Nowadays, many celebrations born out of political struggle have been made sterile by the existing cultural hegemony. The capitalist class is able to appropriate radical ideas, concepts and history, and co-opt them by changing their meaning. International Women’s Day is no exception.
What’s the history of International Women’s Day?
Stuttgart, 18-24 August 1907. 884 delegates from 25 countries, among whom Rosa Luxembourg, Clara Zetkin, August Bebel and Vladimir Lenin, met for the Seventh Congress of the Second International, discussing the political positions of Social-Democracy in regards to colonialism and the “women’s question”, the latter being a somewhat antiquated term to indicate the initial elements of communist feminism.
During the discussion on women’s suffrage, the VII Congress approved a resolution according to which the parties of Social-Democracy would fight for women’s suffrage refusing to unite with bourgeois feminists. The following International Socialist Women’s Conference, with 58 delegates from 13 countries, approved the creation of a Women’s Office. Clara Zetkin was elected secretary and editor of “Die Gleichheit” (Equality), the international organ of socialist women.
Fast forward to 1909. A general strike by about 15,000 women garment workers spanning from 22 November 1908 to 15 February 1909 pushed the International Socialist Women’s Conference to declare a common day dedicated to the struggle for women’s rights between 26 and 27 August. In the United States, the date was the last Sunday of February, in Northern European countries it was first celebrated on the 19th of March 1911 as per the International Communist Women’s Secretariat’s decisions. In France, it was on the 18th of March, the anniversary of the Paris Commune’s demise.
At this stage, it wasn’t an event celebrated every year nor in every country; it took the Bolshevik Party until 3 March 1913 to institute it with a demonstration at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange interrupted by the Tsarist police. After the 1911 celebration, the German communists repeated Women’s Day celebrations on the 8th of March 1914, while the French repeated it on the 9th of the same month.
The celebration of Women’s Day was generalized in the communist movement at the Second International Conference of Communist Women on the 14th of June, inspired by the demonstration launched by women in Petrograd on the 8th of March 1917, which started the February Revolution. Thus, the Third International declared the 8th of March to be International Working Women’s Day.
The political character of International Working Women’s Day was too controversial for the establishment, which contributed to the ideological recuperation by bourgeois elements. The bourgeoisie attributed Women’s Day to the death of hundreds of workers in a factory named Cottons in New York, a factory that never existed and a tragedy probably confused with the Triangle factory’s fire, in which 146 workers, mostly immigrant European women, died. Other myths, such as various strikes or work accidents in Boston or New York, were circulated. These reconstructions are a whitewashing of history which attempt to deny the role of communists in the struggle for women’s rights.
While the UN and other representatives of monopoly capital can claim to celebrate a non-communist women’s day, there are women who live in the same conditions of the women who helped give birth to Women’s Day, but they go unnoticed. According to the International Labor Organization, every day “6,300 people die as a result of occupational accidents or work-related diseases – more than 2.3 million deaths per year. 317 million accidents occur on the job annually; many of these resulting in extended absences from work. The human cost of this daily adversity is vast and the economic burden of poor occupational safety and health practices is estimated at 4 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product each year”. With women still in sweatshops, in conditions of bonded labor, victims of trafficking, in conditions of unemployment or underemployment, who die from preventable diseases while working in horrendous work conditions and living conditions.
This short history lesson goes against the United Nations’ rhetoric about the alleged celebration of “acts of courage and determination by ordinary women”, a seemingly peaceful celebration which conceals the revolutionary birth of this day, a day of strikes and revolution. It is under this regime of whitewashed history that companies like Walmart, engaged in human trafficking and denying workers basic rights, can claim to promote equality. It is under the regime of hypocrisy of the so-called “international community” that the forceful dispersion of a Women’s Day demonstration in Israel can go completely unnoticed.
The ruling heights of the capitalist system are quite content with the celebration of the few rights women have been able to win through reformist struggle, but will never touch on the deeper issues affecting them. They will act as if it is possible to consider women a homogeneous group without a detour into class; in fact, this isn’t possible. It’s not possible to compare a woman in the capitalist class and a woman in the working class. It’s not possible to talk about women’s liberation without analyzing class.
Thus, Maoists speak of proletarian feminism, precisely because there are capitalist women and working women. The majority of the women of the world have nothing to lose but their chains – the chains of capital and the chains of patriarchy. Whilst petty bourgeois feminism struggles for the accomodation of women in the capitalist-imperialist system, proletarian feminism struggles for the end of the system and the establishment of a classless society.
Under capitalism-imperialism, women form the majority of part-time workers, the majority of single parents, and the majority of workers earning minimum wage. In imperialist wars of aggression, they are 80% of refugees and displaced people, and 80% of the victims of hand-held weapons. Women make up 83% of domestic workers, facing deplorable working conditions. Even in our daily lives, women have to endure physical as well as psychological violence. These are problems inherent in the capitalist system, and the struggle for women’s liberation is inseparable from the struggle against capitalism.
Proletarian feminism is the understanding that without the support, participation, and leadership of women, the success of communist revolution against capitalism is impossible. Only by fusing the struggle of the proletariat with the struggle of women and other oppressed groups can imperialism be defeated and the struggle for communism carried forward.
Accordingly, Anti-Imperialism.com will dedicate more time to the analysis of issues of gender and class in their interconnectedness in order to help in the development of a revolutionary proletarian feminism.