The contribution of socialist women to the instigation of International Women’s Day seems to have been virtually written out of the history of the Day. So here’s my small effort to put them back into the picture, and also recall a number of radical and revolutionary women over the past century.
On 5th March 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, including many immigrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. In May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be a National Women’s Day.
The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on 28 February 1909. In her article on the origins of International Women’s Day Alicia Williamson writes: “Turning out a few thousand celebrants, meetings around the city featured addresses by prominent suffragists such as the Women Trade Union League’s Leonora O’Reilly and the Political Equality League’s Priscilla Hackstaff in addition to socialists like Anita Block, Meta Stern, Meyer London, and Algernon Lee. Besides chanting the slogan that O’Reilly had recently coined at a protest in Albany (‘We do not want the ballot, we need it’), speakers lambasted elite conservative opponents. London in particular derided the privileged, male politician who would sermonize about the ‘sanctity of the home’ while sending ‘our children to the shop,’ or who would ‘meet a lady in a car, tip his hat, and offer a seat, but refuse to make a law that [would] provide a seat for a woman who works for ten hours a day in a factory.'”
In November 1909 Clara Lemlich led thousands of women workers in New York, mostly Jewish, out on strike after she declared at a meeting: “ I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am a working girl, one of those striking against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities. What we are here for is to decide whether or not to strike. I make a motion that we go out in a general strike”. After a three months strike they won better working conditions and improved pay.
On 26 and 27 August 1910, the second International Women’s Socialist Conference took place in Copenhagen. (The first meeting had taken place in 1907 at the suggestion of German Socialist women). German Socialists Luise Zietz, Kate Duncker, Clara Zetkin and others successfully proposed the following motion:
“In order to forward political enfranchisement of women it is the duty of the Socialist women of all countries to agitate..indefatigably amongst the labouring masses; enlighten them by discourses and literature about the social necessity and importance of the female sex and use therefore every opportunity of doing so…if the women have no vote, or a limited one, the socialist women must unite and guide them into the struggle for their right; …On the occasion of the annual May day demonstration…the request of full political equality of the sexes must be proclaimed and substantiated. In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organisations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organise a special Women’s Day which in the first line has to promote Women’s Suffrage propaganda. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole women’s organisation according to the socialist conception of social things.”
This is part of a report on the conference written by the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai. “The conference agenda included, in addition to the organisational question of establishing closer links between organised socialist women from different countries, two major issues: 1) ways and means of achieving in practice universal suffrage for women and 2) social security and protection for mother and child. Despite these seemingly specifically female topics, the conference in Copenhagen was free of that sickly-sweet ‘feminine flavour’ which provokes such irrepressible boredom in the practical politician who is used to the ‘cut and thrust’ of real political battle… The questions discussed at the conference were examined not only from the point of view of the common tasks of proletarian class policy, but were also, and inevitably, supplemented with more general demands. The fate of Finland, a country with an extremely democratic system of popular representation, the question of war, peace and the fight against militarism, the struggle against domestic manufacture and night work, compelled those taking part in the congress to move beyond the narrow framework of feminine issues and, having become more familiar with wide-ranging, urgent issues, to join in the active struggle being waged by the many millions who compose the army of the organised working class… (International Socialist Conferences of Women Workers )
Clara Zetkin was the leading campaigner within the German Socialists on the issue of women’s rights. This is a link to a speech she made at the Party Congress of the German Social Democratic Party on 16th October 1896, “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious”. Between 1892 and 1917 she edited Die Gleichheit (Freedom), a bi-montly journal for women workers with a circulation of tens of thousands. Her writings were translated in English and read abroad. In April 1909 she visited London at the invitation of Dora Montefiore, speaking at a number of meetings, including the annual May Day rally in Hyde Park. In December 1913 the British Labour party journal Labour Woman published an article by Clara which you can read here. Clara was a close friend of Rosa Luxembourg who, after moving to Germany from Poland, became one of the most pro speakers and propagandists in the German Socialist party.
