Secret Socialist History of International Women’s Day

Though March 8 is a calendar date familiar to anyone who works for equality, in recent years the message of International Women’s Day has steadily become tied up with corporatization.This year, International Women’s Day is officially sponsored by BP, Western Union, Rio Tinto, McDonalds, among other multinational companies. Civil society, NGOs, and activist groups who work on women’s issues are missing from the world’s celebration of women’s work, instead replaced by corporate logos.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. One only needs to look at the history of International Women’s Day to see how today’s corporate version is buffed down from the truly cutting-edge protests and strikes of the early 20th century — ones planted firmly in socialist history.

The Socialist Party in New York organized the first Women’s Day demonstration in February 1909. National Woman’s Day (as it was called then) involved mass strikes by female factory workers and a march through New York City. They marched for the right to unionize and for better wages, an attempt largely met with scorn from factory owners.

A year later, Clara Zetkin, leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed the idea of an annual International Working Women’s Day. Speaking to a conference of more than one hundred delegates from the U.S. and Europe, Zetkin argued that the struggle for women’s work protections and wages should be celebrated by women around the world on the last Sunday in February.

Clara Zetkin, German Marxist theorist, activist and women’s rights advocate, suggested the first International Women’s Day in 1911. She represented the Communist Party of Germany in the Riechstag during the Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933

By 1911, national socialist parties in Sweden, Austria, and Germany organized more than one million women and men in a march against poverty, crippling work conditions, and the rising threat of war. A century before this year’s Women’s March, socialists galvanized working citizens into political participation in numbers previously unseen.

That same year, a dramatic and terrible fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 workers, nearly all of them immigrant women. In the wake of this tragedy and factory workers’ protests, the state of New York adopted new safety legislations for workers.

Perhaps the most sweeping Women’s Day action is among the least remembered by many Americans. In 1917, after powerful International Working Women’s Day protests, 128,000 workers went on strike in Russia and marched against the Tsarist government’s failure to protect its citizens during World War I — what came to be known as the February Revolution. Most protesters were wives of soldiers, who struggled to feed their families as the price of grain skyrocketed. Their momentum led to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime — one of the most powerful states in history.

The Russian Revolution started on International Women’s Day, 8 March 1917 (22 February on the old Tsarist calendar), with a massive demonstration in Petrograd

Their victory was limited — the communist government that rose after the Tsarist state would go on to commit horrific human rights abuses of its own. As the Cold War settled in and socialist organizations were censored by U.S. intelligence, U.S. citizens chilled in their popular attitude toward socialism and the working women’s platform.

On International Women’s Day in 1917, women, mainly textile workers, demonstrate in St. Petersburg shortly after the establishment of a provisional government in February

With feminism resurging in the 1960s and 1970s, the U.N. reincarnated International Women’s Day in 1975 as part of “International Women’s Year,” but with little of its former focus on workers. By 1977, the day was formally proclaimed a celebration of women’s rights and world peace. This new iteration advocated for parity in business and government, where it has more or less remained ever since.

We should remember the radical economic message of the earliest Women’s Days. A Women’s Day rooted in anti-capitalism is an effective activist strategy — strikes and protests based on wages and anti-war messages historically have strengthened the right to unionize, emboldened the suffrage movement, and have overturned empires.

We cannot truly work for the kin-dom of God while agreeing to fit a women’s movement into a capitalist box. Jesus rejected even holy actions tainted with money, reminding us, “You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt. 6:24) We cannot claim to be leading a justice movement if we do not critique the companies that exploit our sisters’ labor, pollute our water, and poison our air. We cannot truly work for the kin-dom of God while agreeing to fit a women’s movement into a capitalist box.

Jesus divorced money from his work when he cast out the money changers from the temple. So too we must also remove corrupt money changers from our holy work of justice. This includes refusing to let BP — who pollutes our water and food and threatens jobs for women in the Gulf — represent a better future for women’s lives.

There is at least one unique opportunity to detach from the corporate sponsors this year. This kind of strike is not possible for all women. But wherever we can and whatever we do to fast from exploitative corporations on March 8 will offer incisive critiques of unrecognized labor, unfair pay, and an economy that still, 100 years later, prioritizes wealth over the well-being of women.


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Lucy Hadley Written by:

Lucy Hadley is a Campaigns and Communications Assistant for Sojourners

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