8 March 2010: Women's Day Centenary
The Slogans of Hundred Years of Women’s Liberation Struggles Resonate Even Today
Who deserves the credit for the legacy of ‘International Women’s Day'? Governments or the United Nations may try to turn it into a day for official (sarkari) pronouncements and promises of 'women's empowerment.' They try to hide the real legacy of Women's Day, because they are deeply uncomfortable with the fact that it was communist women workers protesting on the streets a century ago, who started International Women's Day.
One of the foremost leaders of the German socialist and communist movement, Clara Zetkin was a vanguard fighter for women’s liberation and the initiator of International Women’s Day. She interviewed Lenin on "The Women's Question" in 1920.
Zetkin represented the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) from 1920 to 1933 in the Reichstag (German Parliament). A determined fighter against fascism, she was exiled when Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power in Germany, and the German Communist Party was banned following the Reichstag fire in 1933. She lived the rest of her life in the Soviet Union.
Origins of IWD
Women workers in garment and other factories in the USA in 1909 first observed ‘Women’s Day’ with huge demonstrations to demand labour laws (including the 8-hour working day) and the right to vote for women. In 1910, the Second International Conference of Working Women at Copenhagen accepted German socialist leader Clara Zetkin’s proposal that International Women's Day be celebrated every year demanding rights for working women, including labour laws for women, the right to vote, and peace. In keeping with that decision, communists organised International Women’s Day the next year in many countries, and in Germany, 30000 women workers participated in processions, defying police repression. Since 1913, International Women’s Day has been celebrated every year on 8 March as a day of women’s assertion of their commitment to liberation and to the struggle for a world free of every kind of oppression.
As we approach 8 March this year, the issues that moved women to raise the banner of revolt a century ago continue to resonate among women today. While women have made huge strides in the last century, the fact is that many of achievements of the last century (and more) of women's liberation struggles are under attack in the wake of globalisation.
"Bread, Land and Peace" – Then and Now
It is worth remembering that the people's upsurge that led to the socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia began on March 8 that year, when thousands of Russian women flooded the streets of Petrograd raising the slogan of bread, land and peace', demanding bread, land for peasantry, and an end to the imperialist World War I.
Globally, this slogan continues to resonate among women. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, women continue to be devastated by imperialist wars – while women are at the forefront of huge anti-war mobilisations in the US and its allied countries. Imperialist economic policies have resulted in global hunger – which hits women the worst.
In the mid-19th century, Dalit writer and activist Savitribai Phule pioneered education for women, defying the feudal forces who would molest and abuse her and throw filth at her.
As we demand the right to education and equality for women, Savitribai’s legacy inspires us.
'Bread, land and peace' is a particularly relevant slogan for the women's movement in India today. The image of the women of Manipur in 2004 protesting in the nude with the slogan 'Indian Army Rape Us' is a reminder that women are the worst casualties in the state's war on its people. Be it at Bastar, Shopian (Kashmir), Lalgarh (W Bengal) or the North East, women suffer brutalities, rape and murder at the hands of security forces. Women in land struggles (Tapasi Malik at Singur, many women at Nandigram and more recently, adivasi women at Narayanpatna (Orissa)) have been targeted with rape and murder.
The question of bread assumes explosive proportions this March, as prices of food break all records. The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 had ranked India bottom (134th among 134 countries) in terms of the ‘women's health and survival’ index, noting that women suffer from chronic malnutrition and anaemia. The impact of the steep rise in food prices (nearly 20%) on these women can only be imagined.
Women Workers Today
Take the question of women's rights at the workplace. Even the 8-hour work-day which women won 100 years ago is now being widely violated, with workers in the informal sector having to work long hours. Women won the 8-hour work day a century ago – but today, again, the 8-hour work law is being openly violated. The global recession has had a disproportionate impact on women's employment.
Rakhmabai is an inspiring icon for women's choice in matters of marriage and personal relations – extremely relevant in times when child marriage is common (India accounts for over 40 per cent of child marriages globally) and young couples are being attacked by obscurantist forces like the Sangh Parivar and khaap panchayats for marrying in defiance of caste and community norms.
