Today, International Women’s Day, is a day to celebrate the gains that we have made towards the liberation of women. You will all know of those gains, but you will also know that we still have a way to go.
International Women’s Day [IWD] has become rather mainstream, but did you know that its roots are in the socialist tradition and it usually has had a radical edge?
Janey Stone has written a history of the day in this article, but let me give you a potted history.
Clara Zetkin was a leading socialist in the German Social Democratic Party in the 1900s. She argued that the working class would never win its battles without women and raised the issue of special party work among women. At the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in August 1910 Zetkin proposed the establishment of an international working women’s day. The inspiration had come from US socialists who had held women’s demonstrations and meetings the year before. The slogan for IWD was to be: “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
IWD was enthusiastically taken up and over the next decade there were large rallies of women and men in various countries. A demonstration of women in Petrograd in 1917 demanding “Bread and Peace” was the spark for the Russian Revolution.
Janey writes this about the first IWD in Australia
The MWG [Militant Women’s Group] organised a rally in the Sydney Domain on 25 March 1928. The demands were an eight-hour day for female shop workers, no piece work, the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay. The Sydney MWG again organised a public meeting for IWD in Belmore Park in 1929 – this time with a focus on support for the wives and families of striking timber workers.
The first Melbourne event occurred in 1931. With the lead banner proclaiming “Long live International Women’s Day”, 50 women led 150 men on a march to the Yarra Bank.
In the late 1960s the Equal Pay Campaign was also an important focus of IWD. I remember IWD marches in the 1970’s where there were demands for equal pay, reproductive rights, child care, equal opportunities at work and in education. For many of us it shaped who we were and how we saw the world.
It is important for me to remember the radical history of IWD. It reminds me that the gains we have made are linked to struggle. We were not given these; women, and yes, men too, have fought to achieve what we have. It also reminds me that while the likes of Julie Bishop (our Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister), and Gina Reinhart (one of the richest people in Australia) are women, they are not on my side.
So, I have taken some time today to think about what my life could have been like if all those working class heroes had not fought for those things like equal pay and the eight hour day.
And I have been listening to Peggy Seeger, a woman to be proud of! I love the last part of “Gonna be an engineer” where she says to the boss “I am fighting as a woman, not a lady, I am fighting as an engineer.”