International Women’s Day :: A Short History

By Saswat Pattanayak International Women’s Day is possibly the most progressive annual observation in human history. It is a celebration that is deeply rooted in women’s rights movement, as the foremost catalyst in diversifying Marxist applications, as the primary precursor to the greatest peoples’ revolution of 1917, and as the epic reminder of the most visible inequality in our world today.

More importantly, International Women’s Day (IWD) also marks the first organized anti-war movement in recorded history.

IWD started as the culmination of Russian women’s pacifist stance against the First World War. The very first peace movement led by (Russian) women in 1913 began to make impacts on this important day and spread to several European countries. Subsequently, the four-day women’s strike against the Czar’s militarism and demand for “Bread and Peace” resulted in abdication of the Czar, and the provisional government granting women the right to vote for the first time. And this historic occasion, the last Sunday of February 1917 in Russia (March 8 on Gregorian Calendar) has since been celebrated as the International Women’s Day.

Owing to Soviet Union’s contributions to women’s movements and progressive workers movements world over, March 8 was observed first by several communist countries and subsequently by most of the world. Due to resistance towards the communist bloc, and also owing to disenfranchised women in the western society, March 8 has never really been adopted with enthusiasm in much of the capitalist world, but ignoring such a milestone has never been really possible.

Tremendous pressure on United Nations to recognize such a special day exclusively to celebrate working women of the world finally resulted in the day being thus designated, only in 1975. March 8 used to be observed as the national holiday of only the erstwhile Soviet Union. Today, IWD is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

Predictably enough, most countries even today which enthusiastically observe IWD are either communist nations or formerly were members of the communist bloc. However in the western world, feminists have also joined voices with their comrades abroad to formulate IWD’s agendas. On International Women’s Day in 1970, the Berkeley Women’s Liberation Front circulated a pamphlet “Vietnamese Women: Three Portraits” to stand in solidarity with the communist women of Vietnam. The pamphlet asked “What does the Vietnamese war have to do with women’s liberation?” It is an important question considering many western white feminists were either being rejected as racists or irrelevant by women of color in the United States. In the true spirit of an International Women’s Day as envisaged by revolutionary feminists associated with Bolshevik Revolution, the Berkeley front replied:

“Everything! Women in the movement here are talking about the essential right of people to live full and meaningful lives, demanding an end to the way women, throughout history, have been objectified and dehumanized. How then can we not recognize these same claims that are being made not only by the oppressed in our own country, but by those who are oppressed by this country abroad?”

Ruth Rosen in “The World Split Open” mentions that although IWD used to be celebrated only in the communist countries, on International Women’s Day in 1969, about fifty women marched through Berkeley. On March 8, 1970, thirty other towns and cities of America celebrated the day. By the end of the seventies, nearly all schools and cities in the United States commemorated it.

Philip Foner in “Women and the American Labor Movement” describes how the lesser known history of this communist celebration is, in fact, deeply rooted in the labor movement of the United States as well. This is possibly the biggest coincidence that could have cemented the friendship between working peoples of the USA and the USSR, had the western history textbooks and institutional censorships not prevented generations of people from realizing the common causes between women world over. If March 8, 1917 was the day when Russian women started their revolution to acquire right to vote, it was a historic coincidence that on March 8, 1908, women workers in the needle trades had led a massive demonstration in New York demanding democratic unionism. 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand for shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Such was their impact that, only two years later, on March 8, 2010, German communist Clara Zetkin moved a resolution to honor these American working women and demanded that March 8 be dedicated to fighting for equal rights for all women in all countries.

Coalitions of Labor Union Women in America also found resonance on March 8. In 1975, more than a hundred women unionists from over 55 international AFL-CIO unions, the UAW, and the Teamsters’ Union urged CLUW chapters to participate in observances on March 8, aimed at combating unemployment and to deal with “faltering economy”. Inspired by socialist experiments abroad, women unionists demanded “jobs for all” on this day.

International Women’s Day is losing its relevance due to the anticommunist culture that refuses to acknowledge the role, class conscious women have historically played. On the contrary, with the gradual demise of labor movements in this country, and with growing capitalistic takeover in much of the remaining socialist societies, women are increasingly being silenced via mass media coverages and their demands for unique rights remain at the mercy of handfuls of powerful legislators.

This is a day that is not only historically relevant to understand how March 8 could have very well united women from America and Soviet Union in common cause, but it is also a magnificent reminder of what lies ahead :: the pressing need to recognize unique civil and human rights of women. It is not just a day to celebrate women, but more importantly, a day to recognize tremendous struggles and resistance registered thus far by women’s movements worldwide.