On 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Looking back, Alexandra Kollonta wrote in 1920: “Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women.This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”
In 1913 the Day was fixed on 8 March. One of the earliest marches in Britain took place in London on 8 March 1914, when there was a march from Bow in the East End to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage. The women were marching to join a meeting organised by the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The Manchester Guardian reported:
“The first part of the procession, which was headed by boys and young men , dressed in a sort of cowboy dress, had just entered the square when Miss Sylvia Pankhurst got off the bus…her arrest was effected as soon as she stepped into the street . and though she endeavoured to force her way into the procession she was hurried away in a taxicab before the main body of the processionalists realised she had been captured. When the fact became known there was a wild rush in the direction taken by the cab, but the police, after a brief tussle, restored order and the procession joined the meeting in the square. …Miss Patterson exclaimed, ‘We feel that the time has come for action. Follow the flags. See if we can find something to do’ and proceeded towards Whitehall with strong contingent of men, women and boys …The arrest of Miss Patterson was a signal for wild disorder, many of her supporters throwing themselves on her captors. Eventually mounted police dispersed the crowd. Altogether ten persons were arrested”. Manchester Guardian, 9 March 1914, p.9.
At the end of February 1917 Russian women went on strike and poured onto the streets of St Petersburg, calling for “Bread and Peace: they demanded an end of World War I, an end to food shortages, and and an end to rule by the Tsar. Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.”
In January 1919 Rosa Luxembourg was murdered and her body thrown into a canal in Berlin after a failed rising by the Spartacist League, a Communist group she had helped found. In her last editorial before her death, “Order Prevails in Berlin” in her newspaper Rote Fahne (Red Banner) she wrote:
“The masses are the crucial factor. They are the rock on which the ultimate victory of the revolution will be built. The masses were up to the challenge, and out of this ‘defeat’ they have forged a link in the chain of historic defeats, which is the pride and strength of international socialism. That is why future victories will spring from this ‘defeat.’ ‘Order prevails in Berlin!’ You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand. Tomorrow the revolution will ‘rise up again, clashing its weapons,’ and to your horror it will proclaim with trumpets blazing: I was, I am, I shall be!” You can read the whole article here.
Between the wars International Women’s Day continued to be celebrated in different countries. There was also other women’s activity connected with the labour and socialist movement. In June 1925 women in the Labour Party held a Women’s Week with meetings and rallies in many parts of the country at which the speakers included Ellen Wilkinson, Mary Carlin, Jane Hooper, Margaret Bondfield, Clare Annesley, Helen Crawfurd and many others. In Kirkmuirhall on 6 June the Women’s Section organised a Children’s Gala. Labour Woman reported that : “Over 500 children met at the ILP Hall and marched to a field, headed by the Coalbrun and District Pipe Band , which refused a paid engagement that day in order to lead the children. Tea was served by memener sof the section, and after tea Sports were held at which £8 worth of prizes were given to the children. Every child received something.” In Lincoln, despite the stormy weather the women held a successful rally. “A procession headed by bands and banners marched to Boultham Hall Park and included a decorated char-a-banc and waggons representative of various planks in albour’s programme. A novel feature was decorated lorry which represented Englan’s , and especailly Lincolm’s, need of trade with Russia.”
In Spain when the Army, led by Franco and other generals, staged a coup on 17 July 1936 which led to a three year Civil War, they were fought and defeated in many towns by local workers’ militia. Many women joined the militia and fought who were known as “milicianas. Once the initial phase of the Civil War was over, though, they were sent home. The photograph to the left shows 17 year old Marina Ginestà on the rooftop of the Hotel Colon in Barcelona on 21 July 1936. She was a member of the United Socialist Party of Catalonia and was reporting on the war, assisting Mikhail Koltsov from Pravda. Later in the war she was evacuated to France after she was wounded. She died in Paris in January 2014 , aged 94. When she was shown the photograph Marina said “It reflects the feeling we had at that moment. Socialism had arrived, the customers of the hotel had left. There was euphoria. We temporarily set ourselves up at the Colón, we ate well, as if the bourgeois life were ours and we had moved up in category very quickly.”
