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From The Socialist newspaper, 3 March 2021

A history of International Women's Day

Struggle, solidarity, socialism

Women on the march during the 1984-85 miners' strike

Women on the march during the 1984-85 miners' strike   (Click to enlarge)

Tanis Belsham-Wray, Leeds Socialist Party

8 March this year marks the 110th anniversary of International Women's Day (IWD). Over the years there's been a sustained attempt to remove the socialist origin of the day and for it to become a day of individual celebrations.

Although it is not a bad thing to raise awareness of individual achievements of women throughout history, it's important that this day continues to play the role of bringing together socialists and trade unionists to fight against both women's oppression and against capitalism.

International Women's Day was proposed by Marxists: Clara Zetkin and others at the Second International Women's conference in Copenhagen in August 1910. The first IWD was subsequently held on 8 March 1911 with demonstrations in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Women's suffrage was a key issue of the day but not the only one.

Internationally, in a whole number of countries, there had been a rise in the movement for the vote and also an increased militancy amongst women workers. In Britain, the late 1880s saw the birth of 'new unionism' and the growth of 'general', more militant unions organising amongst 'unskilled' workers.

More women were in the workplace, especially in textiles, clothing, tobacco, clerical work and some sections of manufacturing. Although they still only made up roughly 10% of the total trade union membership, they played a vital role in the organisation of unskilled labour.

In the Bryant and May match girls strike in 1888, 1,400 women workers went out on strike for safe working conditions, a shorter working day and better pay. In 1906, there was a strike of non-unionised Jute workers in Dundee. In 1910, Cradley Heath women chainmaker's took strike action over low pay and poor working conditions. This is to name only a few of the disputes at the time.

Women workers did not just campaign on workplace issues, but also played a key role in the suffrage movement. In Lancashire, tens of thousands of textile workers supported the campaign to win the vote. They saw the vote not just as something for middle-class women who would more than likely vote Tory or Liberal, but as a weapon to change their living conditions. They wanted to fight for equal pay, birth control, improved working conditions and educational opportunities.

Trade unions

Through these struggles women were brought into trade unions and the political movement. They were seen as part of the same movement, not two separate struggles.

This was also the case on an international level. On 8 March 1908, 15,000 garment workers marched in New York demanding the right to vote and also a shorter working week and improved working conditions.

This protest was followed by the 1909-10 'Uprising of the 20,000'. This was a strike of workers in shirtwaist factories in New York - the largest strike of female workers in the US at that time. The 1908 protest inspired the Socialist Party of America to call a national women's day, which may have been the inspiration for Clara Zetkin and other socialists to call for an International Women's Day to unite these movements on a global level.

International Women's Day has historically been a day of struggle. The most well-known was in 1917 when textile workers in St Petersburg in Russia walked out on unofficial strike action calling for 'bread and herrings' on the back of food shortages and poor living conditions.

These women also called for the metalworkers to go out on strike, not just over bread but also against Russia's involvement in World War One. This led to the 'February Revolution' (IWD was 23 February according to the calendar used in Russia at the time).

In more recent times we've seen the day become a focal point for struggle again. Since 2017, there have been large protests and some strikes in opposition to violence against women and to defend and improve abortion rights.

In the US, on the back on the women's marches in January 2017, IWD saw large protests against the Trump administration. In 2018, 5.3 million workers went on strike in Spain over gender inequality and sexual discrimination. This is to name but a few of the global movements.

110 years after the first IWD, women are still struggling under capitalism as the Socialist Party's programme for women's rights and socialism on the previous pages shows.

The time to fight back is now. Women now make up majority of trade union membership in Britain. Ending the oppression of women will require a united struggle of the working class against austerity and capitalism.

As we've seen in recent strikes - such as those of the Glasgow care workers over equal pay, the Birmingham care workers and the workers who took strike action against 'fire and rehire' at Labour-run Tower Hamlet's Council, and many others - women are already drawing these conclusions.

We need those women and others who will be drawn into struggle in the coming months and years to join the Socialist Party and fight for a socialist alternative in Britain and internationally.

International Women's Day

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The coronavirus crisis has laid bare the class character of society in numerous ways. It is making clear to many that it is the working class that keeps society running, not the CEOs of major corporations.

The results of austerity have been graphically demonstrated as public services strain to cope with the crisis.

The government has now ripped up its 'austerity' mantra and turned to policies that not long ago were denounced as socialist. But after the corona crisis, it will try to make the working class pay for it, by trying to claw back what has been given.

  • The Socialist Party's material is more vital than ever, so we can continue to report from workers who are fighting for better health and safety measures, against layoffs, for adequate staffing levels, etc.
  • When the health crisis subsides, we must be ready for the stormy events ahead and the need to arm workers' movements with a socialist programme - one which puts the health and needs of humanity before the profits of a few.
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In The Socialist 3 March 2021:


Budget

Not a budget for the working class!

Public sector workers respond to the budget


News

President of 'big four' Labour-affiliated trade union joins TUSC committee

Women's health matters


International Women's Day

A fighting programme for women's rights and socialism

A history of International Women's Day


What we think

Liverpool Labour meltdown - Fight for socialist policies


School safety

Schools' safety - teachers demand fighting union strategy


Features

'Casino capitalism' - driving another potential financial Armageddon

1981: New Cross Massacre


Workplace

Bus workers under attack and fighting back

Manchester indefinite bus strike against 'fire and rehire'

HMRC: Pay deal agreed but at what cost?

British Gas strike

Sparks force bosses back but fight continues to stamp out deskilling

Reinstate victimised bus driver Declan Clune

RAF Leeming strike escalates

Tech workers walk out against 'fire and rehire'

Victory for Judith, defend Moe


Campaigns

Why we need socialists in London city hall

Socialist Students conference

Swansea BLM protest against racist police brutality

Union fight to save musicians' livelihoods

Labour surrenders to Tories in Devon

Determined to smash the fighting fund target to fuel election challenge in May


 

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