A century ago, socialist women established International Women’s Day (IWD) as a way to reach out to working-class women. At the Second International Congress of Socialist Women in 1910, Clara Zetkin, chair and delegate from the German Social Democratic Party, proposed IWD as a day to campaign for economic and political equality for women. The very next year, on March 19, 1911, one million women and men in four European countries took part in the first IWD events organized around the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”

Voting rights was a key question facing women in the early 1900s. Socialists fought vigorously for voting rights for women in the U.S. and Europe, but differentiated themselves from the Suffragists. The Suffragists, predominantly middle- and ruling-class women, reduced their oppression to a strictly social phenomenon: men’s power over women derived from and exercised through the structures of society, like religion and cultural tradition.

Socialists fought for the full emancipation of women through working-class struggle, recognizing that working-class women would not – could not – be free until the working class was free from capitalist exploitation. Conversely, the working class could not win its freedom without a politically developed, self-conscious, tenacious movement of working-class women. Clara Zetkin called the vote “only a weapon – a means in struggle for a revolutionary aim,” (Justice, 9/10/1910, see www.marxists.org/archive).

Employers consciously divided male and female workers, taking advantage of women’s secondary social status to pay them less and treat them worse than men. A plentiful supply of cheap, easily intimidated workers undermined any gains men won in their workplaces. As women and girls moved into factory work, improving their working conditions and involving them in union struggles became increasingly critical to the development and the survival of the workers’ movement.

Just six days after the triumph of the first IWD rallies, disaster struck. On March 25, 1911, fire ripped through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, killing almost 150 workers, 125 of them girls aged 16 to 23. The horrific accounts of locked stairwell doors, a single inadequate fire escape, and fire ladders too short to reach trapped workers and girls who jumped 100 feet to their deaths on the pavement below galvanized the resolve of socialists the world over to fight for health and safety contract language, labor laws, and the overthrow of the bosses’ system. The lessons of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory would be recounted at IWD events for years to come.

In 1913, the date of IWD was set for Sunday, March 8, and so it has remained ever since.

IWD helped spark the events that became known as the February Revolution in Russia. In the late winter of 1917, the leadership of the trade unions did not feel the situation was yet ripe for strike action. In the city of Petrograd, women textile workers apparently felt otherwise and used the opportunity afforded by IWD to take to the streets and demand food and an end to the carnage of World War I. The strikers appealed to the metal workers’ union for support and got it. 90,000 workers struck that day. The strike spread throughout the city, and within three days 250,000 workers were on strike for “Bread and Peace.” By the end of the next week, the army had mutinied, the government had collapsed, and the Czar had abdicated.

Today, working-class women still face difficult lives, but we can also be at the forefront of the fight for better working conditions, pay, and services. We need to mark International Women’s Day on March 8 by studying our past and also by looking to the future, organizing for a better world.

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