England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Solidarity and struggle: The revolutionary history of International Women’s Day

By S Rodriguez

On 8 March 1923, Clara Zetkin, socialist feminist and co-founder of International Women’s Day, issued an appeal to poor and working women, urging them join their male counterparts in the fight against a system capable of little more than endless war and misery. 

“An appeal to all working women, all housewives and mothers, regardless of political or religious creed: Remember that you are all companions in misery! Unite! Proclaim your demands. Strengthen your will to fight… Confront the raging greed for profits and capitalist attacks with your demands.” 

100 years on, working class, poor and young women and gender non-conforming people are categorically at the front lines of this struggle – rising up against a system that continues to profit off of their exploitation and oppression. From the uprising against the regime in Iran to the mass demonstrations in the aftermath of the repeal of Roe v Wade in the US, women and LGBTQ+ people have risen up in the hundreds, thousands and millions, not just for their own rights, but for liberation from a system which places their subjugation at its very core. 

The radical roots of International Women’s Day 

In 1908, 15,000 garment workers marched through the streets of New York to protest their working conditions, and demand an eight-hour work day, a pay rise, an immediate end to child labour and the right to vote. The next year, the Socialist Party of America declared the first “National Women’s Day” in recognition of their struggle. German socialist, Clara Zetkin, inspired by the New York garment workers, proposed the adoption of an international women’s day to link the universal struggle for women’s political and social rights to the fight for an end to exploitation of all workers. Equally, she highlight the need to link the fight to end the exploitation of workers to the struggle for women’s political and social rights. 

The proposal passed unanimously by over 100 women attending the Second Congress of Working Women, representing unions, socialist parties and working women’s clubs in 17 countries. The following year, more than one million women took part in marches and meetings to mark the first International Women’s Day under the initial demand of universal suffrage. 

It took just six years for International Women’s Day to spark a revolution. When 8 March 1917 came around, Russian society was convulsed by a maelstrom of crises. Working class women were bearing the brunt of food shortages, inflation and intensified exploitation, with many drawing the conclusion that these were products of a senseless war waged for power, profit and prestige in which their partners and sons were mere cannon fodder. 10,000 women joined marches of striking workers on International Women’s Day in Petrograd in 1917, demanding “bread and peace”. Within hours, 100,000 workers had joined them. Once unleashed, their demands echoed loudly and could not be silenced. In just 17 days, the Tsarist regime was brought to its knees, planting the seeds for the Russian Revolution. 

“10,000 women joined marches of striking workers on International Women’s Day in Petrograd in 1917, demanding “bread and peace”.”

An appeal a century in the making 

When Clara Zetkin issued her appeal to working women on International Women’s Day six years later in 1923, she describes an eerily familiar reality as for working class people today. She writes: 

“The international characteristic features of our time are: depreciation of currency, usurious prices for the necessities of life, robbery by means of taxes and levies, unemployment, longer working hours, increased production despite devitalising living conditions, growing uncertainty of earnings and of means of living.” 

“And this – in all countries where capitalism is still an uncontrolled master in its own house, not only in industry, but in the state, despite “democracy”, or rather, precisely with the aid and blessing of “democracy”.”

A century later and in remarkably similar conditions, women and people of all genders are responding to Zetkin’s call, and taking their place in the vanguard of the fight back against exploitation and oppression of all forms. 

Clara Zetkin: Revolutionary Marxist and socialist feminist pioneer

Present day miseries 

In 2022, food inflation in the UK reached 16.9%, electricity prices rose by 65.4% and gas prices by 128.9%, with the average household now expected to fork out over £3000/ year for energy. At the same time, Shell reported one of the largest profits in UK corporate history boosted by the surge in energy prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with annual profits of $40 billion. According to accounting firm PwC, in real terms, workers wages in the UK will return to 2006 levels in 2023, with wages falling at its fastest rate in 20 years in the latter half of 2022. 

As Zetkin so aptly observed in 1923, “there is no misery of the present day which is not felt by the women with double and multiple intensity”. Her pronouncement remains no less true today. Again in 2022, the gender pay gap increased, with women-dominated industries some of the hardest hit by real-term wage decreases. Since 2010, NHS nurses’ pay has fallen by, on average, 8%, while secondary school teachers have had a real-terms pay cut of over 13%. The significant increase in household costs is also expected to hit women the hardest. According to the New Economics Foundation, single parents, 90% of whom are women, will consume 56% more disposable income compared to ‘average’ families as a result of higher household bills. 

All the while, the pandemic, coupled with the spiraling living costs, has further unleashed a shadow pandemic of gender violence in the UK and globally. In the United Kingdom, 73% of women experiencing domestic abuse said that the cost of living crisis had prevented them from leaving their abusive partner, or would make it harder to do so. 

