of continents, theft of land and resources, superexploitation of the global work force, and the propagation of all forms of oppression and bigotry, greatly broaden the demands from those raised at the 1910 Copenhagen conference.
An international socialist women’s conference today would first extend invitations to women from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean—those whose countries have been oppressed by U.S. imperialism, militarism and economic oppression. It would address their issues as well as those of working and oppressed women within the U.S. It would demand an end to racism, anti-immigrant attitudes, sexism, homophobia and all forms of bigotry.
Clara Zetkin was absolutely right about these key points: international solidarity among working women is essential and so is the urgent need for women to organize to get rid of capitalism and fight for socialism.
Adapted from a talk at a WW Forum on March 13.
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