March 8 of every year, International women’s day is celebrated by women all over the world. The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day during the promulgation of International Women’s Year in 1975. By 1977, the United Nations General Assembly called on its member states to declare March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace. For the UN and member states, this day marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
March 8, women’s day, however was originally international working women’s day. Before UN countries began adopting this as women’s day in 1975, it was already being celebrated for decades by socialist movements and states in some parts of the globe. And it started as a political undertaking by women against the despotic rule of the Tsar of Russia in the early 1900’s and the struggle of working-class women for better pay and working conditions.
In 1910, over a hundred women from 17 countries united and proposed a women’s day at the second conference of working women in Copenhagen in Denmark. Clara Zetkin of the German Social Democratic Party proposed the idea of an International Working Women’s Day (IWWD) to underscore the particular oppression being suffered by women, especially women of the toiling masses and emphasised the distinct struggle of women in society. For the delegates in the conference, it meant promoting not just women’s right to vote, but labor legislations for working women, social services for mothers and children, equal treatment of single mothers, provisions of child care facilities, distribution of free meals and free educational facilities in schools and also working women’s international solidarity.
Resulting from this conference, on March 19, 1911, the first celebrations of International Women’s Day were held in Austria, Denmark and Germany where more than a million women and men attended mass mobilizations calling for women’s rights to work and training, to vote, to hold public office and for an end to discrimination against women. Small towns and village halls were reported to be jam-packed. Male workers were asked to vacate their places to give way to women. For a change, men stayed home to take care of their children while their wives attended women initiated activities and meetings. It was said to be the first expression of militancy by working women. A large mobilization of 30,000 was stopped by the police forces where they attempted to confiscate the banners on women’s demands, but the activists stood their ground.
A few days after these events, on March 25, 145 women workers were killed mostly young, non-english speaking migrants when a shirtwaist factory in New York City burned down. There were suspicions that it was deliberate for the factory’s exit-points were not in place or properly constructed and many believed that the company just wanted to collect its fire-insurance policy. The company also had a notorious background of being anti-worker. This incident resulted to massive protests by women workers which brought about legislations for better working conditions in factories, a big victory for working women.
Celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 however only took place in 1914, considered as the fourth celebration of International Women’s day that was a massive mass action against the imperialist war which erupted a few months later.
In 1917, it was even more significant because the day marked the outset of the Russian revolution, where working women played a lead role in the uprising.
Today, almost all nations are celebrating International Women’s Day. Regrettably, many celebrations of March 8 – international women’s day has not been the same. There are those which have already disregarded its original political and militant character. In fact, even companies had come to use this event for advertising and promoting their products, thus commercializing the celebration which completely contravenes its essence. Government-states on the other hand come up with annual celebrations vaguely extoling women’s achievements without actually looking into the real conditions of majority of the women who remain poor and marginalized. Many now disregard and have actually stripped off the real essence behind celebrating IWWD.
In celebrating March 8 this year, we remember our sisters during the first celebrations of IWWD a century ago who took on the tasks of putting forward the real issues that women struggle for. Women are not just fighting for gender parity. Equality between the sexes stays meaningless if women remain impoverished, exploited, oppressed and deprived of their well-being together with the men of their class.
What significance is there for gender equality if the majority of women and men both suffer from social injustice, of not being able to sufficiently nourish their families because of lack of employment opportunities or stable jobs; of being forced to leave their families to work overseas only to be abused and maltreated; of receiving sub-standard wages while corporations profit from their labour; of being unable to seek basic social services such as health and education because of government’s misprioritization and corruption in the bureaucracy; of not having any decent homes or clothing to protect them while a few live lavishly at the expense of the poor; of continually being deprived of their lands and resources because of corporate plunder and greed? If women will be equal to men under these conditions, then what have they achieved? Nothing at all substantial.
Certainly, women must still fight for gender equality and work against the discrimination of women because these are rightful concerns that women currently still face. It is also the very reason why there is a distinct movement being advanced by women. But let it be said that the quest for equality is not synonymous to fighting men, for men are not the problem per se. Instead, it is a battle against the structures in society that perpetuate the oppression of women that has its origins in our colonial past and is being perpetuated by the status quo. The struggle being waged is then directed at those who maintain the system of domination not only by men over women but more importantly the ruling class that exploits majority of the toiling masses. It is to their benefit that they maintain this arrangement because it obscures our perception from the fundamental issues in society.
In this situation, how then must women’s struggles be waged? Women of the oppressed classes must work hand in hand with men of their class for a truly just, free and democratic society and to guarantee that their fundamental needs are met and within it work for gender equality and an end to the discrimination of women. It is only then when we can genuinely say that women’s subordinate status in society would have been substantially addressed.
1. International Women’s Day. Women Watch. https://womenwatch.unwomen.org/international-womens-day-history
2. The Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day, Cintia Frencia/Daniel Gaido, JACOBIN ; https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/international-womens-day-clara-zetkin-working-class-socialist
3. International Women’s Day, Socialist Worker.org. March 8 2013 https://socialistworker.org/2013/03/08/international-womens-day
4. March 25,1911: Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City, HISTORY, 2009 http///www.history.com/this-day-in-history/triangle-shirtwaist-fire-in-new-york-city