In order to start talking about the origins of March 8, International Working Women’s Day, we must historically address, on its own, the women’s movement and how they were involved in the class struggle. They aimed to achieve their emancipation and equal rights for all, as well as putting an end to their subjugation on all fronts.
On August 26, 1789, France’s National Constituent Assembly passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It highlights human rights, which aim to incorporate those of the excluded minorities, including women and feminism.
In 1791, Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen, which wanted the extension of the citizenship rights for women. It asked for equal political and legal rights, no matter the sex. This declaration wasn’t passed but acted as a death sentence for Olympe de Gouges, who was guillotined in 1793.
It’s important to mention that the French Revolution allowed women, for the first time ever, to participate in the political scene. But, in 1793, the French National Convention banned all women’s clubs and societies. Among the claims of what could be called “French feminism” was the divorce law, that was passed in 1792, which was kept in the Civil Code. However, after, in 1816, it was abolished under the Restoration Regime. The law would later be reinstated during France’s Third Republic, in 1884.
Over the course of the 1848 revolution, the newspaper “Women’s Voice” came to life. Its printing included forty-five editions, and its editors, Deroin, Gay, and Niboyet, claimed access to public education, the right to manage their property and earnings within married life, the right to divorce and to the custody of their children, the right to vote, and to participate in the political scene through the election process, as candidates.
However, the bourgeoisie had other plans in mind. After Louis Bonaparte ascended to the throne and the Second Empire was proclaimed, the attempt at a feminist movement in France came to an end.
While this was happening in Europe, the working women of the “New World” were excluded from participating in the conferences of the abolitionist movement from which the “Declaration of Sentiments” was derived which was passed in New York in 1848 by the Seneca Falls Convention. This is the first known convention about women’s rights in the United States. We must note that the women’s claims in North America were quite similar to those of the French, but they placed particular emphasis on demanding the women’s right to vote. The suffragist movement was formed by all the feminist organizations of the time.
The First International and the working women’s liberation:
The liberation of working women was not a part of First International’s central discussion. However, Karl Marx was the one who spoke out about how the liberation of working women was made through their integration into the social production process, and proposed the abolition, together with the exploitation of the classes, of domestic slavery, by socializing the household chores, and the education and upbringing of children. At this point, it’s interesting to note that Harriet Law was appointed as a member of the International’s General Counsel Board in 1867, an English activist that supported atheism, and who was an avid advocate of Karl Marx’s thesis.
On the other hand, working women’s rights weren’t also a topic of central debate during the Paris Commune. However, it’s worth mentioning that over its short duration, women were allowed to speak in public again and to participate in clubs’ activities.
Clara Zetkin, the SPD’s working women’s movement and the Second International:
Now, the true experience of the masses in the women’s movement came from the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Their feminist partisan newspaper’s editor was Clara Zetkin, an activist and friend of Rosa Luxemburgo, who, years later, and after the collapse of the Second International, would be the leaders and founders of the Communist Party of Germany.
Among the most relevant texts of the time are “Women and Socialism”, by August Bebel, and “The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State”, by Friedrich Engels. In 1878, the then German government outlawed the SPD, and until 1890, being a member of such a party was illegal. This ended up driving the bourgeois feminism away but laid the foundations so that a political movement, independent from the working class, could be born, as well as a working women’s socialist movement, which would end up shaping the Socialist International Women.
In 1889, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the SPD’s working and socialist women’s movement, delivered her speech during the Second International’s founding conference. It took place in Paris and voiced the need to address the issue of the women’s working principle. Zetkin bluntly emphasized the class nature of the bourgeois’ women movement and its reformist boundaries, compared to the working women’s movement, which had to be revolutionary.
While the socialist women’s movement in Germany and Austria was extremely important, in the Anglo-Saxon countries, however, one could notice a crushing lack of socialist women. This translated into a greater vulnerability to give in to the pressures of the inherently bourgeois suffragist movement, like in the United Kingdom, where the socialist women ended up taking a conciliatory stand that pushed them further away from the workers’ movement.
Working women and the Russian Revolution: Avant-garde and the first Bolshevik decrees:
On February 23, in the Julian calendar, or also on March 8, in the Gregorian calendar, we celebrate International Women’s Day. According to the writings of Leon Trotsky, that day was traditionally celebrated. However, no one ever imagined that day would one day signify the start of the Revolution.
None of the organizations called for a strike, but the workers at the textile factories completely ignored that and went out on strike. At the same time, they sent representatives to the metal factories and fabricators in order to ask for support. It was the same group of organized women who took the lead in their own revolutionary organizations and overcame their resistance. That was how the working women marched en masse to the Duma asking for bread. In October 1917, tsarism was defeated, and the Bolshevik Party seized power.
We highlight, among the implemented policies that promoted the emancipation of working women, the Decrees about civil marriage and divorce, the Code of Laws about marital status and domestic relationship, marriage, family, and guardianship, and the right to legal abortion, which was passed in 1920. Abortion then was free in every Soviet hospital.
In 1921, in Moscow, the First International Conference of Communist Women set March 8 as a unified date to celebrate International Working Women’s Day, in honor of Petrograd’s workers, and it became a day of action for the whole working class.
After the Second World War, and with the aid of imperialism when it came to hiding the true origins of March 8, this date was associated with the strike of the textile workers of New York’s Cotton factory, in 1857. These women were said to be burned to death by their patrons, but the specifics are unknown, so it all constitutes a blend of fantasy and reality.
Working women: there’s nothing to celebrate!
March 8, by its historic nature, was and must be a day where the worker women’s movement fights collectively against the advance of capitalism at the expense of our rights. In the United Kingdom, where male violence against women claims the life of a woman every three days, where the policies implemented by the political castes don’t improve anything on a working, economic and social level, and where this misery and death regime condemns us to live in the worst possible inequality conditions, we need a class-determined independent organization in our governments if we want to work towards achieving our claims.
We need our fight, now and forever, to have a revolutionary program and to stand against the reformist, submissive bourgeois feminism that intends to bring down the patriarchy, but that leaves the social foundations of capitalism intact.
Let’s go get the bread, but also the roses!
Translation by Mercedes Pajuelo