The second wave of feminism began in 1967 in the USA, developing out of the radical and anti-Vietnam movement. The first major Women’s Liberation Movement demonstration took place on 7 September 1968 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, outside the Miss America About 400 women were drawn together from across the United States to a protest outside the event. You can watch a short clip of this here.
The movement crossed the Atlantic and struck a chord amongst women involved in the radical left, many of them Marxists. In their history of the movement, Sweet Freedom, Anna Coote and Bea Campbell wrote that: ” Contrary to popular belief, the new feminists were not foot loose and fancy-free; most were married and freshly acquainted with motherhood…Many were members of the left-wing intelligentsia –a staunchly masculine society in which women were active and committed, yet felt themselves confined to the periphery.”
Women’s rights were already in the air after women workers at Fords in Dagenham and Halewood went on strike for three weeks for equal pay in August 1968. Janet Blackman commented in an article in Trade Union Register that:
“The strike of nearly 400 Ford women machinists at Dagenham and Halewood last summer lifted the old boring subject of the unequal treatment of women on to a different plane. Yes, boring, because of the rut into which the campaign had stuck…The Ford women machinists swung the debate about women’s rights away from the concerns – albeit very real problems – of the middle class and professional women to those of the woman worker, successfully perhaps for the first time since the match girls’ strike of 1888. By September, 1968 the TUC was passing a resolution supporting industrial action as a possible means of obtaining equal pay.”
In January 1969 the New Left journal The Black Dwarf proclaimed that 1969 would be “The Year of the Militant Women.” Sheila Rowbotham edited this issue and in her own contribution, “The Struggle for Freedom,” she wrote:
Oh so you’ve heard it all before
Ok so you’re bored
We still get less pay for the same work as you
We are still less likely to get jobs which are at all meaningful
In which we have any responsibility
We are less likely to be educated, less likely to be unionised
The present setup of the family puts great strains on us
Either we are struggling to combine badly paid work with bringing up a family or we are unable to do work for which we’ve been trained
The area of taboo on our sexuality is much more extensive
and the double standard still pervasive
Some women still never experience orgasm.
So what are we complaining about.
All this and something else besides
A much less tangible something – a smouldering , bewildered consciousness with no shape – a muttered dissatisfaction – which suddenly shoots to the surface and EXPLODES.
We want to drive buses, play football, use beer mugs not glasses. We want men to take the pill. We do not want to be brought with bottles or invited as wives. We do not want to be wrapped in cellophane or sent off to make the tea or shuffled onto the social committee
But these are only little things
Revolutions are made about little things
Little things which happen to you all the time, every day
Wherever you go, all your life.
Sheila then wrote a lengthy pamphlet called Women’s Liberation and the New Politics, published by the May Day Manifesto group in 1969, and went on to write many influential books on feminism and on women’s history. The first Women’s Liberation newsletter came out in May 1969, produced by the London Women’s Liberation Workshop. It was originally called Harpie’s Bizarre, and after issue 3, Shrew.
In February 1970 the first Women’s Liberation conference took place over a weekend at Ruskin College, Oxford, with hundreds of women attending, whilst the men ran the creche. Catherine Hall went, who was involved with a women’s group in Birmingham and had come to feminist consciousness after having her first child. She later described it as a “utopian moment . . . It’s hard to convey now the excitement of discovering what it meant to be a woman, and to have a language to talk about that, and not conceiving of it as an individual issue, but a collective and social issue. ” Michelene Wandor also went and recalled:
“For me the Ruskin weekend was an exhilarating and confusing revelation. It was, I think, the first time I had been away from children and husband, away from my secure home structure. Here I was surrounded by about six hundred women, all far more politically sophisticated than I was, all seemingly articulate and knowledgeable about the role of women in history, the position of women in today’s world: who could formulate profound questions about the relationship between class, gender and race, who could simultaneously quote and criticise Marx (whom I had not read) and who seemed hell-bent on changing the world our self-image as women.”
