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The radical origins of International Women’s Day

Flickr/National Assembly for Wales

Flickr/National Assembly for Wales

Every year on March 8, the United Nations and many other countries around the world celebrate International Women’s Day. The event is generally presented as an apolitical or vaguely liberal occasion to celebrate the achievements of women and promote such uncontroversial causes as better education for girls in developing communities. But its origins are actually much more radical, tied to the socialist movement of the early 20th century and the fall of an empire.

As with several other important progressive celebrations around the world, including International Workers’ Day on May 1, the original idea behind International Women’s Day came from the American socialist movement. The Socialist Party, formed in 1901, was heavily involved in the struggle for women’s suffrage.

After a major strike by female textile workers on Feb. 28, 1908, the Socialist Party decided to mark the occasion every year as “National Women’s Day,” in order to promote women’s rights – meaning both voting rights and rights in the workplace, such as equal wages with men and paid maternity leave.

The success of this initiative in the United States inspired German socialist Clara Zetkin to propose the idea of an International Women’s Day as an annual event focusing on the worldwide struggle for women’s equality. Her proposal was approved at the Second International Conference of Working Women in 1910, and the first International Women’s Day was held on March 19 of the next year. Later it was moved to March 8.

In those years, the central issue was voting rights for women, and the Socialist International sought to build support among male workers for universal suffrage. The first International Women’s Day in 1911 was held under the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.” Also high on the agenda were demands for the end of workplace discrimination and the right of women to work in the same jobs as men. The event was particularly successful in Germany and Austria, where so many women joined the demonstrations and attended political meetings that it was said the men were the ones who stayed home with the children that day.

The most influential International Women’s Day by far was held in Russia in 1917. For several years leading up to this, small underground events had been held in late February to mark International Women’s Day, with participants risking arrest by the Tsarist police. World War I took a heavy toll, both in lost lives and in economic devastation, leading to widespread hunger in the winter of 1916-17. In response to all of this, women workers in the textile industry organized what was supposed to be a small strike in Petrograd on International Women’s Day, which fell on Feb. 23rd, according to the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time. According to the Gregorian calendar we use today, this day was March 8th.

The supposedly small strike grew beyond all expectations. Enormous numbers of female workers joined the cause, textile production came to a halt and the striking women went out into the streets in a sudden illegal demonstration that was too large for the police to suppress. Within a day, the men had joined them as well. Within a week, the Tsar abdicated and the government fell.

This was the “February Revolution” – the first of two revolutions that took place in Russia that year. The February Revolution marked the end of the last absolute monarchy in Europe, and brought down one of the largest empires in the world at that time. And it was started by women, on International Women’s Day.

This is the origin and the legacy of International Women’s Day: Not a bland, sanitized event to remember something vaguely referred to as “the vital role of women as agents of development” as the U.N. puts it, but an occasion to celebrate and continue the radical movement for women’s rights that once toppled an empire.

One of the demands put forward by those brave socialist women in 1911 has been met: We now have universal suffrage. But many others have yet to be achieved.

Mike Tudoreanu is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at mtudorea@econs.umass.edu.

Comments
11 Responses to “The radical origins of International Women’s Day”
  1. Genghis Khan says:

    Yup, because nothing enables Socialists like destroying the nuclear family by sending women parents into the workforce – thus requiring turning children over to the tender indoctrination of The State.

  2. N. says:

    Well, there wouldn’t have been a nuclear family to destroy in the first place if capitalism hadn’t destroyed the extended-family-as-social-basis, which it still is in less developed (agrarian, village based, tribal, etc) type societies. And speaking of turning children over to the state, weren’t you just calling for a ‘war’ on young black males?

    Anyway, aside from GK’s overall horribly right-wing orientation, I do agree with one thing – that organized leftists will seize on any issue in order to legitimize their own quest for power, which becomes thus disguised as a quest for liberation. And I’m sorry Mike but some of the details you bring up here make no sense. The Russian Revolution may have been launched by a wide part of the population opposing monarchy, but the Bolsheviks who took it over didn’t do away with the empire, they industrialized it, and even though their regime passed away, it hasn’t at all stopped its imperialistic behavior. It certainly didn’t bring universal suffrage to Russia. And did you know that women’s suffrage in the U.S. happened when it did because Christians wanted women’s votes to help pass Prohibition?

  3. Genghis Khan says:

    N. No, I was calling for a “war” on young black males who commit crimes (and by extension, ANYONE – white, black, brown, yellow). Don’t want to be a target? Be a law-abiding and productive member of society.

