Protest for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911. Photo: Flickr/US National Archives Protest for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911. Photo: Flickr/US National Archives

In this article, originally published in 1998, Lindsey German traces the history of International Women’s Day – initially a celebration of the struggle of working women fighting back over suffrage and conditions at work

A survey about International Women’s Day in the Guardian two years ago questioned prominent women. It elicited comments such as, ‘They need to market it better,’ or, ‘I don’t quite see the point.’ Even those who supported the idea of a special day for women argued that ‘we need more women in positions of power so that younger women have access to ideas and change.’ The article accompanying these views bemoaned the problems that women face but was unclear what to do about them.

Wasn’t International Women’s Day itself slightly patronising, when women had achieved so much? And there was absolutely no sense of women being part of a wider struggle. Instead the article asked what women would be doing on this day: ‘Ask for a pay rise, vacuum the house or spend the afternoon in a Turkish bath?’

This may be an accurate representation of the state of feminism in the late 1990s, but it has very little to do with the real meaning of International Women’s Day – nor do the women’s events organised by Labour councils or the women’s weeks held in a number of colleges to mark the day. For International Women’s Day, 8 March, came out of the struggle of working women. It was not an attempt to patronise them but to draw attention to issues such as suffrage and conditions at work. It was a commemoration of women fighting back.

Clara ZetkinThe establishment of a women’s day came from socialists, not feminists. It was carried at an international socialist conference held in Copenhagen in 1910. Its mover was the German socialist Clara Zetkin, who proposed honouring the day as a female equivalent of May Day. Zetkin was a member of the German SPD, a friend of the great revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg and a ceaseless campaigner for women’s rights, which she saw as only possible through the fight for socialism.

The commemoration date of 8 March was chosen because two years earlier in 1908 women from the New York needle trade had demonstrated through Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The needle trade women were involved in sporadic strikes at the time. They worked in sweated trades where thousands of mainly immigrant labourers worked long hours in overcrowded conditions and were subject to sexual harassment from the foremen. The year after this demonstration their various grievances erupted into one huge strike wave, known as the ‘uprising of the 20,000’, which marked a turning point in the history of unionising women in the US.

The militancy of the women was famous, as was the intransigence of the bosses and the use of the state machine to help crush the strike. One magistrate told a group of bruised and bleeding pickets who appeared in front of him, ‘You are on strike against god and nature, whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.’ A song was written about the strike, ‘The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand’:

In the black of the winter of nineteen nine
When we froze and bled on the picket line
We showed the world that women could fight
And we rose and won with women’s might.
Hail! The waistmakers of nineteen nine
Making their stand on the picket line
Breaking the power of those who reign
Pointing the way, smashing the chain.
And we gave new courage to the men
Who carried on in nineteen ten
And shoulder to shoulder we’ll win through
Led by the ILGWU.

The international renown of the strike and its importance as a celebration of women struggling for their rights as part of the working class made it a fitting symbol of the fight for women’s equality. The slogan of women’s day was ‘universal suffrage’ – still a controversial question in 1910, when many of the feminist organisations were in favour of campaigning for a more limited, property based women’s suffrage, on the grounds that this would be more realistic in its goals. The purpose of International Women’s Day was to campaign over this and other issues affecting women’s equality, and to raise the profile of women in the working class and socialist movements on an international basis. Demonstrations were organised in all the major European cities every year until 1915, when they were prevented from happening after the outbreak of war by the belligerent powers.

It was the war, paradoxically, which led to the most significant celebration of International Women’s Day ever, in Russia in 1917 (celebrated on 23 February in the old Russian calendar). Russia had been through three years of war. There was carnage at the front and misery and starvation at home. Women were desperately trying to keep their families fed during the cold winter while they also struggled to work. Discontent was rife throughout society, but was felt most acutely by the poorest and hardest working.

According to one report, the daughter of the British ambassador in Petrograd (St Petersburg) was told that the ‘trouble’ began when a woman in a food queue threw a stone through the window of a baker’s shop. This wasn’t unusual: over the previous two years there had been dozens of such incidents which erupted into food riots. The difference this time was that it coincided with strikes, including at the giant Putilov works, and with a demonstration to mark International Women’s Day. According to one historian, ‘The largely female staff of the Vasilevsky Island trolley car park, sensing general unrest a few days before 23 February, sent a woman to the neighbouring encampment of the 180th Infantry regiment to ask the soldiers whether they would shoot at them or not. The answer was no, and on the 23rd, the trolley car workers joined the demonstration.’

Another observer of events stated quite simply:

‘The Russian Revolution was begun by hungry women and children demanding bread and herrings. They started by wrecking tram cars and looting a few shops. Only later did they, together with workmen and politicians, become ambitious to wreck that mighty edifice, the Russian autocracy.’

The revolution overthrew the tsar, but the new government which replaced him was incapable of realising the demands of the women and men who had overthrown the autocracy. The Bolsheviks’ slogan, ‘Bread, peace and land,’ had an increasing resonance and led to the successful workers’ revolution in October 1917. The October Revolution ushered in the beginnings of a new world for women: the oppression of women was recognised, laws were introduced which made divorce easily obtainable, created nursery provision, communal laundries and restaurants, and gave full legal equality to women. Abortion was available, as well as limited forms of contraception. A women’s department of the Soviet government was set up to help overcome the specific problems women faced.

Socialist revolution achieved far more for women within the space of a very few years than most of the Western capitalist governments achieved over the next few decades. This fact has been conveniently forgotten in the present day celebrations of International Women’s Day, as has its history as part of women’s struggle and organisation. Today it is celebrated as though very little needs to change, as though all that is needed is a little more awareness, a little more sense of women’s common goals, and a little bit more self assertion.

