The origin and historical development of 8 March

In this article, Miguel Jiménez explains the origins of International Working Women’s Day, which was born out of the socialist movement of the 19th Century, and became fixed in revolutionary calendars by the February insurrection of 1917...

As capitalism and factory production developed, they began to break up the traditional role of kirche, küche, kinder (church, kitchen, children), which the old peasant society reserved for women in the villages and hamlets of the old, declining feudal order.

Coinciding with the advent of the organised labour movement, the 19th century witnessed women workers on both sides of the Atlantic playing a very important role in key struggles, which created a whole new tradition.

"Women have become an active part of our social production. Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment," wrote Marx to the socialist Kügelman, having in mind – among other things – the great struggles of women during the French Revolution.

August Bebel Image public domainAugust Bebel opposed anti-woman chauvenism in the workers' movement / Image: public domain

In 1871, Marx and Engels promoted a rule in the First International in which the creation of women's sections was recommended, without excluding the possibility that both sexes might participate in them. At that time, conditions of backwardness prevailed in Europe to a much greater degree than they do today. A chauvinistic attitude predominated in which women who actively took part in politics were looked down upon with contempt. In his work Women and Socialism, August Bebel, disciple of Marx and Engels and founder of the socialist movement in Germany, called for socialists to combat these tendencies within the workers' movement.

Rosa Luxemburg Image public domainRosa Luxemburg: a revolutionary giant / Image: public domain

From this milieu, with all its contradictions, emerged the giant figure of Rosa Luxemburg. She stands as one of the great socialist leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who fought and defeated the emerging conciliatory tendency that was developing within the socialist movement.

Clara Zetkin

Early on, the social democrats started specific and methodical agitation on the question of women: European socialist (and anarchist) organisations began such work from the latter half of the 19th Century. In Germany alone, before the First World War, there were over 100,000 subscribers to the women-oriented publications of the German Social Democracy. The best-known author of this work was the German socialist, Clara Zetkin.

The first milestone towards the achievement of International Working Women’s day came at the First International Conference of Socialist Women, held in Stuttgart in 1907. Clara Zetkin, founder of the magazine of socialist women, Equality, defended a resolution, written together with Alejandra Kollontai and Rosa Luxemburg. The motion urged all socialist parties to campaign for women’s right to vote, in addition to fighting for their full social rights. The Socialist International supported these agreements, which represented the culmination of the work of previous decades. Even though the suffragettes struggled for the vote in North America, England and other countries, (led by women of upper and middle class social origin) the struggle for full emancipation (social and political) of women was born as an integral part of the international socialist movement.

Clara Zetkin 1 Image public domainClara Zetkin: founder of the socialist women's magazine, 'Equality' / Image: public domain

On 3 May 1908, the Federation of Chicago Socialist Women's Clubs took the initiative to convene a Women's Day in a theatre of the city. The first national Women Day was adopted by the North American Socialist Party was the following year, taking place in different cities and on different dates. The basic objective was "to obtain the right to vote and abolish sexual slavery".

The celebration of the following year, 1910, was marked by hugely increased participation. The dressmakers of the city had ended a long strike for the right to have their union recognised. The strike lasted from 22 November 1909 to 15 February 1910: almost the eve of Women’s Day. It was a long, hard strike, with strong pickets repressed with violence by the police, who arrested more than 600 people. After the strike, the dressmakers actively participated in the preparation and realisation of Women’s Day, convened by the North American Socialist Party. It proposed to the Socialist International the institutionalisation of this day of struggle within the workers' movement as one of global action.

In 1910, the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, with representatives of 17 countries, declared of an international day of struggle. Although the agreement did not set a specific day, thereafter the International Day of Working Class Women began to be celebrated in several countries in Europe. The first international celebration took place in 1911 and had particular strength in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden. More than one million female and male workers participated in public events demanding equal rights in the civil code, the right to work and the end of discrimination in employment. A few weeks later, on 25 March, 146 textile workers, the vast majority immigrant women from Italy and Eastern Europe, died in a fire in the factory Triangle Shirtwaist in New York because they were locked up and were not able to escape from their workplace when a voracious fire broke out. Respect for the memory of these workers, the most exploited of the working class, was incorporated into the International Day of Working Class Women.