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  5. Mary Sue says:

    Oh gosh, I’m ever so happy for brave strong men like Genghis Khan who are always ready to protect us poor wimminfolk from the sad fate of having to go into that scary outside world to *gasp!* get a job and have an independent income… or maybe even a career! What would happen to our nuclear family then? Who would be home to greet my breadwinning husband with a freshly cooked dinner after those exhausting late nights at the office? You know, the poor dear, he works so hard that he sometimes forgets himself and puts on ladies’ perfume by mistake before heading home! I always laugh when he comes home late like that. Honestly, I don’t know what they do to him at the office, they must ride him so hard!

    Anyway, I’m just glad that I can stay at home like a good wife and take care of the kids. You see, this way we can have a wholesome family and preserve the sanctity of our marriage! And I know my sons will one day grow up to be loyal husbands just like their father.

  6. Genghis Khan says:

    Mary Sue:

    If your husband – or, I assume your ex-husband – is coming home smelling of another woman, well, that’s on HIS head.

    You see, part of what I swore was to forsake all others. With two children, I knew full well before we had the first (let alone the second) that our sex life (indeed, every aspect our our lives) would be curtailed by them. But I made that trade-off willingly, as did she. (In fact, this morning, when I went to wake her up after she slept late, we spent a few minutes just holding each other without having two very jealous kids climbing all over us; a rare luxury… until we heard the kids fighting downstairs and went a-running)

    Nobody, not even me, is saying that women should be chattel. Nobody, including me, is saying that women shouldn’t be educated, or have a career. But if you want a career, and you want a family – well, if you as well as your husband are dropping your kids off in day care to be raised by strangers, you are harming your children. Who better to teach your children values than you? Because if you answered “someone else”, and do so willingly, you shouldn’t have children at all. Why? So your genes can be passed along, with someone else doing the majority of the nurturing?

    My wife has put her career on hold until our children are both in school. Kudos to her. She could not conceive of dumping them into day care to be raised by strangers for the majority of their waking hours.

    But that’s the whole point of IWD. To brainwash women into thinking that there is no cost to turning their children over to others to raise the majority of the time. But there is a cost; the children do not bond as closely to their parents. There is less chance to teach YOUR values to them – instead, the values that will be taught will be those who have the children.

    Both Lenin and Hitler – Marxist monsters in history – wanted children to be taught by the State from an early age. The better to indoctrinate them. The same for imperius Barackus Rex’s push for universal Pre-K.

    A cheating husband – and my condolences – does not justify following in the footsteps of the various flavors of Marx, a man who never worked a day in his life, who created a system that has never worked in history, and whose followers have murdered over 100 million people in the 20th century trying to implement his economic system – following an assumption that human nature can be subverted for long periods by entire populations.

  7. ...facepalm says:

    Oh wow… You know, until recently I thought that the idea of people calling their opponents nazi-communist-muslim-atheists was just a joke to make fun of the ignorance of Tea Party types. But Genghis here seems intent on proving that they really do talk that way. I mean, calling **Hitler** a **Marxist**? Seriously? Do you even know what “Marxism” means? Better yet, do you know what Hitler himself had to say about it? Here’s a sample:

    “The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature and replaces the eternal privilege of power and strength by the mass of numbers and their dead weight. Thus it denies the value of personality in man, contests the significance of nationality and race, and thereby withdraws from humanity the premise of its existence and its culture. As a foundation of the universe, this doctrine would bring about the end of any order intellectually conceivable to man. And as, in this greatest of all recognizable organisms, the result of an application of such a law could only be chaos, on earth it could only be destruction for the inhabitants of this planet. If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.”

    That’s in chapter 2 of Mein Kampf (you can find it online). He keeps going on like that many times – at one point there’s an entire chapter devoted to attacking Marxism. Really, you can just google “Mein Kampf”, find a site with the full text, and do a search for the word “Marx” within it. You’ll see the disagreements (to put it mildly) soon enough.

  8. Just another woman with a day job says:

    Well, I should have remembered to apply the old Rule of Youtube – “stay far away from the comments” – but I didn’t, so here I am. In the interest of full disclosure, I consider myself a feminist and sometimes a socialist (depending on what meaning gets attached to the term), and I’m a married woman with a career but no children yet (though hopefully that will change soon). So I’m going to respond to Genghis Khan…

    First of all, to accuse International Women’s Day of promoting the raising of children by strangers is the opposite of the truth. IWD was created in a time when daycare was basically unheard-of, and one of the demands of its founders was that working women should have the right to a paid maternity leave to be able to spend more time taking care of their children. All over the world, paid maternity leave (or a lengthening of it, where it already exists) continues to be a major issue promoted by socialists and many feminists.