In November 1970 the movement gained national attention when a group disrupted the Miss World contest at the Albert Hall, hurling flour and smoke bombs during Bob Hope’s act. Sarah Wilson was chosen to start the protest. “When Bob Hope was going on and on with terrible, grotesque stuff, I got up and swung my football rattle. It seemed ages before anybody responded – people were lighting their cigarettes to ignite the smoke bombs – but then I saw stuff beginning to cascade down.” You can watch the protest here.
The next key event in spreading the movement was the first Women’s Liberation march which took place on 6 March 1971 in London. This was planned imaginatively with banners, a twelve foot Old Woman’s Shoe, a woman in cage wearing a tiara, as well as co-ordinated dancing and music. There were a good few children on the march. You can watch videos of the march here and here. Jill Tweedie reported on the march for The Guardian. She wrote:
“All demonstrations are fleshed-out polemics, happenings that have more to do with reinforcing solidarity within the ranks than luring spectators from pavement or box – conversions will come later, as fallout comes. And so it was with the Women’s Lib demo on Saturday. I went unreasoningly fearful that me and my friend Ivy would be alone stomping down Regent Street, running the sneering gauntlet of Saturday shoppers. But there they were at Hyde Park Corner, all the lovely sisters, giggling and shivering and bawdy and prim, and I turned and turned again, gloating at the numbers before and behind, my motley frost-defying sex.”
You can read the whole report here.
This is a short television report on Women’s Liberation from 1971 with a number of interviews, including one with May Hobbs, who was organising women nightcleaners into a union, with the support of some Women’s Liberation activists. May spoke at the march in 1971 mentioned above. You can watch the report here.
The Socialist-Feminist current within Women’s Liberation was very strong until the end of the 1970s with numerous groups and networks, some connected to socialist political organisations, some not. The publications they produced included Bristol Women’s Charter, IS Women’s Newsletter, Red Rag, Scarlet Women, Socialist Woman, Women In Action, Women’s Struggle Notes and Women’s Voice. There were many women involved: a national Socialist-Feminist conference in Manchester in 1978 attracting over 1,000 women, for instance. In their first issue the collective producing Red Rag wrote:
“We stand for a revolutionary change in society, for ending capitalism and establishing socialism. We challenge whatever and whoever denies the right of women to be free – from economic inequality and from the tyranny of the role forced upon them in our society. Our aim is to help build an alliance between women liberators and the working class movement.”
At the end of the 1970s the movement went in many different directions, and this seems a good place therefore to end this brief survey. My thanks to Alicia Williamson for allowing me to quote from her article.
Anna Coote and Bea Campbell, Sweet Freedom: the struggle for women’s liberation (1982)
Elzbieta Etinger, Rosa Luxembourg: a Life (1986)
Shulamith Firestone, The Women’s Rights Movement in the USA (1968)
Carol Hanisch, “The Personal is Political” and other writings
Bernadette Hyland, Northern ReSisters; conversations with radical women (2015)
Feminist Anthology Collective (editors), No Turning Back: Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement 1975-1980 (1981)
May Hobbs, Born to Struggle (1973)
Sarah Maitland, Very Heaven: Looking Back at the 1960s (1988)
Juliet Mitchell, “Women: The Longest Revolution”, New Left Review, December 1966,
Juliet Mitchell, Woman’s Estate (1971)
Robin Morgan, Sisterhood Is Powerful, an anthology of writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement (1970)
Angela Neustatter, Hyenas in Petticoats, a look at twenty years of feminism (1989)
Sheila Rowbotham, Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World (1973)
Shelia Rowbotham, Dream and Dilemmas: collected writings (1983)
Sheila Rowbotham, Promise of a Dream: Remembering the Sixties (2000)
Marsha Rowe (editor), Spare Rib Reader: 100 issues of Women’s Liberation (1982)
See Red Women’s Workshop archive site
Lynne Segal, Making Trouble: Life and Politics (2007)
Sisterhood and After : an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement. A series of interviews on the British Library website
Michelene Wandor, The Body Politic (1972)
Michelene Wandor, Once a Feminist, Stories of a Generation (1990)
Clara Zetkin, Selected Writings, edited by Philp S Foner.