In 1894, Clara Zetkin took to the pages of social democratic magazine ‘Die Gleicheit’ (equality) which she had founded three years earlier to write about the liberal feminism that had emerged as the mainstream in Germany at the time. ‘Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women’ Zetkin wrote ‘are two fundamentally different social movements’. The way she saw it, liberal feminists were pushing basic reforms, without questioning the very existence of capitalism. By contrast, working women, through class struggle in a joint fight with men of their class sought to end capitalism.
By 1900, women in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) were holding biannual conferences immediately before the party congress – conferences where all burning issues of the proletarian women’s movement were discussed. This ideological strength turned the German Socialist Women’s Movement into the backbone of the International Socialist Women’s Movement: In 1907 the International conference of socialist womenconvened in Stuttgart, Germany for its first gathering, claiming as its first demand ‘the right to universal female suffrage, without qualifications of property or any other barrier that may hinder the working class of availing themselves of their political rights’. The invitation to the next Socialist Women’s Conference - This year to be held in Copenhagen – exhibited the same attitude: ‘We urgently call on all the socialist parties and organizations of socialist women as well as on all the working women’s organizations standing on the foundation of the class struggle to send their delegates to this conference’.
They were in good company across the Atlantic as well. The previous year, socialist working women in the US had designated February 28th ‘Women’s Day’, an event that the Copenhagen conference reported had ‘awakened the attention of our enemies’. Following the example of their American comrades, the German delegate Luize Zietz proposed the proclamation of an ‘International Women’s Day’ to be celebrated annually. Zetkin seconded the proposal, as well as one hundred other female delegates from seventeen countries. The resolution read
‘In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day (Frauentag), which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception’
For the delegates, supporting the socialist conception meant not just promoting female suffrage but labour legislation for working women, social assistance for mothers and children, equal treatment of single mothers, provision of nurseries and kindergartens, distribution of free meals and free educational facilities in schools and international solidarity.
Simply put, International Women’s Day was from the very start a socialist conception. While it’s immediate objective was to win universal suffrage for women, its aspirations were much grander: the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism, abolishing both wage slavery of workers and the domestic slavery of women through the socialization of education.
The First International Women’s Day
The First International Women’s Day was celebrated not on March 8th but on March 19th, 1911. The Date was chosen to commemorate the 1848revolution in Berlin – the day before was every year to the ‘fallen heroes of March’.
In Germany, Two and a half million flyers urging participation in Women’s day were distributed. ‘Comrades! Working Women and Girls! March 19 is your day. It is your right’ it read ‘Behind your demand stands Social Democracy, organized labor. The Socialist women of all countries are in solidarity with you. March 19 should be your day of glory.’ Trumpeting the battle cry ‘forward to female suffrage’ more than a million women – mostly, but not exclusively, women – organized in the SPD and the unions. They even took to the streets demanding social and political equality.
Around the world working women set aside a day for themselves. In 1911, Women workers in the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria chose March 8th as women’s day. Counterparts in France Holland, Sweden, Bohemia, and Russia soon added themselves to the list of celebrants. Celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th took hold as a worldwide practice in 1914. A Famous sign emblazoned with the words ‘Forward with Female Suffrage’ in which a women dressed in black waves the red flag, marked the occasion. In Germany – overcome with war hysteria – police banned the poster. The fourth international Women’s Day turned into a mass action against the imperialist war that would erupt three months later.
Three years later, March 8th would take on a special significance when the February Revolution convulsed Russia. Russian working women played a leading role in the upheaval. Despite the opposition of every party, including the Bolsheviks, they turned the International Women’s Day celebrations into an upheaval that carried away the whole working class of Petrograd and gave birth to the Russian revolution.
What War Wrought
War broke out in august 1914 inaugurating a new era in the Development of the Socialist Women’s movement.
The entire Second International – and therefore socialist movement worldwide – split along national lines, succumbing to chauvinism. In Germany, The SPD (and its affiliate, the general commission of Trade Unions) adopted a ‘social peace’ policy, making critical demonstrations verboten. Those who rebelled and celebrated Women’s Day suffered repression at the hands of the police. In early November 1914, Clara Zetkin issued an appeal to the ‘socialist women of all countries’ where she spoke out strongly against the war and in favor of mass actions for peace. As Part of this opposition to imperialism, Zetkin led the third and final Socialist Women’s conference in 1915. As imperialist war raged all around them, the conference issued the internationalist battle cry ‘War on War’. But principled opposition was in short supply. Upon returning to Germany, Zetkin was arrested.
Today International Women’s Day serves as a reminder to women around the world to stand up for what they believe in. However, if we are to seek equality, it is important to remember where and how the celebration started.