It would be easy to forget that the roots of International Women’s Day (IWD) lie with the socialist movement. In 1907, the International Conference of Socialist Women gathered in Stuttgart and called for women’s suffrage ‘without qualifications of property, tax, education or any other kind of barrier which may hinder members of the working class from availing themselves of their political rights.’
In 1908 in New York, 15,000 women marched through the streets demanding ‘shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.’ The next year, the Socialist Party of America declared a ‘National Women’s Day’ on 28 February.
The year after that, at the International Conference for Working Women in Copenhagen, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin of Germany’s Social Democratic Party proposed that every country should agree to celebrate women’s contributions on the same day. She argued that the day could act as a focal point for feminist movements around the world to coordinate their demands for equality.
The socialist roots of the international celebration have been so buried that few people realise IWD played a central role in the Russian revolution. On 8 March 1917 thousands of women workers poured out into the streets in an event that ultimately culminated in the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. After the October revolution, 8 March was made an official holiday in the Soviet Union.
Like May Day, many people celebrate International Women’s Day every year without any idea what it really means. This is no coincidence. A great deal of effort, and a lot of resources, have been ploughed into obscuring the socialist roots of this holiday in favour of a liberal, corporate vision of International Women’s Day, in which Michelle Obama is more of a hero than Clara Zetkin.
The NGO set up to coordinate the day gives us an indication of what this sanitised version of IWD is about. The focus of the day is, according to the website, to ‘celebrate women’s achievements’, ‘lobby for accelerated gender parity’, ‘raise awareness about women’s equality’ and ‘fundraise for female-focused charities’. Let’s take each in turn.
Celebrating women’s achievements has tended to mean celebrating the successes of wealthy, powerful women who have ‘broken through the glass ceiling’, thereby proving that all women could do the same if they just put their minds to it. Perhaps the most infamous example of this logic was Forbes’ celebration in 2018 of the ‘women building America’s military machine’ – the women running the companies at the heart of the US’ military-industrial complex.
Rather than organising for liberation, this IWD is all about ‘lobbying’ for ‘accelerated’ gender parity. Lobbying means asking powerful people nicely to do what you’d like them to do—a strategy beloved by NGOs that don’t want to threaten the interests of their donors—rather than organising to build power at the grassroots and demanding radical change.
‘Raising awareness’ is NGO-speak for talking about an issue in arcane, depoliticised terms while doing little to support those struggling against the vested interests that stand in the way of progress. And fundraising for charities is the perfect way for women’s charities to co-opt a day of action, initiated by female socialists, to feed the NGO-industrial complex.
Successive governments in the UK have encouraged this focus on charitable action to cover the gaps exposed by the retreat of state support for women – whether that’s the closure of women’s refuges forcing women to stay in dangerous situations, or the retreat of the welfare state pushing women into poverty.
As long as we live in a patriarchal capitalist society in which women’s bodies are seen either as fodder for capitalist exploitation or objects to be enjoyed or destroyed by men, no amount of charity or diversity and inclusion training is going to generate equality for women. Women will achieve equality in the same way that any other oppressed and marginalised group has done so in the past: by fighting for it.
Such a vision of women organising to empower themselves and one another is directly at odds with the one set out within liberal feminism. Liberals reduce misogyny and patriarchy to ‘sexism’ – an individual characteristic, which, like racism, has no structural roots, but is instead a trait displayed by ‘bad’ people who need to be educated out of their ignorance.
The end result has been a form of feminism that celebrates wealthy white women achieving senior positions in the corporate hierarchy, who are then able to use their wealth and power to donate to women’s charities.
Nowhere in the mainstream discourse on International Women’s Day do we see an examination of how the labour of working-class women is exploited by both big business and the wealthy families who pay these women a pittance to clean their homes. Nowhere do we see arguments for the socialisation of the domestic labour performed predominantly by women; instead we see articles encouraging middle class men to ‘do their bit’ around the house.
And nowhere do we see any examination of how white feminists systematically ignore, and often actively undermine, black women’s contributions as a result of the structures of white supremacy. On the rare occasion that we see discussion of women’s oppression around the world, the demands have less to do with ending neo-colonial exploitation of the Global South, and more to do with giving a bit of money to Oxfam.
It’s time to reclaim International Working Women’s Day, because the struggle against patriarchy is part and parcel of the struggle against capitalism. But don’t expect this recognition from the corporate establishment – this is a narrative and a struggle we’ll have to build ourselves.