On one level, this complacency and conservatism is understandable. Over the past 40 years there has been a massive breakdown of the structures of oppression in capitalist society. Divorce rates have shot up, the growth of single parent families has been immense, and women’s work is now an integral part of capitalist society. Recent US figures show that in 1995 nearly a quarter (23.6 percent) of families were headed by single mothers, whereas in 1960 only 9.9 percent were. Over the same period the number of women aged between 25-34 who were not currently married rose from 11.5 percent to 41 percent, and out of wedlock births rose from 5.3 percent to 31 percent. Women now enter higher education at a more or less equal rate with men and recent reports claim that they are higher achievers than men in education. Doesn’t this all point to a world where women can take an equal part in society and even stride ahead of men in a great many areas?

Certainly there has been a revolutionary change in women’s work, lives and attitudes, which is still continuing. But this revolution has only gone so far. Businesswomen, women bosses, top administrators and civil servants, and – in these days of New Labour government – top women ministers, are paraded as our role models. These are women who have achieved it all: they have careers, often they combine these with having children, and they are not afraid to act like men. They can be aggressive, thrusting and dynamic. The problem is, who are they being aggressive and thrusting towards?

The aim of women’s liberation in its early days was to achieve liberation for all women, not for a privileged few. What is the use of having businesswomen such as Ann Iverson, now sacked as chief executive of Laura Ashley but who in her time sacked hundreds of women? How can Nicola Horlick be held up as a role model when her ‘coping’ with a family included employing housekeepers and nannies, and receiving a salary running into millions? How can our supposed feminist icon for the 1990s be Princess Diana, who by definition led a life completely remote from the vast majority of women?

That these women are symbols of postfeminism should tell us how much the fight for women’s liberation has come up against the barriers of class society. When women achieve a degree of emancipation compared with previous generations then they will be given ‘role models’ to admire – women whose achievements have been gained on the backs of the rest of us.

But women’s oppression is not a result of too few positive role models, or of women failing to achieve as much as men. It is rooted into the structures of class society itself. The family under capitalism is at the centre of women’s oppression. The fact that women’s role in production – at work – is social but that their role in reproduction – the family – is private, goes to the root of the problem. Marriage, childcare and housework are located in the privatised family. Sexual stereotypes of women arise from the supposed centrality of the family in women’s lives. In theory, women are able to break away from the family, as the figures for its breakdown begin to show. In reality, however, it is impossible to do so inside capitalist society. The family is shored up by politicians, the church, the whole establishment. This is both for its ideological role – it is an effective transmitter of ideas which stress stability, continuity and an opposition to change – and economically. The family has a crucial role in the reproduction of labour power, of ensuring that the existing generation of workers is fed, cared for, kept healthy and so on, and more importantly that the next generation is educated, socialised and taught living skills until it too is ready to take its place in the labour market.

The class system of exploitation ensures the continuation of the family and with it the oppression of women. Liberation inside class society can only be liberation for the few, and even then only within narrow confines. In addition, the gains made over the past few decades are themselves under attack. Because the priorities of the system are profit, women’s needs are subordinated to the needs of the ruling class. So attacks on welfare are aimed at women as single mothers and as carers in the home. Closures of nurseries and hospitals hit women disproportionately hard. Tony Blair makes speeches endorsing the most conservative family values. The growth in flexible working and the intensification of work means that women are now facing longer and more strenuous hours at work, as well as coping with the demands of childcare.

Faced with these attacks, there has been a clear division among women and even among feminists over how to respond. This division has cut along class lines, with Labour Party feminists such as Harriet Harman being among the first to attack working women and the poor, and many working class men, especially in the unions, being among those defending women’s rights. None of this is new. The more society polarises between the exploiters trying to squeeze even more from their workers and encountering greater resistance from below, so the more it becomes clear that there is no sisterhood of women. Women’s attitudes will depend on which side of the class division they fall. The American revolutionary socialist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn made this point around the time of the New York needle trade strike when she argued that: ‘The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of man, is a hollow sham to labour. Behind all its smug hypocrisy and sickly sentimentality looms the sinister outline of class war.’

In 1911, just a year after the strike ended, a fire at the notoriously anti-union Triangle Shirtwaist Company killed 146 women. They could not escape because the doors were locked to prevent theft; there were no fire extinguishers and only one fire escape through which it would have taken three hours to evacuate the building. Union organiser Rose Schneiderman spoke at a meeting soon afterwards which was attended by many wealthy women. She said:

‘I cannot talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working class movement.’

This lesson was also found to be true in Russia, where the middle class feminists found themselves on the side of the status quo and increasingly hostile to working class revolution, even though it alone could lay the preconditions for real women’s liberation. It is worth remembering these examples today as the class polarisation in society grows and while erstwhile feminists are attempting to force single mothers off benefits, or are committed to a minimum wage so low that it will do little to address women’s poverty. In such situations, working women find their real allies are male workers.

This class polarisation also points to why we need socialism to achieve women’s liberation. Production based on profit means that the wealth of society is controlled by a tiny minority; hardly any of it is used to introduce reforms which would benefit women. Instead the interests of capital decree cuts, closures and growing poverty. The women’s liberation movement of the 1960s came out of a long boom, where it seemed at least possible that many of the problems facing women could be eradicated without having to overthrow the system. Today that option has closed. The only prospect of liberation for all women lies in overthrowing this system of production and replacing it with production for the needs of the many.

Issue 217 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 1998 Copyright © Socialist Review

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.