March 8—International Women’s Day—is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organisation of working women.
But this is not a special day for women alone. March 8 is a historic and memorable day for the working people of the whole world. In 1917, on this day (February 23 according to the Russian calendar—Russia used a different calendar then) the great February revolution broke out in Russia. It began with the working women of Petersburg deciding to raise the banner of opposition to the tsar and his associates. The women were angry with deteriorating living conditions, especially extreme rises in food costs. They took to the streets to protest—which turned into a multi-day food riot. Working class men too joined them. On February 25, the Czar ordered his soldiers to crush the uprising, by shooting the women protestors if necessary. But the repression backfired, and ignited even more powerful protests. A few days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and thus began the Russian Revolution. No wonder women’s militant activist is so feared in our society. It has—literally—brought down a Czar and sparked a revolution!
But if this is a day to remember for all working people, why do we call it “Women’s Day”? To answer this question, we have to go into the history of how Women’s Day came about.
History of International Women’s Day (IWD)
IWD was born at the turn of the 20th century, in a time of great social turbulence and huge struggles by people for a better life. Working women were participating in these struggles in huge numbers and raising issues related to women’s equality. One of their key demands was the right to vote. In the years before the First World War, women had yet to win the right to vote in several capitalist countries. Yet, at the same time, the harsh reality of capitalism demanded the participation of women in the country’s economy. Every year there was an increase in the number of women who had to work in the factories and workshops farms, or as servants and cleaners. Women worked alongside men and the wealth of the country was created by their hands. But women remained without the vote.
The seeds of IWD were planted in 1908, when 30,000 striking garment workers, mainly migrant women, marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. The strike lasted three months and the workers won most of their demands.
A year later, in 1909, the Socialist Party of America held the first National Woman’s Day in New York City, on February 28, a Sunday, so that working women could participate. Thousands showed up to various events uniting the suffragist and socialist causes.
In August 1910, women from 17 countries met at the Second International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen. Leading German socialist–feminists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin suggested holding an International Woman’s Day the following year to mark the garment workers’ victory in America and provide a focus for the growing international campaign for women’s right to vote. The conference of more than 100 women representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, gave the suggestion unanimous approval. The Women’s Day resolution read:
Socialist women of all nationalities have to organise 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 promoting not just 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.
The first International Women’s Day
The decision taken at the Second International Congress of Socialist Women was not left on paper. It was decided to hold the first International Women’s Day on March 19, 1911.
This date was not chosen at random. The date was chosen to commemorate the 1848 Revolution in Berlin. On March 19, 1848, the Prussian king had recognised for the first time the strength of the working people. Among the many promises he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.
The first IWD celebrations were organised in Germany, Austria and Denmark on March 19, 1911. The biggest celebrations took place in Germany. For two months before March 19, women activists made known the plans for a demonstration both by word of mouth and in the press. In Germany, two and a half million copies of a flyer urging participation in Women’s Day were printed and distributed. The success of the first IWD exceeded all expectations. Trumpeting the battle cry “Forward to female suffrage,” more than a million women—mostly, but not exclusively, women organised in the German Social Democratic Party and the unions—took to the streets in Germany demanding social and political equality. They organised “popular public political assemblies”—forty-two in Berlin alone—where they discussed the issues affecting their lives. While the women attended the meetings, their men stayed at home with their children for a change.
In 1913, International Women’s Day was transferred to the 8th of March. Since then, this day has remained a day to remember the militant struggles of working women all over the globe. It is a day to honour the struggle of women who fought to form unions, organise the working people, protest racism and fascism, defend the Earth from utter destruction, struggle to build a more humane society that is oriented not towards the profit maximisation for a few but whose basic logic is the well-being of the common people. It is a day to remember the women who revolutionised society by challenging the institution of marriage, defying the men in their lives (husbands, bosses, fathers), fighting for abortion rights, standing up to sexist violence, and daring to define their own sexuality and control their own lives.
International Women’s Day in India
In India, International Women’s Day is a day to honour the women who fought to break their patriarchal chains, and stand up for their rights as human beings. It is because of their struggles that there has been a sea change in the situation of women in the country. A hundred and fifty years ago, education for girls was prohibited, they were married off very young by their parents; women did not have the right to step out of their houses and take a job. Today, girls nearly equal boys in total enrolment in colleges. Numerous women are confidently pursuing various different career paths in society. Militant struggles of women have led to enactment of several new laws to protect women from molestation and discrimination: a special law has been enacted prohibiting dowry, and a stringent law has been enacted to prosecute the husband’s family in case of dowry deaths; the laws to protect women from molestation and rape have been made more stringent; a path-breaking law has been enacted that recognises domestic violence, including both physical and mental violence, as a crime; a special law has been enacted to protect women from sexual harassment at their workplace; and so on.
International Women’s Day is a day of militant struggle against sexism in all forms, against racism– casteism–communalism, against the socio-economic system that profits directly from our oppression and exploitation, and against the threat of fascism and corporatism looming over Indian society.
The perfect way to celebrate IWD and honour the women who struggled before us, the women who struggle with us, and our daughters who will struggle after us, would be: Let us commit ourselves to fight for a society that would truly be oriented towards fulfilling the basic needs of all human beings—healthy food, invigorating education, best possible health care, decent shelter, security in old age,
clean pollution-free environment—and would unleash the full development of all human potential.
Note: In a survey of experts done in 2018, India ranks as the world’s most dangerous country for women. It had ranked 4th in the same survey done 7 years ago. The Global Gender Gap Index 2017 by the World Economic Forum placed India at 108 position out of 144 countries benchmarked on the basis of gender parity in the fields of economic participation, education, health and political empowerment. India ranked 131 out of 153 countries in the global Women, Peace, and Security Index 2017–18, that is based upon 11 indicators incorporating inclusion, justice, and security. Despite women accounting for 49% of India’s population, only 12% of the seats in the national legislature are held by them. The female labour force participation rate in India fell from 37% in 2006 to 27% in 2017, as per World Bank report, ranking India at 163 out of 181 countries.
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