The working-class and socialist origins of International Women's Day

Lubaina Himid, Between the two my heart is balanced, 1991.


International Women's Day was proclaimed by the Second International Conference of Socialist Women. The invitation to it already made clear its class character

In 1894, Clara Zetkin wrote a polemical article against German feminists in the Social Democratic women's magazine, entitled “Strong Separation” (Reinliche Scheidung), in which he argued that “bourgeois feminism and the proletarian women’s movement are fundamentally different social movements”. According to Zetkin, bourgeois feminists aspired to achieve reforms in favor of the female sex within the framework of capitalist society, through a struggle between the sexes and in contrast with men of their own class, while female workers struggled through a class struggle against class, manifest of a joint struggle with the men of their class, to eliminate capitalist society.

Based on these principles, Zetkin created the workers' movement in Germany, which gathered 174.754 participants in 1914, the year in which the circulation of his newspaper the equality (Die Gleichheit) reached the number of 124.000 copies.

This ideological and organizational strength transformed the movement of German social-democratic workers into the backbone of the First International Conference of Socialist Women, in 1907, in Stuttgart, Zetkin's city of residence, and from where it was edited. the equality. In its final resolution, that conference proclaimed as its main demand “the right of adult women to universal woman suffrage, without any limitation as to property, payment of taxes, degree of education or any other condition that may exclude members of the working class from exercising this right”, clarifying that “the socialist women's movement has as its flag its struggle, not in alliance with bourgeois feminists, but in association with socialist parties”.

International Women's Day was proclaimed by the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, celebrated in Copenhagen, in 1910. The invitation to it already made its class character clear: “We urgently invite all socialist parties and socialist women's organizations, as well as all workers' organizations based on the principle of class struggle to send their delegates, or even their delegates, to this conference”.

The report on the American delegates mentioned that February 28, 1909 "gave way for the first time for Women's Day", an event that aroused the attention of our enemies". The German delegate Luise Zietz, following the example of the American socialists, then proposed the creation of an “International Women's Day”, a date to be celebrated annually. Her proposal was supported by her partner Clara Zetkin and over one hundred delegates from seventeen countries.

The adopted resolution on this issue postulated: “In agreement with the political and trade union organizations, which fight for the class consciousness of the proletarian of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities shall organize a Women's Day (women's Day) special, in which, above all, the propaganda of women's suffrage is a commitment to be promoted. This demand must necessarily be linked to any other woman's demand, according to the socialist conception”.

Thus, the “introduction of women's suffrage” was placed in the Copenhagen resolution by socialist women in the context of legislation protecting women workers, social assistance for women and children, equal treatment of single mothers, provision of daycare centers and kindergartens. , the provision of free food and quality education in schools and international solidarity. Under this scenario, it became clear that in its origins, International Women's Day was the working women's day, which had universal women's suffrage as its immediate objective, but only as a means to another end: the triumph of socialism.

However, the first International Women's Day was not celebrated on March 8, but on March 19, 1911. The date was chosen to also remember the Revolution of 1848 in Berlin, since the previous day, March 18, it was dedicated to the homage of the “fallen of March”.

With the protest phrase “Women's suffrage now”, more than a million women took to the streets of Germany demanding social and political equality. “Our day in March”, claimed the call published in the newspaper the equality: “Comrades, working women and girls, March 19 is your day. It's your right. Behind your demands, there is Social Democracy, all workers organized in trade unions. Socialist women in all countries are in solidarity with your struggle. March 19 must be your day of glory”.

The pamphlet to participate in the Women's Day events, headed with the demand “Women's suffrage now”, was printed and distributed in an edition of two and a half million copies. Faced with the imminent world war, International Women's Day was set by the socialists from the beginning under the sign of the struggle against imperialist militarism and for the preservation of peace. On this day, in Germany alone, in addition to a million women organized by the SPD (Social Democratic Party) and trade unions, many non-organized women took part in events and demonstrations. And no less important than the massive and international character of the demonstrations that took place during International Women's Day, was the fact that this event was accompanied by Popular Assemblies on Public Policy for women workers (42 assemblies were counted in Berlin alone), in the which “free discussion” was the main condition demanded by female workers.

