Workers' Liberty #58


International Women's Day

On 28 February 1909, socialist women in the USA held their first national Women's Day, staging marches and meetings across America to demand political rights for working women. The next year, Clara Zetkin proposed to the International Congress of Socialist Women that one day each year be marked as a Working Women's Day. The Congress agreed that on this day, socialists in all countries should hold big events, involving men and women in demanding improvements in the lives of working women. In 1911, over a million women and men marched and rallied in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and Austria.

On 25 March 1911, less than a week after that first International Women's Day, over 140 workers died in the Triangle Fire in New York. Mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, they burned to death when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory where they worked caught fire. They died because working conditions were terrible and safety measures lacking, because capitalists pocket the profit they make from women's labour rather than spending it on civilised working conditions. Capitalism killed them.

During these years, more and more women were going to work in the factories, and in domestic service. But women were still denied the right to vote. Russian socialist Alexandra Kollontai explained why the early International Women's Days focused on winning the vote for women: "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."

Since socialist women founded International Women's Day, it has been adopted by non-socialist feminists, governments and even the United Nations. It is now more likely to be marked by an aromatherapy open day than by a march for women's rights. We should return to the original purpose of the Day: to mobilise support for working class women's demands, and to celebrate the contribution that women make to the struggle for human liberation.

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