Rakhmabai refused to buckle even in the face of such a virulent backlash from powerful and respected figures. She declared publicly that she would never accept a 'kacchi umar ka rishta' (tie of tender years) as 'pakka' (binding) - even when she lost her case in Court, she declared she would rather go to jail than join her husband. She went on to become one of India’s first women doctors.
Women’s labour force participation in India, at 36%, is less than half of the labour force participation rate of men (85%). Their estimated earned annual income is less than a third of men’s income. If adult women are underrepresented in the workforce, girl children are overrepresented in child labour: according to NSSO data of 2004-05, while women aged 15 and above comprise only 27 per cent of all employed persons in India, girl children account for 42 per cent of all children in employment.
The Global Employment Trends for Women Report 2009 (released by the ILO on Women's Day last year) showed that the global financial crisis had a worse impact on women as compared to men, in a scenario where women are 'last hired, first fired.' This is especially true of developing economies. Women tend to be overrepresented in the agricultural sector: barring some of the more industrialized regions, almost half of female employment globally can be found in this sector alone. The share of employment in agriculture globally has declined from 40.8% in 1999 to 33.5% in 2009; this decline has hit women's employment badly. In India, women constitute 40 percent of the agricultural workforce and 75 percent of all women workers are in some way dependent on agriculture. (Not surprising, then, that the agricultural crisis in India has hit women badly, and that women are at the forefront of movements against corporate land grab.) One-third of India's urban women workers are employed in the sectors worst hit by the recession – textile, garments and leather industries.
Women's Political Participation
Alexandra Kollontai, leader of the Bolshevik Party and one of pioneers of the women's movement, wrote in 1920 that one of the "vital issues" of International Women's Day at the time of its origin was "the question of making parliament more democratic, that is, of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women.” The question of making representative institutions more democratic continues to be a challenge, with women's representation continuing to be low globally. In India, it is particularly shameful that for the last decade, the demand for 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies continues to be betrayed by successive governments.
On 8 March 2010, we can salute the legacy of a hundred years of International Women's Day and centuries of women's struggles in India and abroad against the shackles that bind them, only by upholding the banner of struggles of oppressed and toiling women for their rights. q
International Women's Day
- Alexandra Kollontai
First published in 1920, this essay traces the history of international women's day and its importance to working class struggle with particular focus on the 1917 Russian Revolution.
A militant celebration
Women's Day or Working Women's Day is a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.
But this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women's day is a double celebration for us.
(Excerpts from a poem written by Sameer Roy, 1968 (during the Naxalbari movement) in memory of Rasmoni, a woman of the Hajong tribe, who was killed in the police repression on the Tebhaga movement in 1946–47.)
Comrade, how old are we
How and why was women's day organised?
Not very long ago, in fact about ten years ago, the question of women's equality, and the question of whether women could take part in government alongside men was being hotly debated. The working class in all capitalist countries struggled for the rights of working women: the bourgeoisie did not want to accept these rights. It was not in the interest of the bourgeoisie to strengthen the vote of the working class in parliament; and in every country they hindered the passing of laws that gave the right to working women.
Socialists in North America insisted upon their demands for the vote with particular persistence. On the 28th of February, 1909, the women socialists of the U.S.A. organized huge demonstrations and meetings all over the country demanding political rights for working women. This was the first "Woman's Day". The initiative on organizing a woman's day thus belongs to the working women of America.
In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women, Clara Zetkin brought forward the question of organizing an International Working Women's Day. The conference decided that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same day a "Women's Day" under the slogan "The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism".
During these years, the question of making parliament more democratic, i.e., of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women, was a vital issue. ...in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie's economy of plunder. "Housewives uprisings" became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany.
The working women understood that it wasn't enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn't bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.
It was decided to have a Woman's Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized strength of working women under the banner of socialism.
The first international women's day
The first International Women's Day took place in 1911. Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women's Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.
This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators' banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.
