By Peg Strobel
Socialist women--American socialist women at that--began the tradition of International Women's Day (IWD).
First celebrated as National Woman's Day in New York on February 23, 1909, IWD has come to be identified with March 8. Because of its socialist origins, IWD events historically have addressed broad issues of war, peace, inequality, democracy, working conditions, and living standards--not only women's "rights." IWD has become an opportunity both to call for change within nations and to express international solidarity.
IWD emerged out of the American Socialist Party's adoption in 1908 of women's suffrage. According to historian Temma Kaplan, "In both the United States and Europe, socialists had taken a back seat to suffragists in fighting for the vote because they viewed women's political rights as subordinate to the economic advancement of the male working class. Throughout the world, leftists had associated women's votes with conservatives, and the Americans were no exception."
But European socialist women, led by Clara Zetkin, long time editor of the German Social Democratic Party's women's newspaper and fierce critic of bourgeois feminism, pushed for women's equality. By 1911, European socialists had also adopted IWD (though not as March 8, but rather March 18, on the fortieth anniversary of the Paris Commune). By 1915, the focus of U.S. and European socialists' IWD events became the war and its consequences (even while factions within European Social Democratic parties supported the war).
Then, in 1917 in Petrograd, Russia, a huge demonstration of women protested deteriorating living conditions on February 23 (by the Gregorian calendar, which is March 8 by the Western calendar). Four days later, Czar Nicholas II abdicated. While European socialists continued the March 8 tradition, Lenin in 1922 declared it to be a Communist holiday (assisted by Zetkin, who had by then become a Communist).
In 1936, La Pasionaria, a leader of the Spanish Communist Party, led an IWD march in Madrid, calling upon the masses to defend the Republic from the Fascists.
Although socialist and communist women often utilized IWD to mobilize women around broad issues, at times the day offered a platform from which to challenge their movements. Writer and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) member Ding Ling chose March 8, 1942, to issue her criticism of Mao and other leaders in the CCP in Yenan, the stronghold from which they staged their civil war with the nationalist Guomindang. While acknowledging that women had shortcomings, she identified ways in which female CCP revolutionaries were treated as second-class. She was accused as a rightist for these "Thoughts on March 8" and for writing about women's sexual desires.
International Women's Day remained a socialist and communist celebration, and its celebration in the U.S. faded with the declining fortunes of socialism here. In the late 1960s, socialist feminists resurrected it as a way to raise consciousness about women's issues within a broad human rights perspective. For example, the Chicago Women's Liberation Union, whose membership overlapped significantly with the New American Movement, one of DSA's founding groups, regularly celebrated IWD, often together with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.
For the history of IWD, see Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day," Feminist Studies 11 (Spring 1985), 163-71. The quotation is from p. 165.
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A member of Chicago DSA, Peg Strobel is on DSA's National Political Committee and co-chairs DSA’s Feminist Working Group.
Poster for Women's Day, March 8, 1914. Claiming voting right for women. Public domain, from Wikipedia.
IWD leaflet, 1976. Personal archives.