    As for the topic of women with careers, the fact is that having a stay-at-home parent is (and has always been) a luxury of the affluent. Poor and middle-income women have always gone to work outside the home. The first factories of the industrial revolution employed women, for example. What has changed in recent decades is that women can actually get promoted now, so they have careers as opposed to dead-end jobs.

    But the reason why modern women want careers and children at the same time is not because anyone has persuaded us that it’s a wonderful thing to go to work during the day and take care of the kids in the evening. Let’s be honest here: Most of the liberal feminist talk of careers-as-empowerment is just a way to make us feel better about something we have to do anyway, whether we like it or not. Some women (like your wife, apparently) have a choice in the matter, but most of us don’t. I don’t have a career because I want to feel “empowered” or “independent” or any of that high-minded stuff. That’s not what it’s about, at all. You know what it’s actually about?

    Money. It’s about having money to pay the bills. I’ve never even stopped to ask myself whether I would like to stay at home and raise children instead, because there is absolutely no way that could ever be an option. My husband doesn’t earn nearly enough to support an entire family on his income alone. I don’t, either. The vast majority of people don’t.

    So the reason why modern women want careers and children at the same time is because, for most of us, that is the ONLY way to have children. The only way I could “put my career on hold” to raise a child would be if I were willing to raise that child in poverty (and quite possibly homelessness, unless we could find a much cheaper place). So if you or your wife could actually choose between family and career, consider yourselves lucky. For most of us it’s not a choice.

    Also, by the way, daycare wasn’t invented by Marxists, primary and secondary school weren’t invented by Marxists either, and – wait a second, did you just argue that kids shouldn’t go to school, because it supposedly indoctrinates them?

    Look, the point of schools isn’t to teach children “values”. It’s to teach them reading, writing, math, geography, some basic science, and so on. In other words, skills that every person needs to have and facts that every person needs to know. When mandatory primary schools were first introduced, in the early 19th century, most people were illiterate. So they couldn’t exactly teach their children to read or write, could they? State-run schools are the REASON why almost everyone is literate in the first world today. Of course, we don’t have the problem of illiterate parents any more these days, but there are plenty of parents who can’t teach science or math. And there are many others who are just plain bad parents. To be against compulsory schooling is to say that children should be punished for the faults of their parents – so that if your parents don’t feel like teaching you basic skills or basic knowledge (or if they don’t know those things themselves), tough luck. That’s a ridiculous position to hold.

    So you say you want a world where people can choose between career and family, where one parent (either one) can and often does choose to put his/her career on hold in order to raise the children? Hey, you can count this feminist/socialist in! But that’s not the world we have now, and it does no good to pretend that it is. If any -ism is driving women to go to work and have their kids raised by strangers, it’s capitalism. We have to make ends meet.

    Oh, and one last thing: accusing people of supporting some mish-mash of totalitarian ideologies that you hate (with Hitler thrown in the mix, of course, because he always has to be brought up, no matter how incorrectly) isn’t helping your case.

  9. Genghis Khan says:

    @facepalm. You can’t say “Nazi” in full without saying “National SOCIALIST German Worker’s Party.” Go look it up.

  10. Genghis Khan says:

    @facepalm:

    Leftists become incandescent when reminded of the socialist roots of Nazism
    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/danielhannan/100260720/whenever-you-mention-fascisms-socialist-roots-left-wingers-become-incandescent-why/

    Nazism morphed into being on the “right” side of the spectrum when Hitler invaded the progressives’ beloved USSR. Since it couldn’t POSSIBLY be that one kind of socialist attacked another, it HAD TO BE that the Nazis were right-wing. Thus, a decades old myth was born.

    Antonio Gramsci was a socialist who discussed taking over the cultural institutions one by one. The schools. The media. American society was marinated in leftism… until Fox News broke the monopoly. This is the reason for all the fury over “Faux News” – not because it’s not accurate, or because it’s any more biased than CNN, PMSNBC, et al, but because it presented a different viewpoint.

    At this point in time America is doomed. Those who vote for a living now outnumber those who work for a living… and we are at that awkward point where it’s too late to actually save America and restore it as a Constitutional Republic (at least, as a whole), and too early to start shooting.