In addition to Germany, Women's Day was celebrated in 1911, albeit on different days, in the United States, Switzerland, Denmark and Austria. Until the First World War, France, Holland, Sweden, Russia and also Bohemia joined. In Germany, the second International Women's Day was celebrated on May 12, 1912.

The practice of celebrating International Women's Day on March 8 only became part of the calendar from 1914, when a famous poster “Women’s Day / March 8, 1914 – Women’s Suffrage Now” – in which a woman dressed in black waves a red flag – was the first poster that connects women with this date. In Germany, the piece cannot be pasted or pinned anywhere, nor publicly distributed, due to the police ban. Even so, it became an emblem, a mass action against the imperialist war, installed three months later.

The establishment of “March 8” as International Women's Day had the function of honoring one of the most important events in history, the Russian Revolution of February 1917 – February 23 in the Julian calendar is equivalent to March 8 in the Gregorian calendar. On that occasion, Russian workers played a fundamental vanguard role against opposition from all parties, including the Bolsheviks, when they turned the International Women's Day demonstration into a general strike that ended up rousing all workers in Petrograd and started the Russian revolution.

With the announcement of the start of the First World War in August 1914, a new era in the development of the international socialist women's movement was also heralded. The entire Second International – and therefore also the Socialist Women's International – split into its national components. Due to the policy of social peace adopted by the SPD and the General Commission of German Trade Unions, affiliated with it, critical manifestations were no longer so welcome. International Women's Day ended up being banned in Germany by the official authorities, and the events, which could only happen illegally, had numerous reprisals on the part of the government and the police.

Months later, at the beginning of November, Clara Zetkin wrote a call entitled “To the socialist women of all countries”, in which she spoke decisively against the war and in favor of expanded peace actions, and still within the framework of this opposition to imperialist barbarism, she celebrated The following year, in April 1915, the third and last Conference of Socialist Women took place in Bern, in which the internationalist principle “war by war” was proclaimed.

After the collapse of the second German Empire and the formation of councils (räte) of workers and soldiers in all parts of Germany, in November 1918, the bourgeoisie made a 180 degree turn in its policy and decided to embrace the principles of democracy, previously abandoned in favor of an alliance with the monarchy. As a result, he granted the right to suffrage for women, opposing the constituent assembly gathered in Weimar and the parliament to the Soviets of workers' delegations. Such a policy of democratic counter-revolution was carried out by the socio-democratic leader Friedrich Ebert, the first president of the Weimar Republic, whom historian Carl Schorske called “the Stalin of the German revolution”. Such a maneuver meant that the demand for universal female suffrage, adopted by the revolutionary labor movement with a transitional character towards socialism, was transformed into a barrier to the revolution by the party and union bureaucracy of the PSD itself.

Given that International Women's Day was a tradition that originated in the left wing of the proletarian women's movement, the leadership of the Social Democratic Party of Germany decided that it would no longer celebrate the date of March 8, with the argument that it had already been conquered. the purpose of creating this day, with the introduction of female suffrage. In this scythe fight, the Communist Party, on the contrary, adopted the International Women's Day under the slogan of “All power to the councils! All power to socialism!”

It was only in June 1921, with the Second International Conference of Communist Women, chaired by Clara Zetkin, in Moscow, that the future of International Women's Day could be decided: it would remain throughout the world on March 8. International Women's Day celebrations have been instituted regularly since then in many countries, a tradition that continues today.

*Cintia Frencia is a professor of contemporary history at the National University of Córdoba (Argentina).

*Daniel Gaido is a professor of contemporary history at the National University of Córdoba.

Translation: Ellen Maria Vasconcellos for the magazine Cult.


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