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The history of International Women’s Day

By: 
Aleksandra Kollontai, Moscow 1920

March 5, 2015

For more than a century International Women's Day has intertwined women's liberation and the fight against capitalism. Begun by American socialists, it was globalied by German socialists and was the first day of the 1917 Russian Revolution--which won unprecendented gains for women like abortion and divorce on demand two generations before the rest of the West, and communal kitchens and creches. All these gains were reversed by Stalin's counter-revolution, encouraged by Western intervention. Writing in 1920 in the midst of revolution, leading revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai wrote about the origins of International Women's Day and its role in the Russian revolution. This is shared from the Marxist Internet Archive.
 
A militant celebration
Women’s Day or Working Women’s Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.
 
But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.
 
But if this is a general holiday for all the proletariat, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? Why then do we hold special celebrations and meetings aimed above all at the women workers and the peasant women? Doesn’t this jeopardize the unity and solidarity of the working class? To answer these questions, we have to look back and see how Women’s Day came about and for what purpose it was organized.
 
How and why was Women’s Day organized?
Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women’s equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.
 
Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the U.S.A. organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first “Woman’s Day.” The initiative on organizing a woman’s day thus belongs to the working women of America.
 
In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin brought forward the question of organizing an International Working Women’s Day. The conference decided that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day a “Women’s Day” under the slogan “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
 
During these years, the question of making parliament more democratic, i.e., of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women, was a vital issue. Even before the first world war, the workers had the right to vote in all bourgeois countries except Russia. Only women, along with the insane, remained without these rights. Yet, at the same time, the harsh reality of capitalism demanded the participation of women in the country’s economy. Every year there was an increase in the number of women who had to work in the factories and workshops, or as servants and charwomen. Women worked alongside men and the wealth of the country was created by their hands. But women remained without the vote.
 
But in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. “Housewives uprisings” became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany.
 
The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.
 
It was decided to have a Women’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under the banner of socialism.
 
The first International Women’s Day
The decision taken at the Second International Congress of Socialist Women was not left on paper. It was decided to hold the first International Women’s Day on the 19th of March, 1911.
 
This date was not chosen at random. Our German comrades picked the day because of its historic importance for the German proletariat. On the 19th of March in the year of 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.
 
After January 11, efforts were made in Germany and Austria to prepare for Women’s Day. They made known the plans for a demonstration both by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before Women’s Day two journals appeared: The Vote for Women in Germany and Women’s Day in Austria. The various articles devoted to Women’s Day — “Women and Parliament,” “The Working Women and Municipal Affairs,” “What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?”, etc. — analyzed thoroughly the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All the articles emphasized the same point: that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.
 
The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911. Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere — in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.
 
This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.
 
In 1913 International Women’s Day was transferred to the 8th of March. This day has remained the working women’s day of militancy.
 
Is Women’s Day necessary?
Women’s Day in America and Europe had amazing results. It’s true that not a single bourgeois parliament thought of making concessions to the workers or of responding to the women’s demands. For at that time, the bourgeoisie was not threatened by a socialist revolution.
 
But Women’s Day did achieve something. It turned out above all to be an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters. They could not help but turn their attention to the meetings, demonstrations, posters, pamphlets and newspapers that were devoted to Women’s Day. Even the politically backward working woman thought to herself: “This is our day, the festival for working women,” and she hurried to the meetings and demonstrations. After each Working Women’s Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. Organizations improved and political consciousness developed.
 
Women’s Day served yet another function; it strengthened the international solidarity of the workers. The parties in different countries usually exchange speakers for this occasion: German comrades go to England, English comrades go to Holland, etc. The international cohesion of the working class has become strong and firm and this means that the fighting strength of the proletariat as a whole has grown.
 
These are the results of working women’s day of militancy. The day of working women’s militancy helps increase the consciousness and organization of proletarian women. And this means that its contribution is essential to the success of those fighting for a better future for the working class.
 
