England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

The revolutionary heritage of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day was first commemorated in the early 20th century: it has gained prominence in the UK in recent years following the impact of the #MeToo movement, and a mood amongst young people to reject all oppression and to fight back against sexism, inequality, gender violence and misogyny. But just like everything under capitalism, International Women’s Day (IWD) has more and more been treated by companies as an opportunity to cash in and sell us stuff, from fast fashion and kitchenware, to pampering treats and cups of coffee and even burgers. 

There are some cringeworthy examples of this “femvertising” . For instance, fashion retailer Gap took to social media in 2019 announcing “We’re celebrating the power of sisterhood with a special collection of tees” and Starbucks marked the day with the hashtag “Strong Like Coffee”, tweeting “Here’s to the women who bring leadership, strength and purpose to the world of coffee.” 

Last year Burger King proved it has form when it comes to spectacularly failing to read the room. Restaurants in Malaysia produced burger boxes with the words ‘Burger Queen’ for female customers, complete with a built-in vanity mirror to remind them that they are “special and unique”! And they faced a huge backlash in the UK for their  IWD slogan “Women Belong in the Kitchen” , a misjudged advertising campaign that was intended to be ironic. The full advert went on to say “if there’s a professional kitchen, women belong there” but shorn of context on social media it was perceived as sexist, the obvious implication being that women don’t belong in the workforce. 

But something that is genuinely ironic is that this corporate cash-in is totally at odds with the radical history of International Women’s Day, which is firmly rooted in the international struggle for socialism. 

IWD’s real history

The date of March 8th was picked by leading German revolutionaries and socialist feminists Clara Zetkin and Luise Zietz in 1910 when they suggested an annual event during the International Socialist Women’s Conference.

Zetkin and Zietz were inspired in particular by struggles amongst New York garment workers which took place in 1857 and 1908/9. The early 1900s was a time of tremendous expansion in the industrialised world including the textile industry. Shops and factories in New York employed around 30,000 workers in shockingly bad, unsanitary conditions, working endless hours for terrible wages.

Women workers in New York organised a march on 8 March 1857, demanding better conditions, a maximum of 10 hours work a day and for equal rights for women. The march was met with police violence and dispersed, but the fight for equal rights and improved conditions continued. On 8 March 1908 women took to the streets of New York again, demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

In 1909 an 11-week strike was embarked upon by women working in the needle trade. This action  was called by a 23-year-old woman, Clara Lemlich, and became known as the Shirtwaist strike, and also the uprising of the 20,000. This was the largest strike to date by women in US history and the strikers were mostly very young Jewish immigrants, in their teens and twenties. 

Women workers organising

This struggle took place in a context of entrenched prejudice in the labour movement against organising women workers, alongside a peak in anti-immigrant sentiment- something that this struggle of solidarity was able to cut across. Demands included the right to vote and an end to sweatshop and child labour. Not all demands were won, but gains included a maximum 52 hour working week and the right to organise. Importantly, the uprising sparked a further five years of struggle, transforming the garment industry into one of the most well organised trades in America. 

This victory of union recognition sent ripples all over the USA and around the world even, with National Women’s Day marches taking place in America in March 1910. Following the International Socilaist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1910 International Women’s Day was launched in 1911, with hundreds of thousands of European women turning out to campaign for their working rights and the right to vote.

‘International Working Women’s Day’ as it was originally known, was a socialist feminist endeavour from the outset. Zetkin proposed that it should become an annual event for working women’s rights, and that the workers movement and the socialist movement should support and actively organise around that day.  Bourgeois feminists at the time, many of whom were part of the suffragette movement, were not inclusive of the working class- merely supporting the right to vote for more well off women, those who owned property or were of a high social status.

Bourgeois feminism

For Marxist feminists IWD was an opportunity to expose the problems of bourgeois feminism, a form of feminism which doesn’t represent the interests of the vast majority of us. Bourgeois feminists today will raise demands like more female CEOs, more women in high places and more famous historic women on bank notes. These steps would do little to nothing to advance most women’s rights!  As we enter a catastrophic cost of living crisis, who cares about the picture on the bank notes if we don’t have enough money to survive?

The bourgeois feminists leading the suffragette movement revealed the glaring differences between socialist and bourgeois feminism with their approach, they were essentially dismissing working class women as not being deserving of basic human rights! This went hand in hand with the dismissal of the working class as a force capable of bringing about change through struggle. Socialist feminists on the other hand, recognised that the terrible conditions for working class women, along with the double oppression that they faced would make them determined fighters for change.

Bourgeois feminists rejected a united class struggle approach because they had the interests of the ruling class at heart, and therefore sought to protect them, along with the interests of the capitalist system. Capitalism is reliant on the exploitation of women and all workers, and thrives on creating oppression and divisions. 

