International Women’s Day: One Hundred Years Later
by Hannah Hanikin
published in “Iskra”, March 2017 issue
Each year since 1917, on March 8th. International Women’s Day (IWD), women and their supporters around the world, celebrate women’s achievements, as well as acknowledge challenges faced by women in the quest for gender equality. Originally IWD was known as International Working Women’s Day with its roots in the socialist, rather than the feminist struggle. First observed in Russia in 1917, (February 23, by the old calendar), women workers in Petrograd went on strike. Organizing themselves, women orchestrated an estimated 200,000 workers to leave their factory jobs in a massive strike action. They demanded an end to World War 1, an end to the Tsarist regime and an end to food shortages, taking to the streets with banners held high for “bread, peace and land”. Bread, the staff of life, a staple for the vast majority of Russians, was in short supply, necessitating long queues at the bakeries. Although by all accounts, flour was available in the warehouses, but because Russia was experiencing one of the coldest winters in people’s memory, deliveries of fuel for transportation, factories, bakeries, were hampered.
Each day strikers and protesters kept increasing, numbering some 400,000 by some estimates. Fighting was breaking out between the workers and soldiers who had received orders to quash the demonstrations, and some fifty protestors were killed. Events began to change dramatically, when soldiers and young conscripts refused to open fire on the crowd. When a group of protestors were accosted by a troop of Cossacks… “a young girl appeared from the crowd and walked towards the Cossacks to present a bouquet of red roses to one of their officers, who leaned down from his horse to accept this offering of peace…a symbolic victory—one of those psychological moments on which revolutions turn: now the people knew that they could win.” (Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991, (New York, 2014), p.69).
Women in Russia who had become increasingly more class-conscious advanced a political movement for the eight-hour working day, decent pay, better working conditions and respectful treatment by the employers. A monumental historical moment! Following the October Soviet Revolution, a day honoring women was made an official holiday in the USSR. Women were recognized for their struggle for peace. One hundred years later women in some countries such as China, Cuba, Venezuela, and Russia among others, are granted a paid day off work.
The United Nations General Assembly officially observed International Women’s Day in 1977, proclaiming March 8th as the UN Day for women’s rights, and creating a theme each year for the celebration. The theme for IWD 2017 is “Be Bold for Change”, encouraging people to collectively take concrete actions to help achieve gender parity in the workplace, in society, in the home and in leadership in all sectors.
Working class women in Europe and the US had also been organising with demands for social and economic rights. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding the right to vote, better wages and shorter working hours. A year later, by declaration of the Socialist Party of America, the first National Women’s Day was observed in the US. In 1910, German Marxist Clara Zetkin, suggested that every country should celebrate women one day a year. Zetkin, a passionate campaigner for women’s rights and universal suffrage, believed that socialism was the only movement that could serve the needs of working-class women. In 191l, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland joined Germany in advocating for the rights of women.
Although women have made certain gains, in the home, society, the workplace, working class women’s concerns are increasing. The original aim—achieving full gender equality globally for women—has not been realized. Capitalism with its focus on deriving maximum profits, perpetuates pay differential between women and men, benefiting from the unequal pay for women who perform equal work. Globally, women’s health, education, socio-economic status, participation in business and politics remain unequal. With more and more shifts in the labour market to part-time employment, women are consigned to the reserve of low wages with no benefits. Poverty is reaching alarming levels, regardless if women are in or out of the job market. ‘Bread’ is becoming a precious commodity, as more and more women access food banks for sustenance for their families. Although inequality hurts all people, some groups of people are impacted more profoundly, including women, children, Indigenous people, recent immigrants.
Policies are needed which benefit the majority not the one percent. Low minimum wages legally enforce poverty. A poverty reduction plan must include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, creating job security, providing publicly funded universal child care for working people, increasing social welfare and disability rates above the poverty line, building more social housing units, and increasing taxes on the wealthy.
On International Women’s Day and every day, we must take stock of the challenges facing women around the world. In our communities and with our global sisters, we assert women’s rights for justice, peace, security and freedom from poverty, violence, racism and sexism. While governments allocate astronomical amounts of federal budgets for war and preparations for war, women stand solidly as they always have historically for peace, and non-violence. We will always reflect upon our inspiring sisters who resisted the dictatorial ruling class and its empire. We will not forget and who laid foundations for genuine liberation for all women. We will continue with our determination to build a society based on cooperation, collaboration, the fulfillment of human potential, collective resistance against colonization and the plunder of the environment. We will raise our peace signs and our voices for women’s worldwide struggles.