Today, we celebrate 100 years of International Women’s Day (IWD), so it seems appropriate to provide some historical context. International Women’s Day has its origins amongst the socialist and communist parties campaigning for rights for the working-class at the beginning of the twentieth century. The left had been historically ambivalent about suffrage for women, in an era where the vote was withheld from working-men, but in 1907, at the Second International Working Man’s Association (SIWMA- an international meeting for socialists and communists from across the world), the issue of women’s rights was put on the agenda. In 1908, the Women’s Committee of the American Socialists held a rally in New York to demand suffrage for women on the 8th March. At the same time, they declared the last Sunday in February ‘National Women’s Day’. In 1909 and 1910, the American Socialists held rallies – some attended by thousands of people – in various parts of New York, campaigning for suffrage and economic equality for women. Meanwhile, in Europe, under the leadership of Clara Zetkin (who eventually sat in the German parliament as a member of the Communist party) and Louise Zeitz, a group of socialist women started organising events to raise the profile of women’s rights and to fight for equality in all areas of life. Following a meeting at the 1910 SIWMA, they arranged to celebrate Europe’s first International Women’s Day on the 18th March 1911 (while their American counterparts continued to celebrate the last Sunday in February). IWD was mainly celebrated in central Europe- Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden- where millions of men and women took to the streets.
Celebration of IWD continued throughout the First World War in central Europe and the USA, where messages of women’s rights often intermingled with pacifist demands. On IWD 1917, female socialists in Turin, Italy hung posters demanding the end of the war. More significantly in Russia, female Socialists used IWD (23rd February) in 1917 to campaign against rising food prices, leading to widescale demonstrations and the beginning of the ‘February Revolution’. By the 12th March, the Russian Tsar had abdicated and a provisional government was put in place (which would eventually lead to the Bolshevik Revolution in October), and women were granted the right to vote. Events in Russia encouraged the celebration of IWD in other parts of Europe in the following year and in 1922, Clara Zetkin persuaded Lenin to establish it as a Communist holiday, leading to IWD being celebrated in China and later in other communist and socialist countries across the world. In many countries, it became a national holiday.
The relationships between socialism and communism and IWD meant that its celebration relied on mass socialist movement to promote it as a national celebration. This does not appear to have happened in Britain in the years before World War One, but during the war ‘Women’s Day’, celebrated in late February, was used to promote patriotism and raise morale among the population. The campaign was ran by the Young Women’s Christian Association, who used a Blue Triangle as their symbol, and spent the day raising money for the ‘Women Wartime Workers’ Fund’. Women – usually munitions workers – dressed in khaki would sell souvenirs (blue sateen pansies, enamel brooches, pin cushions) in railway stations and on streets. The money raised went to paying for ‘huts, hostels, canteens and rest areas’ in munitions factories and for the Women’s Auxiliary Army on the front line. The day was also meant to thank the women workers for their part in the war effort, so in 1917, the Lord Mayor of London held a luncheon for many of them, while factories were visited by the local (often female) nobility or politicians, like the Prime Minister Asquith.
After the War and events in 1917, IWD became closely associated with communism. Celebrations of IWD appear to have been avoided by the mainstream organisation in Britain due to this affiliation, but British communist and socialist organisations began to honour it, beginning around 1926. In 1927, the Communist Party used the day to campaign against British imperialism around the world; in 1928, they held a women’s conference attended by 152 delegates and a procession to campaign for equal pay. IWD continued to be celebrated this way- by socialist and communist organisations, often at a local level- through the 1930s and 40s. In 1946, IWD celebrations made the news when Lady Jowitt – a member of the communist party – spoke at a meeting held in the Palace Theatre. She argued that it ‘would be women’s fault if they were ever again regarded as mere machines to bear children and cook the dinner. The solidarity of women would achieve great things.’ (The Times, 11 March 1946).
The increasing intolerance of communism in the immediate post-war period was to have its toll on the celebration of IWD. The Labour Party – attempting to distance itself from the Communist Party with whom it previously had close ties – ceased its endorsement of IWD. In 1952, they ‘proscribed’, that is refused to endorse or recognise, the activities of the National Committee for the Celebration of International Women’s Day, arguing it was too closely tied to other ‘proscribed’ organisations (ie the Communist Party). Similarly, the IWD organisers found it difficult to bring in international speakers to talk at their events. In 1955, the Home Office refused admission to the women the Committee had invited, arguing that the Home Secretary was ‘not prepared to allow foreigners to come here to carry on the campaign [Soviet-inspired campaign against NATO] under the tolerable pretext of concern for the interests of women.’ (The Times, 5 March 1955).
This was the way things were to continue through the 1950s and 60s, with IWD becoming increasingly marginalised as the Communist Party was sidelined. At the same time, IWD was beginning to gain, once more, a greater international following. Second-wave feminists in the US and elsewhere began to reclaim the day to campaign for women’s rights and it was no longer so closely associated with its socialist past. Having said this, feminist campaigns were often joined with socialist priorities. On IWD 1976, Italian feminists dressed as witches and marched against male tyranny, but they also used it as an opportunity to campaign against the Trade Union leadership, particularly over redundancy priorities. In 1985, during the miner’s strike, British women used IWD to campaign on behalf of the miners and to try to force the trade unions to give greater formal recognition to women. Other groups used the day to highlight other political concerns: in 1979, women from the Northern Ireland Women’s Movement joined with Women Against Imperialism outside Armagh gaol to picket against the poor treatment of political prisoners. In 1975, the United Nations gave official sanction to IWD and now sponsors it every year on the 8th March. Many countries continue to celebrate it as a national holiday with women being given small presents and cards by their family and friends. Across the world, whether officially recognised or not, women’s organisations use this day to highlight ongoing social injustices and inequalities, and to celebrate the part that women have played in the making of our history.
Temma Kaplan, On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day, Feminist Studies, 11, 1985, 163-171.
Katie Barclay is a historian of women at Queen’s University, Belfast. She wishes everyone a Happy International Women’s Day!