  11. ...facepalm says:

    And you can’t say “North Korea” in full without saying “DEMOCRATIC People’s Republic of Korea”. I suppose that proves the country is a democracy? Or, for that matter, you know what the present-day neo-Nazi party in Germany is called? The “NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC Party of Germany”. Google it.

    Using the term “socialist” may sound like a big deal to an American living today, but in 1920s Germany it was an extremely popular buzzword used by almost everyone across the political spectrum – very similar to the way the word “democracy” is used today, for example. Everyone claims to be in favor of “democracy”, they just have very different ideas about what it means.

    As for that silly diatribe you linked, I’ve read it before a few days ago. The entire argument boils down to pointing out that the Nazis called themselves socialists (see above) and then claiming that they actually believed it themselves, rather than just using it for propaganda. True or false, that’s a worthless argument. I mean, you know, maybe Kim Jong-un actually believes he’s the leader of a democracy, too. So what? That doesn’t make it true.

    Here’s a good response article: “Hitler wasn’t a socialist. Stop saying he was.”
    http://www.systemiccapital.com/hitler-wasnt-a-socialist-stop-saying-he-was/

    This one is also good for setting the facts straight:
    http://hernandotoday.com/news/hernando-sports/2009/apr/29/hitler-no-socialist-ar-279608/

    Simply put, the only way you can call the Nazis “socialists” is if you define “socialism” so broadly that it includes everyone who disagrees with present-day American conservatives and libertarians.

    Nazism was always on the “right” side of the spectrum. Nazis always regarded Marxists as their mortal enemies (and Marxists returned the favor). It goes way back, many years before the invasion of the USSR. You want proof? There’s plenty. Mein Kampf was published in 1925, it’s the foundational text of Nazism, and it’s absolutely full of anti-Marxist tirades and attacks against socialist ideas in general. I quoted one before. Here are some others:

    “In this period [Hitler’s younger years in Vienna] my eyes were opened to two menaces of which I had previously scarcely known the names, and whose terrible importance for the existence of the German people I certainly did not understand: Marxism and Jewry.”
    (from volume I, chapter 2)

    “The Western democracy of today is the forerunner of Marxism which without it would not be thinkable. It provides this world plague with the culture in which its germs can spread.”
    (volume I, chapter 3)

    “In the years 1913 and 1914, I, for the first time in various circles which today in part faithfully support the National Socialist movement, expressed the conviction that the question of the future of the German nation was the question of destroying Marxism.”
    (volume I, chapter 4)

    “The best constitution and the best form of government is that which makes it quite natural for the best brains to reach a position of dominant importance and influence in the community.”
    (volume II, chapter 4)

    “It would be absurd to appraise a man’s worth by the race to which he belongs and at the same time to make war against the Marxist principle, that all men are equal, without being determined to pursue our own principle to its ultimate consequences. If we admit the significance of blood, that is to say, if we recognize the race as the fundamental element on which all life is based, we shall have to apply to the individual the logical consequences of this principle. In general I must estimate the worth of nations differently, on the basis of the different races from which they spring, and I must also differentiate in estimating the worth of the individual within his own race. The principle, that one people is not the same as another, applies also to the individual members of a national community. No one brain, for instance, is equal to another; because the constituent elements belonging to the same blood vary in a thousand subtle details, though they are fundamentally of the same quality.”
    (volume II, chapter 4)

    “Marxism represents the most striking phase of the Jewish endeavour to eliminate the dominant significance of personality in every sphere of human life and replace it by the numerical power of the masses.”
    (volume II, chapter 4)

    Again I say: Google Mein Kampf and just search for the word “Marx” within the text. You’ll see what I mean.

    For their part, Communists had this to say (in 1935, at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International):

    “The most reactionary variety of fascism is the German type of fascism. It has the effrontery to call itself National Socialism, though it has nothing in common with socialism. German fascism is not only bourgeois nationalism, it is fiendish chauvinism. It is a government system of political gangsterism, a system of provocation and torture practiced upon the working class and the revolutionary elements of the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia. It is medieval barbarity and bestiality, it is unbridled aggression in relation to other nations.”

    Full document:
    https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/dimitrov/works/1935/08_02.htm

    The whole thing is one long attack on fascism and Nazism, with recommendations on how to fight them. And again, note the year: 1935. Six years before the German invasion of the USSR.

    Now I believe we’re done with this topic, yes?

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