Equality and civil rights

The first European recognition of 8 March came in 1914, and was adopted incrementally by several countries of the continent.

The declaration of the First World War favoured the proletarianisation of millions of women. In one sense, the situation of women worsened, as many were left alone to look after their families; in addition to dealing with shortages and the rising cost of living. But the women workers participated in many strikes and demonstrations to protest against these hardships, which raised their political sights, their awareness, and led to increased self-confidence. This social process, together with that of previous struggles and protests, led to the achievement of legislation on the right to vote for women in the Nordic countries and the antipodes (Australia and New Zealand). These countries, not coincidentally, turned out the largest percentages worldwide of electoral votes to their respective socialist (or labour) parties.

International womens day 1917 2 Image public domainThe strike that inaugurated the February Revolution sealed 8 March as International Working Women's Day / Image: public domain

However, the 8 March that is best remembered occurred in 1917 in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). Trotsky explained how, starting from the exploited textile women, the flame of revolt was lit:

"The 23rd of February [8 March in the modern calendar] was International Women’s Day. The social-democratic circles had intended to mark this day in a general manner: by meetings, speeches, leaflets. It had not occurred to anyone that it might become the first day of the revolution. Not a single organisation called for strikes on that day. What is more, even a Bolshevik organisation, and a most militant one – the Vyborg borough committee, all workers – was opposing strikes. The temper of the masses, according to Kayurov, one of the leaders in the workers’ district, was very tense; any strike would threaten to turn into an open fight. But since the committee thought the time unripe for militant action – the party not strong enough and the workers having too few contacts with the soldiers – they decided not to call for strikes but to prepare for revolutionary action at some indefinite time in the future. Such was the course followed by the committee on the eve of the 23rd of February, and everyone seemed to accept it. On the following morning, however, in spite of all directives, the women textile workers in several factories went on strike, and sent delegates to the metal workers with an appeal for support. 'With reluctance, ' writes Kayurov, 'the Bolsheviks agreed to this, and they were followed by the workers – Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. But once there is a mass strike, one must call everybody into the streets and take the lead.' Such was Kayurov’s decision, and the Vyborg committee had to agree to it. 'The idea of going into the streets had long been ripening among the workers; only at that moment nobody imagined where it would lead'."

90,000 female and male workers went on strike, inaugurating the February Revolution that knocked down the oldest autocracy in Europe. This historical feat secured 8 March as the annual anniversary of recognition and struggle for the rights of working-class women: year-by-year, and decade-by-decade, until today.

The conquests of the revolution

The Russian Revolution in October guaranteed full political rights for women. The Soviets recognised women’s right not only to vote, as in other countries before, but to be elected deputy or minister. This was the case with Alexandra Kollontai, first commissar (minister) in world history. It was not a tokenistic role, so widespread in later times. Anyone who knows minimally the history of the Bolshevik Party knows the key role unquestionably been played by Kollontai and other women, including Inessa Armand and Nadezhda Krupskaya.

Alexandra Kollontai Image public domainWomen like Alexandra Kollontai played a key role in the early Bolshevik regime / Image: public domain

The Russian Revolution, in the midst of scarcity, gave everything it could to lay the foundations for the social emancipation of women. Women no longer had the obligation to live with their husbands or to accompany them if they changed jobs. They had the same rights to be head of the family and enjoyed equal pay. Much attention was paid to motherhood and laws were passed prohibiting pregnant women from working long hours. There was maternity leave with a salary and families could make use of day care centres. Abortion was legalised in 1920, divorce was simplified, and it was enough to register one’s marriage in the civil registry. The concept of illegitimate children was also eliminated.

In Lenin's words:

"In the literal sense, we have not left a single brick of the despicable laws that placed women in a situation of inferiority compared to men."

Subsequent material advances facilitated the full incorporation of women into all spheres of social, economic and political life – free school meals, free milk for children, food, clothes, maternity centres, day care centres and other facilities.

In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky writes:

"The revolution made a heroic effort to destroy the so-called 'family hearth' – that archaic, stuffy and stagnant institution in which the woman of the toiling classes performs galley labour from childhood to death. The place of the family as a shut-in petty enterprise was to be replaced, according to the plan, by a finished system of social care and accommodation: maternity houses, crèches, kindergartens, schools, social dining rooms, social laundries, first-aid stations, hospitals, sanatoria, athletic organizations, moving-picture theatres, etc. The complete absorption of the housekeeping functions of the family by institutions of the socialist society, uniting all generations in solidarity and mutual aid, was to bring to woman, and thereby to the loving couple, a real liberation from the thousand-year-old fetters".