Women Workers’ Day in Russia
The Russia working woman first took part in “Working Women’s Day” in 1913. This was a time of reaction when Tsarism held the workers and peasants in its vise like a grip. There could be no thought of celebrating “Working Women’s Day” by open demonstrations. But the organized working women were able to mark their international day. Both the legal newspapers of the working class — the Bolshevik Pravda and the Menshevik Looch — carried articles about the International Women’s Day: they carried special articles, portraits of some of those taking part in the working women’s movement and greetings from comrades such as Bebel and Zetkin.
 
In those bleak years meetings were forbidden. But in Petrograd, at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange, those women workers who belonged to the Party organized a public forum on “The Woman Question.” Entrance was five kopecks. This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely packed. Members of the Party spoke. But this animated “closed” meeting had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings, intervened and arrested many of the speakers.
 
It was of great significance for the workers of the world that the women of Russia, who lived under Tsarist repression, should join in and somehow manage to acknowledge with actions International Women’s Day. This was a welcome sign that Russia was waking up and the Tsarist prisons and gallows were powerless to kill the workers’ spirit of struggle and protest.
 
In 1914, “Women Workers Day” in Russia was better organized. Both the workers’ newspapers concerned themselves with the celebration. Our comrades put a lot of effort into the preparation of “Women Workers Day.” Because of police intervention, they didn’t manage to organize a demonstration. Those involved in the planning of “Women Workers Day” found themselves in the Tsarist prisons, and many were later sent to the cold north. For the slogan “for the working women’s vote” had naturally become in Russia an open call for the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy.
 
Women Workers Day during the imperialist war
The first world war broke out. The working class in every country was covered with the blood of war. In 1915 and 1916 “Working Women’s Day” abroad was a feeble affair  left wing socialist women who shared the views of the Russian Bolshevik Party tried to turn March 8th into a demonstration of working women against the war. But those socialist party traitors in Germany and other countries would not allow the socialist women to organize gatherings; and the socialist women were refused passports to go to neutral countries where the working women wanted to hold International meetings and show that in spite of the desire of the bourgeoisie, the spirit of International solidarity lived on.
 
In 1915, it was only in Norway that they managed to organize an international demonstration on Women’s Day; representatives from Russia and neutral countries attended. There could be no thought of organizing a Women’s Day in Russia, for here the power of Tsarism and the military machine was unbridled.
 
Then came the great, great year of 1917. Hunger, cold and trials of war broke the patience of the women workers and the peasant women of Russia. In 1917, on the 8th of March (23rd of February), on Working Women’s Day, they came out boldly in the streets of Petrograd. The women  some were workers, some were wives of soldiers  demanded “Bread for our children” and “The return of our husbands from the trenches.” At this decisive time the protests of the working women posed such a threat that even the Tsarist security forces did not dare take the usual measures against the rebels but looked on in confusion at the stormy sea of the people’s anger.
 
The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February revolution marks its beginning from this day.
 
Our call to battle

“Working Women’s Day” was first organized ten years ago in the campaign for the political equality of women and the struggle for socialism. This aim has been achieved by the working class women in Russia. In the soviet republic the working women and peasants don’t need to fight for the franchise and for civil rights. They have already won these rights. The Russian workers and the peasant women are equal citizens — in their hands is a powerful weapon to make the struggle for a better life easier — the right to vote, to take part in the Soviets and in all collective organizations.
 
But rights alone are not enough. We have to learn to make use of them. The right to vote is a weapon which we have to learn to master for our own benefit, and for the good of the workers’ republic. In the two years of Soviet Power, life itself has not been absolutely changed. We are only in the process of struggling for communism and we are surrounded by the world we have inherited from the dark and repressive past. The shackles of the family, of housework, of prostitution still weigh heavily on the working woman. Working women and peasant women can only rid themselves of this situation and achieve equality in life itself, and not just in law, if they put all their energies into making Russia a truly communist society.
 
Join International Women's Day in Toronto, this saturday: 11am rally at OISE, 1pm march to Ryerson

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