In actual fact these feminists would have had much to gain from breaking with the middle or ruling classes and struggling alongside workers. All women, even the ruling class, are oppressed under capitalism and would benefit from changing the system, but it wasn’t in the interests of the ruling class as a whole, who were fearful of uprisings and revolutionary struggle.

Russian revolution

The very thing that the ruling class feared came to fruition in Russia 1917 when female textile workers in Petrograd took to the streets on IWD with action that sparked a revolution! The Russian working class had been hit hard by World War One, with over two million soldiers killed and millions more left living in extreme poverty and hunger. Russian women workers organised massive strikes and demonstrations using the slogans ‘Opposition to the war, high prices, and the situation of the woman worker,’ They urged male workers to join them, throwing snowballs, sticks and stones at factory windows. 

The strike movement spread like wildfire, and the united fightback of workers successfully took down the Tsar’s regime, he was forced to abdicate, and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. Foundations were laid for the October revolution, an event of enormous historic significance – it resulted in the overthrow of capitalism in Russia and the establishment of the first ever genuine socialist and democratic state.

These  inspiring events confirmed the perspectives of Marxists like Zetkin, that women workers have the potential to be a driving force in movements for socialist change. There were big gains made for the working class as a whole in Russia in the initial period following the October period, but especially for women, with efforts made to allow them the same freedom as men to participate in politics and to have a social life. Services like communal restaurants and launderettes eased their domestic burden. Church and state were separated and women were able to access abortion and could easily get divorced. These gains were clawed back as part of the bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution under Stalin, but nevertheless are a shining example of what can be achieved when society is based on solidarity and equality.

Today many would describe IWD as a day when people come together to champion the advancement of women’s rights and gender equality. So how far have things progressed since 1911? If we take a look  at the situation facing women in the 2020s, most women have the right to vote, most women work in vastly improved conditions. But the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women with job losses and a rise in domestic abuse, and we are still facing a lot of the same problems as women in the early 20th century. That’s because capitalism will never be able to provide genuine freedom and equality for women. And the hypocrisy of some of the companies that piggyback IWD knows no bounds. 

Take the exploitative fast fashion brands who cash in with feminist slogans. Pretty Little Thing, part of the Boohoo company, marketed a range of t-shirts with slogans such as “Girls Supporting Girls” and “Empowered”. In July 2020 Boohoo was accused of modern slavery: its clothes were being produced in Leicester, in sweatshops where garment workers earn far below minimum wage- some earning as little as £2.50 an hour. 

21st century exploitation

Along with the infection rate in Leicester, Boohoo’s sales and profits soared at the beginning of the pandemic during the first lockdown; the garment  workers were not furloughed and continued to work in cramped, unsanitary conditions. It is widely believed to be the reason that Leicester was forced to remain in a local lockdown as restrictions eased elsewhere. There is nothing feminist or empowering to women about a company that exploits its female workforce in such a reckless way during a pandemic. 

Socialists will fight for every reform that improves the lives of working class people, but the limitations of legal reforms such as minimum wage and the Equal Pay Act are laid bare by this scandalous situation. And it is a prime example of why we need to challenge the system.

A corporate backed IWD web site- www.internationalwomensday.com–  states: ‘The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men. However, great improvements have been made. We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices’. 

‘Feminisng the elite’ 

This is a typical bourgeois feminist analysis of the situation, completely out of step with the reality that the majority of women are facing! Sending women into space, or the election of female prime ministers is hardly a silver lining when we live in a society where women are valued less than men, and gender violence is endemic; feminising the elite will have zero impact on achieving genuine equality. 

The struggle for equal rights is connected to the struggle for the socialist transformation of society. Capitalism will continue to co-opt the language of feminism and IWD to boost their profits, so we need to take IWD back to its radical roots and draw inspiration from past struggles for change. 

New feminist movements

Over the past decade we’ve seen spectacular feminist movements all over the world- fighting back and reigniting the traditions of IWD – on issues such as abortion rights and combatting sexism and gender violence. And just like in the 1850s and early 1900s protests can still be met with brutal state repression, with the police protecting the ruling class from the threat of organised struggle.  

In Britain last year women took to the streets in horror following the murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a Met police officer and some were subjected to shocking police violence. At the subsequent Kill the Bill protests in Bristol protestors were indiscriminately attacked by police without provocation and two young women were subjected to humiliating raids by police posing as postal workers – one woman was handcuffed wearing just a t-shirt and underwear. 

There is plenty to be angry about and get organised over: from the murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and many more women during the pandemic, to the surge in nightclub spikings, to Prince Andrew outrageously avoiding going to court to face allegations of having sex with a minor. Extreme expressions of misogyny are provoking anger and a mood for struggle on these issues, and it’s clear that we need socialist feminism – now more than ever. 


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