The radical origins of International Women’s Day

By Mike Tudoreanu

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 [email protected]