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Issue #1676      March 11, 2015

IWD: Standing side by side with our sisters

Historian Louise Raw revisits the New York origins of a day promoting female emancipation since 1909

The first national Women’s Day was held a year later, by declaration of the Socialist Party of America. In 1910 the uber-cool Clara Zetkin – feminist, anti-racist, pacifist, Marxist and mate of Rosa Luxemburg just for starters – picked up the baton in style.

Clara Zetkin.

Addressing a conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, Zetkin called for an annual day for all countries to celebrate women’s struggles and victories.

Delegates from unions, working women’s clubs, socialist parties and parliaments – the first three women ever to be voted into the Finnish parliament were all present – greeted her call with unanimous approval.

International Women’s Day was born, and first celebrated in 1911.

IWD is now an official holiday in 28 countries, from Afghanistan to Zambia. In some, men and children give gifts to mothers, wives and girlfriends.

Zetkin was the perfect candidate to propose this new venture.

She’d been hugely influential in steering Germany’s Social Democratic Party in a feminist, Marxist direction. An active trade unionist, she devoted herself to organising women into both trade unions and the SPD, becoming a member of the SPD’s national executive in 1895 and leader of its Women’s Office from 1907.

The SPD had been neither feminist nor Marxist before Zetkin, Luxemburg, Liebknecht and the gang got to grips with it and worked to advance the rights of women within the German left, adopting a dual vision of class and gender to explain women’s oppression under capitalism.

This was no mere lip service – Zetkin understood the practical realities of working women’s lives, and knew the party needed to be reorganised to encourage women’s full participation, something she would expand on as a leader of the Communist Women’s Movement in the 1920s.

Knowing women faced a “double obligation to be active in both the factory and the home,” she issued a demand for a legally fixed workday.

She also understood this affected women’s political lives, too, making it hard for many to attend meetings. This sounds obvious, but how many political parties and groups even today provide crèches or even parent-friendly start and finish times?

One of Zetkin’s responses to the problem was to ensure literature appealed to and reached women who couldn’t attend meetings.

From 1891 to 1917 she edited the SPD women’s newspaper Die Gleichheit (Equality). In Britain, meanwhile, the left was not quite the hotbed of feminism it is today.

Our Social Democratic Federation chafed under the leadership of the irksome Ernest Belfort Bax, who thought feminism had gone too far in the 1890s, and wrote an essay entitled The Fraud of Feminism in 1913. Had he been alive today, I like to think he’d be merrily trolling me on Twitter.

The British trade union and women’s movements had also developed in isolation, if not hostility, to each other, leaving a problematic legacy we’re still dealing with today.

Yes, 55 per cent of union members are female for the first time and we have the sterling Frances O’Grady heading up the TUC, but these sisters know they have their work cut out.

The movement is still extremely male at the top and old ideas about “working men” as the paradigmatic trade unionists die hard. British feminism in general made huge strides in 2014, but is being met with an equally strong backlash.

Campaigners like Caroline Criado Perez and MP Stella Creasy were, and are, viciously harassed on social media (initially for the mild suggestion that we have, perhaps, one woman among the boys on our banknotes.)

Pseudonymous women’s campaigner Jean Hatchet keeps going in the face of the most astonishing threats and abuse, largely garnered for suggesting – as did many other men and women in the sports world – that convicted rapist Ched Evans should not be allowed back to high-profile football because of the influential nature of the job.

And I can’t be the only feminist who was asked the same question a hundred times this time of year: “But when is International Men’s Day?!”

I used to simply reply: “Why, every day, of course!” Now I could add that there is an actual day. In November.

Zetkin, savvy to the one step forward, two steps back nature of women’s fight under capitalism, might be dismayed but would not be surprised.

As she wrote of women’s expanding labour opportunities under industrialisation: “As a result of all this, the proletarian woman has achieved her independence. But … the price was very high and … they have gained very little. If during the Age of the Family, a man had the right to tame his wife occasionally with a whip, capitalism is now taming her with scorpions.”

She wanted women and men to unite in the fight against capitalism, the system which hurt them both – and was clear that women were best placed to be agents of their own liberation.

“A workers’ revolution that succeeds in overthrowing capitalism – and the capitalist family, whose double burden on women ensures their inferior status in society – is the only hope for genuine women’s liberation. The emancipation of all women – bourgeois and working class – thus depends on working-class women’s collective power as workers.”

In 2015 women are still paid less and suffer more from violence, war and economic vicissitudes all over the world.

Our brothers need to lend their support to us if we’re ever to make the dream of Zetkin, and women down the centuries, come true.

That’s my IWD wish – but while we’re waiting, presents and a day off work will be just fine, too …

Morning Star

Next article – Giving so much to so many – For very little in return

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