In 1913 International Women's Day was transferred to the 8th of March. This day has remained the working women's day of militancy.
Is women's day necessary?
Women's Day in America and Europe had amazing results. It's true that not a single bourgeois parliament thought of making concessions to the workers or of responding to the women's demands. For at that time, the bourgeoisie was not threatened by a socialist revolution.
But Women's Day did achieve something. It turned out above all to be an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters. They could not help but turn their attention to the meetings, demonstrations, posters, pamphlets and newspapers that were devoted to Women's Day. Even the politically backward working woman thought to herself: "This is our day, the festival for working women," and she hurried to the meetings and demonstrations. After each Working Women's Day, more women joined the socialist parties and the trade unions grew. Organizations improved and political consciousness developed.
Women workers' day in Russia
The Russia working woman first took part in "Working Women's Day" in 1913. This was a time of reaction when Tsarism held the workers and peasants in its vise like a grip. There could be no thought of celebrating "Working Women's Day" by open demonstrations. But the organized working women were able to mark their international day. Both the legal newspapers of the working class – the Bolshevik Pravda and the Menshevik Looch – carried articles about the International Women's Day: they carried special articles, portraits of some of those taking part in the working women's movement and greetings from comrades such as Bebel and Zetkin.
In those bleak years meetings were forbidden. But in Petrograd, at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange, those women workers who belonged to the Party organized a public forum on "The Woman Question." Entrance was five kopecks. This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely packed. Members of the Party spoke. But this animated "closed" meeting had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings, intervened and arrested many of the speakers.
It was of great significance for the workers of the world that the women of Russia, who lived under Tsarist repression, should join in and somehow manage to acknowledge with actions International Women's Day. This was a welcome sign that Russia was waking up and the Tsarist prisons and gallows were powerless to kill the workers' spirit of struggle and protest.
In 1914, "Women Workers Day" in Russia was better organized. Both the workers' newspapers concerned themselves with the celebration. Our comrades put a lot of effort into the preparation of "Women Workers Day." Because of police intervention, they didn't manage to organize a demonstration. Those involved in the planning of "Women Workers Day" found themselves in the Tsarist prisons, and many were later sent to the cold north. For the slogan "for the working women's vote" had naturally become in Russia an open call for the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy.
Women workers during the imperialist war
Then came the great, great year of 1917. Hunger, cold and trials of war broke the patience of the women workers and the peasant women of Russia. In 1917, on the 8th of March (23rd of February), on Working Women's Day, they came out boldly in the streets of Petrograd. The women – some were workers, some were wives of soldiers – demanded "Bread for our children" and "The return of our husbands from the trenches." At this decisive time the protests of the working women posed such a threat that even the Tsarist security forces did not dare take the usual measures against the rebels but looked on in confusion at the stormy sea of the people's anger.
The 1917 Working Women's Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February revolution marks its beginning from this day.
Our call to battle
"Working Women's Day" was first organized ten years ago in the campaign for the political equality of women and the struggle for socialism. This aim has been achieved by the working class women in Russia. In the soviet republic the working women and peasants don't need to fight for the franchise and for civil rights. They have already won these rights. The Russian workers and the peasant women are equal citizens – in their hands is a powerful weapon to make the struggle for a better life easier – the right to vote, to take part in the Soviets and in all collective organizations.
But rights alone are not enough. We have to learn to make use of them. The right to vote is a weapon which we have to learn to master for our own benefit, and for the good of the workers' republic. In the two years of Soviet Power, life itself has not been absolutely changed. We are only in the process of struggling for communism and we are surrounded by the world we have inherited from the dark and repressive past. The shackles of the family, of housework, of prostitution still weigh heavily on the working woman. Working women and peasant women can only rid themselves of this situation and achieve equality in life itself, and not just in law, if they put all their energies into making Russia a truly communist society.
Down with the world of property and the power of capital!
Away with the inequality, lack of rights and the oppression of women - the legacy of the bourgeois world!
Forward to the international unity of working women and male workers in the struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat - the proletariat of both sexes!