The communist, socialist and anarchist world labour movement played a militant, selfless and heroic role in the interwar period. And within this movement, women activists were impressive participants, for example in the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s.

The role of Stalinism

In 1943, Stalin began negotiations with Western leaders to divide the world into spheres of influence, seeking a stable consensus with British and American imperialism, for which he disbanded the Communist International.

The USSR at that time revealed the correctness of the old assertion of the utopian socialist Fourier, which Trotsky paraphrased when writing:

"The position of women is the most graphic and eloquent indicator to evaluate a social regime and a state policy. (...) Guided by its conservative instinct, the bureaucracy has been alarmed by the 'disintegration of the family'. It began by singing panegyrics to the family dinner and laundry, that is, to the domestic slavery of women. To top it off, the bureaucracy has restored criminal punishment for abortions, officially returning women to the status of pack animals. In complete contradiction with the ABC of Communism, the ruling caste has thus restored the most reactionary and ignorant nucleus of the class regime, that is, the petty-bourgeois family".

Stalin 1 Image public domainThe Stalinist degeneration undid a lot of the revolution's gains for women / Image: public domain

After Stalin's death in 1953, reforms such as legal abortion were reintroduced, but the situation of women in the Soviet Union never recovered to the levels achieved under Lenin and Trotsky. After years of economic development that made it the second most powerful country on the planet, what other Armand, Krupskaya, Kollontai or Zetkin rose to the top of the Stalinist regime? A new macho attitude, on the cultural and ideological level, had developed.

Even so, Soviet women had many advantages over women in the West. The post-war economic growth – achieved thanks to the planned nationalised economy – allowed general improvements: retirement at age of 55; right of pregnant women to reduce working hours with full salary; and maternity leave of 56 days before and 56 days after childbirth. In 1927, 28 percent of women were pursuing higher education; in 1960, 43 percent, and in 1970, 49 percent. The only countries in the world in that year where women constituted more than 40 percent of the total students in higher education were Finland, France and the USA.

8 March to the present day

The Stalinist bureaucratisation led to a caricaturing of 8 March in the countries linked to the USSR, while the advance of Western capitalism and its stabilisation by social democracy (increasingly less socialist), had no interest in commemorating the 8 March.

However, the revolution existed beyond the offices of the Soviet bureaucrats. A new generation was shaken during the 1960s and 70s with the colonial revolutions, in which dozens of countries achieved independence from their respective oppressors. The struggle of the Vietnamese people; the Cuban Revolution; and even Mao’s China (that tried to appear as a purer ideal than the already moth-eaten Soviet Stalinism) captured the imagination of youth and the working class.

Womens march Image public domainAn economic crisis in the 1970s was preceded by a questioning of society at all levels / Image: public domain

The shell of stability began to break in the west before the economic crisis of 1973. By then, there was already a ferment that led to the questioning of social relations at all levels. Women in the richest countries had the contraceptive pill, while in the third world they took up sub-machine guns and AK-47s, in struggles that lasted until the beginning of the 1980s. Faced with the relative stagnation of the class struggle in the most advanced countries, the attention was turned to other ‘isms’: environmentalism, pacifism, feminism.

8 March today has been reconfigured and defanged. The UN institutionalised the date for the ruling class, and renamed it simply Women's Day, removing all reference to ‘woman workers’. In so doing, they have hidden the name of the social class whose most conscious layer moved in unison to defend its most exploited section.

The fact that 8 March had its origin in a strike became confused with the tragedy of 25 March 1911. This mixing of dates and circumstances gained strength even in supposedly communist movements. The fact however remains that 8 March was born from the struggle against capitalism, that for decades prior to 1917 was waged by millions of militants: men and women united by the revolutionary ideal of banishing exploitation and alienation of man by man, and of woman by man. These class fighters were convinced that those who had more rights had the duty to defend those with less. They believed that united we achieve more than we ever can alone. The class that today holds the power wants to keep us divided: the same class that reigned in 1908 and 1917.

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