The murders of Sarah Everard, Bibaa Henry, Nicole Smallman and Sabina Nessa were just some making major headlines since the pandemic started. These were years when a woman was killed by a man in the UK every three days. While the state’s complicity in such violence is more evident than ever with the scale of the housing and economic crises. Added to this is the system’s continued failure to stem the increasing tide of misogynistic, gender-based and domestic violence. Its direct culpability has been put on display with a serving Metropolitan Police Officer pleading guilty to 49 counts of sexual assault, including 24 counts of rape just 1 year after another active Met officer pleaded guilty to the murder of Sarah Everard. Accordingly, there remains little illusion that the state is capable of offering women even the most basic of protections. 

Global women’s revolt 

Just as the crisis of capitalism touches every aspect of the lives of women and gender non-conforming people, so too does the realisation that there can be no solution in the current system. A future in which deeply ingrained misogyny and the patriarchal family are disposed of, one in which free, high quality housing, health, gender- affirming and reproductive care, shorter working hours and child care are a given, and where the well-being and safety of women and LGBTQ+ people is guaranteed, are not possible under a system orchestrated to protect the wealth, power and influence of a small minority. 

At all corners of the globe, women and gender non-conforming people have risen up – not just against right-wing attacks on their bodily autonomy, their working conditions, and their safety – but against the systemic rot at the center of their suffering. 

Woman, Life and Freedom 

In September, the brutal murder of a young woman by the Iranian regime’s ‘morality police’ provoked an immediate, explosive movement in Iran, with months-long protests, demonstrations and coordinated strike action. Under the rallying cry of “Women, Life and Freedom”, women have heroically led the charge alongside Iranian people of all genders against one of the world’s most repressive regimes. 

Core to the movement is the understanding that justice requires, not just that the killers be held to account, but an end to the mandatory hijab and the legal subjugation of Iranian women, LGBTQ+ protections, the disbandment of the modesty police, job security and higher wages as well full democratic rights, such as the right to organise and freedom of speech. Youth and workers, uniting in solidarity against the most brutal systemic femicide is an inspiring example for all workers of the kind of movement necessary to fight gender-based violence. It has sparked solidarity protests on every continent. 

“Under the rallying cry of “Women, Life and Freedom”, women have heroically led the charge alongside Iranian people of all genders against one of the world’s most repressive regimes.”

Bodily autonomy 

The last year has seen a seismic misogynistic backlash – from the far-reaching echo of professional chauvinist Andrew Tate, to attacks on the bodily autonomy of women and trans people. While the danger of these ideas is real, the scale of such attacks, including the right-wing fixation on the so-called ‘culture wars’, is also indicative of the serious threat movements like ‘me too’, trans rights and full reproductive autonomy, pose to the patriarchal capitalist system. 

In Britain, the Tory government has turned toward this sort of vile rhetoric. As the Tories cling onto a collapsing basis of electoral support, they have particularly attacked LGBTQ+ people and refugees, as well as threatening reproductive rights in an attempt to appeal to and mobilise the most reactionary sections of their hardcore supporters. 

At the same time, mass, militant mobilisations of women and LGBTQ+ people have won victories on abortion rights from Ireland to Mexico to South Korea, with huge and lasting effects. They have emboldened women and people of all genders to challenge the role of the church and misogyny, as well as profit, in their reproductive health and in all other aspects of their lives. In the face of new attacks, including the appalling repeal of national abortion protections in the US, women and LGBTQ+ youth have responded swiftly, with protests of tens of thousands in all 50 states, as well as demonstrations and walkouts at dozens of universities and workplaces. 

Strike wave

In the UK and globally, the so-called “winter of discontent” has culminated in unprecedented and far-reaching industrial action. Here too, women are at the center of key class struggles, from the unprecedented nurse strikes, including tens of thousands nurses in the UK, who at their core are battling for the survival of the NHS, to teachers and university workers fighting efforts to privatise and casualise public education. These historic struggles hold the potential of having a lightning rod effect, uniting working class people against decades-long austerity and stripping back of their essential public services. 

International Women’s Day 2023 

The history of International Women’s Day is the history of the NYC garment workers declaring ‘enough is enough’ and of the women of 1917 Petrograd demanding ‘bread and peace’. But it is also a living history of solidarity and struggle as the people of Iran fight for ‘woman, life and freedom’ and woman and trans people proclaim “My body, my choice”. The sheer force of these movements indicate the tremendous impact women have had on the struggles against exploitation and oppression – power that when wielded as part of a united struggle for the working class, poor and oppressed, has the potential to transform society and liberate us all. 


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