International Women’s Day was first established by the UN in 1977 as a global day of awareness for the campaign for women’s equality. However the origins of the 8th March event go back much further as International Working Women’s Day, revealing a older origin in socialist activism often overlooked.
The first celebration of women’s rights in March was in 1908 in New York by the Socialist Party of America and from there was picked up by other feminist and socialist feminist groups elsewhere in the world. In March 1911 feminist and socialist feminist activists, inspired by those in the US, established the first International Women’s Day and took to the streets across Europe demanding the right to vote and hold public office and an end to sex discrimination against working women. Inspired by the success of this event it would continue to be celebrated by feminist groups in Europe over the coming years. This culminated in the 1917 Women’s Day rallies in St Petersburg which snowballed to trigger the February Revolution (due to the Russian’s using a different calendar the February Revolution was actually in March) which overthrew the Tsarist regime and would lead eventually to the formation of the Soviet Union in the subsequent October Revolution.
It was perhaps therefore no surprise that the Soviet Union would institutionalize International Working Women’s Day as a national holiday soon after coming to power. From 1917 to 1977 it was predominantly celebrated in socialist and communist countries and regions however its popularity ultimately led the UN General Assembly to declare it an official global day of awareness in 1977, rebranding it as International Women’s Day.
The origins of International Women’s Day reveal the close relationship between feminism and the socialist movement for social justice and equality. Socialist supporters for feminism have existed since the 19th century with prominent socialist thinkers such as Friedrich Engels outlined how the capitalist economic system acts to reinforce the oppression of women under the nuclear family (the traditional social unit with the women relegated to the role of dutiful wife and mother).
Socialist feminists argue that women are shackled by capitalism because of their function as bearers of children. It is in the capitalist class’ interest to maintain control over women’s sexual functions because of the need for capitalists to secure the inheritance of their property and wealth by their own offspring, thus capitalists have historically sought to constrain women’s sexuality under notions of the feminine virtues of virginity, female chastity and submission to one’s husband. This is the cornerstone of the nuclear family and whilst this model of the family has gradually broken down in many western societies it is still a powerful feature in the lives of women in developing countries and even in the west it hasn’t totally disappeared. For example even today women are often quietly discriminated against due to the expectation by employers that they will become mothers and will thus leave their profession to start a family or at the very least be rendered less productive by the burden of pregnancy. Thus women are often passed over for promotion in favour of men and also face wage discrimination even in the advanced west with women still frequently earning less than men for the same work.
Another area which capitalism oppresses women uniquely is their role in providing unpaid household labour. Even in the developed world it is still remarkably common for women to do the majority of household tasks and chores, almost by default, leaving men free to work more and women tied to the home. Capitalism has often encouraged men to support this status quo. For instance one of the chief propaganda tools of the anti-women’s suffrage campaign in the early 20th and late 19th centuries was an appeal to working men about who would look after the house if women were allowed to take a role in the public sphere (as opposed to the private sphere of the home) with suffragettes demonized as poor wives and bad mothers for taking time out of household work to engage with politics.
Ultimately socialist feminism has argued that the only way for women to be truly free and equal is for a social revolution against the capitalist system of economics that underpins the patriarchal society that oppresses them. How far this is true is not within the scope of this article, people can and have written books on the merits of the socialist feminist argument and its emphasis on economic oppression of women. Suffice to say that socialist movements and organizations have been among the most outspoken and staunch defenders of women’s rights and there is an undeniable link between the socialist campaign for social justice and the feminist campaign for gender equality.
Although Humanism is a politically neutral ideology it grew out of the same Enlightenment values of Human reason and dignity as Socialism and the two thus share a common commitment to Human rights and welfare. Thus as Humanists, whether we identify as socialist or not, we should share a commitment to supporting the rights of women as fellow Human beings. So as we celebrate International Women’s Day and continue into Women’s History Month let us think back to those early feminist activists and rally our thoughts in solidarity, all workers, all peoples, of any sex, united in a commitment to build a better and more equal world for all.
Michael J Bramham is a 26 year old keen amateur writer from Leeds, UK, with a passion for international history and politics. He is active within his local Humanist community.