It’s time to get back to the radical roots of International Women’s Day
02 March 2020
On 8 March we celebrate International Women's Day. What started off as a radical socialist movement is now an international day of celebration. And since 2001 International Women's Day has even had a sponsored website and an annual theme. This year's theme is #EqualforEach. To participate, you’re invited to celebrate the achievements of women and make an 'equals' sign with your arms to help promote a 'gender equal world'. 'Equality is not a women's issue, it's a business issue. A gender equal world can be healthier, wealthier and more harmonious', so the website says.
Yet, 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, is this really enough? International Women's Day 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 International Women's Day 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. International Women's Day was born.
But ideas never come out of nowhere and it’s important to recognise the many women’s struggles that influenced International Women's Day. 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 International Women's Day.
From being a day devoted to campaigning for the rights of the poorest women, to ‘celebrating women’s achievements’ or ‘upholding a parity mindset’, International Women's Day 2020 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.
Photo: Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg in January 1910. Credit: Wikipedia