It’s time to get back to the radical roots of International Women’s Day


08 March 2018

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1910It’s International Women’s Day. What started off as a radical socialist movement is now an international day of celebration. And since 2001 IWD has even had a sponsored website and an annual theme. This year's theme is #PressForProgress. To participate, you’re invited to fill in their online form and pledge ‘maintain a gender parity mindset’ or ‘celebrate women’s achievements’.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing inherently bad about doing those things. But at a time when women are incarcerated and kept in inhumane conditions at Yarl’s Wood, and female garment workers in poorer countries are lacking basic workers’ rights, we cannot do those things only! IWD started out as a day of campaigning – not celebrations – and we must not overlook its radical roots. Because lots of the same issues women were battling 100 years ago, we’re still facing today.

It’s (hopefully) a well known fact that the idea of an IWD originates with German socialists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin. In August 1910, women from 17 countries met in Copenhagen, at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women. Luise Zietz suggested holding an IWD the following year and Clara Zetkin seconded the request. IWD was born.

But ideas never come out of nowhere and it’s important to recognise the many women’s struggles that influenced IWD. Take for example the ‘Uprising of 20,000’ in 1909. Led by Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant, thousands of women shirtwaist workers in New York’s garment industry took to the streets to secure better wages, working conditions and hours – and won.

Or abolitionist and women's rights activist, Sojourner Truth, who pushed the (white and middle-class) boundaries of first wave feminism; Lucy Parsons who co-founded the labour union Industrial Workers of the World; Sylvia Pankhurst who was a driving force of the suffragette and anti-fascist movement; Alicia Moreau de Justo who founded the Feminist Socialist Center of Argentina and the Feminine Work Union of Argentina. And the list goes on. All of these women’s courage and organising were all part of the struggle that informed IWD.

From being a day devoted to campaigning for the rights of the poorest women, to ‘celebrating women’s achievements’ or ‘upholding a parity mindset’, IWD 2018 is proof that our movement has lost sight of a lot of women and a lot of important struggles across the world. Sweatshops, slavery, horrendous working conditions and unsanitary living conditions are still reality to many people here in the UK as well as across the rest of the world.

So isn’t it time we started following in the footsteps of these women we claim to celebrate? We’ve still got lots to do.

Here are a few ideas of how to take action today:

 You could also talk to your co-workers about how you can improve your working conditions, or your neighbours about how you can organise in your local area, and make sure, if you are going on strike, that you use social media to spread the word using #whywestrike.

Photo: Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1910. Credit: Wikipedia

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