From the desk of a feminist historian: The history of International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day is not a day to celebrate feminity, motherhood, or women. If you give flowers to a woman on International Women’s Day, you are doing it wrong. International Women’s Day has and always will be a day to draw attention to the social issues women fac all around the world and to fight for their rights. Actually it is necessary to fight for women’s rights all year round but this is the day to draw attention of the serious issues of non-equality and lacking emancipation women still face today.
It is actually not true that the International Women’s Day is on March 8 because of female American textile workers striking on March 8, 1857 and being brutally beaten by the police. Historians such as Liliane Kandel, Francoise Picq, and Temma Kaplan have proven this a legend in the 1960. The actual origin of the International Women’s Day is the Second Socialist International Women’s conference 1910 in Copenhagen where prominent female socialist such as Clara Zetlkin (about whom I have written before), Rosa Luxemburg, and Adelheid Popp made the suggestion of introducing an international day to fight for women’s rights. The idea for that came from the Socialist Party of America that had established a women’s rights committee in 1908 and especially May Wood-Simons that had the idea of introducing a day where all the women of the Western world would protest together for their right to vote. The suggestion passed and in 1911 the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Denmark, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and Switzerland. March 8 was chosen because of the significance of the month of March for the socialist movement; in March 1848 the so-called March Revolution took place and the Paris commune also started in March.
In the following five years the International Women’s Day became the most important day for the socialist movement after Labor Day on May 1st. The most pressing issue addressed on this day was suffrage. Until the end of the First World War there were hardly any countries that allowed women to vote, so in the beginning years of its existence International Women’s Day always was also Internation Women’s Right to Vote Day.The first country that adopted International Women’s Day as an official holiday was the newly founded Soviet Union in 1918 due in part to the lobbying of the Socialist International Women’s Movement anad also in part due to Lenin himself who saw women’s rights struggle as one of the most important issues in a socialist state.
After 1918 the day was still celebrated mostly by socialist and socialdemocrat parties as a day to demonstrate against the wage-gap, the criminalization of abortion, and the conditions women were forced to work under. Especially the German and Austrian communist and socialist movement stand out in this manner since they managed the biggest demonstrations and were the first movements in a democratic state that tried to institute March 8 outside of the Soviet Union.
After the Second World War (during the Nazi time period the day was abolished) many socialist countries adapted the day as a fixture in their calendar to demonstrate the many achievements for women in the new socialist order. The German Democratic Republic for example celebrated its first International Women’s Day on March 8, 1946 and with that day adopted the so-called women’s day, which was one day a week women got off of work with full pay.
During the 1960s International Women’s Day was slowly disconnected from the socialist movement in Western countries, especially in connection with the rightful critique of feminists concerning socialist parties and movements. The same day was adapted to not only fight against the wage gap but also for reproductive rights, the acknowledgment of women as their own legal person, and the equality of Lesbians.
To this day all these issues are not resolved. As a personal appeal, I want all of you to remember not only where this day came from but also, that there is a lot to fight for in terms of women’s rights. There is still a wage gap, a war on women’s reproductive rights, not full equality for homosexuals, stereotypes against women, rape culture, and prejudices concerning feminism. All of these have to be fought. None of these can be overcome with buying flowers for women. I urge all of you whether male, female, queer or something else to use this day to draw attention to these issues and continue the fight all year. For a more just, equal, and generally better society!