Monday, March 9, 2009

International Women's Day!

by Norman Markowtiz

This is a follow up to Mike Tolochko's article on the Demonstration for International Women's Day held yesterday in Union Square. Actually, this year is the hundredth anniversary of the first women's day, which was organized by the Socialist Party of America (SPA) at the end of February, 1909. That Women's Day was called National Women's Day and featured prominent Socialists and feminists calling for full equality for women and of course women's suffrage. The following year, at a Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, the prominent German Marxist Socialist Clara Zetkin played a leading role in the passage of a resolution to establish an International Women's Day on the model of the May Day demonstrations (which also had their original origins in events in the U.S.) Earlier, in February, 1910 in Boston, Socialist women and suffragists marched together in late February, 1910, for women's suffrage, although the socialist women outnumbered the suffragists. The third U.S. Women's Day demonstrations took place in late February, 1911, now called in the U.S. because of the the Second International Resolution "International Women's Day." A month later major Women's Day demonstrations were carried out by socialist women in European countries on the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Paris Commune. Although there was not in this early period a single day like "May Day," itself perhaps an expression of the lack of coordination within the Internationale. In the U.S. the day also came to be directly associated with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911 which claimed the lives of 148 women workersWorld War I expressed the division among socialist parties , as national parties with the exceptions of the Italian, Serbian, U.S. and Bolshevik grouping of the Russian socialist parties supported their governments in the war. At the same time left factions developed in opposition to the war as it produced not only millions of death but also repression and reaction in the belligerent countries. Clara Zetkin, now a left socialist opponent of the war in what had been the flagship party of the Second International (the SPD) was the most important organizer of anti-war socialist women's demonstration which were held on March 7, 1915. Although socialist women who opposed the war faced imprisonment or worse in a number of belligerent countries, demonstrations using the title of International Women's Day (although not on one day) continued where they could be held, demonstrations which often connected the war with price inflation and consumer shortages that were especially destructive for women, who were of course the cooks and custodial parents in Euro-American households.

The present March 8th celebration of International Women's Day is a direct result of the beginnings of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and is, like many other aspects of modern history, an example of the significance and the power of that event. Led by the women's rights activist and later prominent Bolshevik and Soviet official Alexandra Kollontai, Russian women activists had begun to hold Women's Day demonstrations on the American model on February 23rd on their calendar (March 8 on the calendar in use in Western Europe and the U.S.). Just as the later Bolshevik led Soviet Socialist Revolution, the "Red October" which as American socialist John Reed aptly said, "shook the world, took place on November 7 on our calendar, the 1917 Women's Day protests interacted with the mounting strike way in Czarist Russia as male workers joined the demonstrations for food and the Czarist regime, faced with men and women demanding both bread and the end of the autocracy, sought unsuccessfully to order soldiers to shoot down the demonstrators and, as Soviets or peoples councils began to be formed and the army began to mutiny, representatives of the aristocrat-capitalist dominated state duma, which had been a powerless ornament of the autocracy, arrested the Czar's ministers, forced the Czar to abdicate, and proceeded to form a "provisional government" as the people formed peopled councils or Soviets with the anti-war Marxist Bolsheviks playing a leading role. Within weeks the exiled Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, returned and famously won out in committing the Bolsheviks to fight not only for a government of the Soviets(which others on the left would support) and an end to the war, but to the establishment of a socialist government, which previously had been considered an impossibility in Czarist Russia which its extreme forms of uneven development.

Clara Zetkin became a stronger supporter of the Soviet Revolution, whose organized supporters in the socialist world formed new parties which were called in many places Communist parties. With Kollontai and Zetkin's support March 8th became a Soviet holiday in 1922, a holiday associated with the Third International, and later a holiday associated with the anti-fascist peoples front campaigns in Spain and in many countries. The Chinese Communist Party picked up International Women's day early and The Chinese revolution and the overthrow of the colonial empires through the world led the holiday to be widely celebrated after WWII throughout the world. In 1975, the United Nations, as part of a year of activities dealing with the rights of women, formally recognized International Women's Day(March 8) as a global holiday, although of course the UN did not identify with its Socialist-Communist origins and history.

In the U.S., women's rights activists began to try to revive interest in the day in the late 1960s and that continues to this day. The demonstration which Mike Tolochko described in Union Square yesterday, with the involvement of the Women's Democratic International Federation, was very much in the tradition of International Women's day, which historically united the struggle for women's rights with socialism and peace from its inception a century ago. Hopefully we will in the future see both mass socialist May Days and mass socialist International Women's Days in the U.S, along with new holiday celebrating the struggles of the people.
In preparing this article I have used a number of sources, but most significantly a fine article by a colleague of mine at Rutgers, Temma Kaplan "On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day,"_Feminist Studies_, 11, No 1(1985) pp. 163-171. My interpretations of course are entirely my own.