Socialist women–in the United States at that–began the tradition of International Women’s Day (IWD). A good way to celebrate it now is to urge the U.S. to ratify CEDAW, the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (more about that below).
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 women in the United States 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.
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
CEDAW is an international treaty promulgated by the United Nations in 1979 that has been ratified by 187 nations to date. The United States joins Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Palau and Tonga in not having ratified it. Ratification requires a 2/3 vote in the Senate. Conservatives have prevented the vote from being taken since it was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. (We might think of their opposition as an early salvo in their War on Women.) The Obama Administration supports CEDAW. While ratification by a government by no means guarantees that women in that country are not oppressed (by men, institutions or the government itself), CEDAW can be a tool around which women, girls and their allies can organize. As is always the case, people through social movements must press for social, economic and political rights.
Here’s what The Nation‘s Katha Pollitt had to say in her April 5, 2010, column:
Pass CEDAW. .. Despite the fact that Congress has burdened CEDAW with no fewer than eleven reservations, nearly all of which were placed there by Jesse Helms to please Concerned Women for America and other antifeminist and Christian groups, it still hasn’t come to a vote. So pass it, already–and Helms is dead, so dump the reservations. Don’t have the votes? Vote on it anyway. American women should know which senators think we should have fewer human rights than women in nearly every other democratic country in the world.
Conservative opposition in the U.S. stems from the concern of the Religious Right that the treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty, the free-market system (through equal rights for work of comparable worth) and parental authority as well as lead to the provision of contraception and abortion services, LGBTQ rights, the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized prostitution.
According to the website CEDAW 2013:
Around the world, CEDAW has been used to reduce sex trafficking, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation; ensure primary education for girls and vocational training for women; ensure the right to vote; end forced marriage and child marriage; improve health care services and save lives during pregnancy and child-birth; allow women to own and inherit property; and ensure the right to work and own a business without discrimination.
- Mexico responded to an epidemic of violence against women by using CEDAW terms in a General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence. By 2009, all 32 Mexican states had adopted the measure.
- Kenya has used CEDAW to address differences in inheritance rights, eliminating discrimination against widows and daughters of the deceased.
- Kuwait’s Parliament voted to extend voting rights to women in 2005 following a recommendation by the CEDAW Committee to eliminate discriminatory provisions in its electoral law.
Image 1: Poster for Women’s Day, March 8, 1914. Claiming voting right for women. Public domain, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Frauentag_1914_Heraus_mit_dem_Frauenwahlrecht.jpg
Image 2: IWD leaflet, 1976. Personal archives.
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.
For information on CEDAW, see http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/
For information about CEDAW and the USA: http://www.feminist.org/global/cedaw.html
Peg Strobel is on DSA’s National Political Committee.