International Women’s Day

(Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The worldwide emergence of a fighting women’s movement


In Russia in 1913 working class women used International Women’s Day to demand the right to vote. On March 8th, 1917 women working in the massive textile factories walked off the job in protest.

On International Women’s Day they struck to demanding bread and to bring the soldiers home from the battlefields of the First World War. The very next day 200,000 workers were in the streets with the same demands.

The striking women had inspired broader protests. A general strike of all workers was organized, again demanding bread and an end to the war. Two days later the hated Czar Nicolas ll was overthrown with a mutiny of the Russian military combining with the workers’ and peasants’ mass mobilizations to constitute the February 1917 revolution that overthrew the centuries old Russian monarchy. A temporary Constituent Assembly was established that granted women the right to vote.

Eight months later, in October 1917, a second revolution swept Russia as millions of workers. peasants, soldiers and sailors stormed the heavens to establish for the first time in history a socialist government of based on working class rule through democratically elected councils (soviets) that were organized across the country.

A socialist revolution that encompassed one-sixth of the land surface of the world immediately proceeded to abolish the repressive and hated Tzarist Criminal Code. A new Family Code was adopted by the soviet/council-based government in early 1918 which freed women from the repressive institutional structures of the Russian Orthodox Church. Marriage and divorce became voluntary civil arrangements and anti-sodomy laws that had been used to oppress gay men were abolished.

The importance of this spark that was ignited by Russian women into a massive and unprecedented social rebellion that shook the earth on March 8th is often overlooked. International Women’s Day had been first organized on Feb. 28, 1909 when the Socialist Party of America organized a march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the strike of female garment workers in New York City. Clara Zetkin a German Revolutionary proposed in 1910 at an International Socialist Women’s Conference that March 8th be honored annually as International Working Women’s Day. There were 100 women from 17 countries in attendance. 

 In the following year a million women marched worldwide. It was also the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, where a radical socialist government was established that briefly ruled in France. Women played a key role in the 1881 Paris Commune and none more than its key leader, Louise Michel, who became a national heroine in France.

Most countries today, except the United States, officially celebrate March 8th as International Women’s Day. In the past two decades there has been a global rising of women that has sparked militant protests in the tradition of the original International Women’s Day. In some cities in the U.S. the women’s marches that began in January 2017 to protest the inauguration of President Trump have been moved to March 8. Their demands to end violence against women and the right to control our own bodies have expanded to condemn misogyny, racism, homophobia and transphobia. In other countries there have been women’s strikes and mass mobilizations. The experience of women’s empowerment one day a year is transformative and continues to motivate women throughout the year towards mass action instead of disempowering electoral activity.

India’s women protest leaders

In articles about the recent fight back against India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s anti-Muslim Citizen’s Amendment Bill, little has been written about the role of women. The bill would strip citizen rights from 200 million Muslim citizens. In January there was a general strike of over 250 million workers against the right wing Modi government, likely the largest strike in history. Again, most news reports were silent about the central role of women. But at the center of the resistance to government-imposed austerity and in defense of the largely oppressed Muslim population, were housewives, grandmothers and women students. Women like Asma Khatun, who leads mass protest chants, has seen nine decades of oppression and lived through British colonial rule, the war of independence and the partition of Pakistan. Before last month she had stayed in her home and had never been in politics. For forty days she has camped out in the streets day and night with hundreds of women in some of the coldest weather India has ever experienced. “I will not move, I have never been in a protest before, but I will die fighting for my children and my country,” she stated.

According to The Guardian, “The loudest voices of dissent have been from women both Hindu and Muslim, fighting together across India. They have been at the forefront of the resistance fighting for the rights of millions of Muslims being declared illegal aliens in their own country.”

The female driven movement is in response to their oppression and economic status.  Women in India tend to have less documentation to prove citizenship and are more likely to be living in poverty. They do not have their names on property documents and many have moved from their place of birth when they were married. They are less likely to have their births registered.

Karuna Nundy one of the most vocal activists explains, “Being a woman in India feeds into the experience of and resistance to oppression. We know exclusion and we know it viscerally. It is important to see that Hindutva has been powered by a toxic masculinity. It is very macho, violent and hostile to women.”

Student activist Shafqat Rahim reports: “The protests are shaping up like a revolution where women have taken the leading roles. We the women, will remove the fascist rulers.”

Women Plan a Month of Demonstrations in Madrid

In Spain, over 7,000 women gathered in Madrid on February 8th to form a human chain around the city center. The action kicked off a month of protests leading up to International Women’s Day on March 8th. According to the organizers, the purpose of the march was “to denounce the different types of violence that affect women and to call public attention to the diverse proposals for change emanating from the feminist movements.” 

The women wore purple to show that the streets of Madrid belong to them. Their chain, which stretched over seven kilometers, was divided into ten sections to showcase different demands including the right to housing, dignified pensions, working rights for women who work in the home, climate justice, an end to violence against women, and more. LGBTQI activists and sex workers also had their own sections of the march with their own demands. The march organizers explained, “We are betting on a rebellion for a month, so that they hear all the demands…not only on March 8. We don’t want to wait anymore; we want to come out in the streets, we want a permanent mobilization.”

March 8th is not a day that has been left in the dustbin of history. It is a day that we are inspired by women trailblazers like Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, when we remember our grandmothers, mothers, sisters, aunts and friends who struggled and continue to struggle to make the world a better place to live for women around the globe. As Clara said, “All women, whatever be their position, should demand political equality as a means of a freer life, and one calculated to yield rich blessings to society.” 

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