A Century of International Women’s Days: Still Room For Improvement

David Moberg

One hundred years ago, socialist women launched International Women’s Day, which is being celebrated, observed (even on Google’s search page), ignored, and trivialized today around the world.

Actually the first observance, according to The Encyclopedia of the American Left, took place in the United States two years earlier, and even the first celebration under the official sponsorship of the Second International did not occur, as it always does now, on March 8. Instead it took place on March 18, the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune.

Clara Zetkin, a leading woman in the German Socialist Party, came up with the idea as a result of her work at the founding in 1889 of the Second International to establish May Day. The socialists picked May 1 as the international workers’ holiday in commemoration of the Haymarket struggle in Chicago. Zetkin insisted that the first May Day include demands for regulation of female and child labor and a maximum ten-hour day. (It was a retreat from the Haymarket goal of eight hours, but still it would have been an improvement for many workers then — and even today.)

But Zetkin, frustrated at women’s rights getting shortchanged as part of the workers’ movement, organized a day that put women’s issues first, while linking them to the broader working class organizations of unions and political parties. During World War I, when many socialist parties supported their own governments at war, Zetkin and other socialist women from France, Germany and other countries met on International Women’s Day in 1915 to draft a manifesto calling on women to end the war.

After Lenin’s Bolshevik government adopted the day, it got diminishing attention in the United States until a group of Chicago women from the revived women’s movement re-discovered and celebrated International Women’s Day in 1967.

Now Clara Zetkin, once a hero in the German Democratic Republic, is mainly ignored even in her hometown, and the more-or-less official International Women’s Day website is sponsored by multinational financial institutions and corporations and includes such figures as Condoleeza Rice and Laura Bush. Zetkin, I imagine, would be horrified.

But there is progress, if not enough, around the world, not the least of it the role that young women asserted for themselves on the streets of Cairo and Tunis. The Global Fund for Women catalogs ten victories, most of which I would bet even the average In These Times reader might have missed, such as the achievement of a 34-percent reduction in the number of women dying annually during pregnancy or childbirth over three decades.

By contrast, in the United States, Planned Parenthood is using International Women’s Day to ask people to urge Senators to vote no” on a bill — which passed the Republican-controlled House — to prohibit any federal funding for Planned Parenthood clinics, which provide essential help to many women with birth control, cancer screenings, HIV tests, and other medical needs.

International Women’s Day hasn’t lost its ties to the labor movement, despite the efforts on many fronts to make it as safe and anodyne as Mother’s Day has become.

Today the International Trade Union Confederation, the main global assembly of national union federations, which is led by an Australian woman, Sharan Burrow, announced it was forming a new Arab trade union women’’ network — On the move to equality.” The social transformation underway in much of the region offers new opportunity. The need was always present, as the ITUC announcement made clear:

For the ITUC, the struggle for democracy goes hand in hand with the recognition of fundamental workers’ rights, severely flouted in the Arab region, particularly for women. 

The ITUC has long denounced the absence of real democracy and the violations of fundamental freedoms and trade union rights in the region, as well as the constantly deteriorating socio-economic conditions faced by the majority of workers. 

The Arab region has the highest levels of gender inequality. It has the world’s lowest rate of female participation in the labour market, at barely 25%. The multiple forms of discrimination against women in the region mean that most are confined to precarious, low paid, unprotected jobs, either in the informal economy, the rapidly developing export processing zones, the services and care sectors, or agriculture. 

Domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East, and above all the Gulf States, are subjected to unacceptable living and working conditions. The majority of them suffer the additional discrimination that comes from being migrant workers, deprived of their most fundamental rights.

After long deliberations, the International Labor Organization will make its final decision on a new convention on domestic work and workers in June. The convention would set standards on working time, pay (not just in-kind pay), health and safety, access to social security programs, and stricter labor regulations. Domestic workers are among the most abused workers, even in the U.S. And immigrant domestic workers in some Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, have suffered some of the worst mistreatment.

The European Trade Union Confederation chose to emphasize the special hardships imposed on women by the economic crisis, as revealed in results of a new survey:

The survey reveals that women workers are paying a high price for the crisis. In several member states, sectors with a robust feminine workforce (i.e. public administration, education, healthcare and textiles) are undergoing changes that worsen both the quality and the quantity of available work. As a policy option to reduce public deficits, many governments have introduced austerity measures that have impacted disproportionately on women who make up a large part of the public sector workforce.

Other negative effects that the ETUC survey shows relate to the increase of precarious work, with a rise of atypical working contracts being offered especially to young female workers. The economic crisis is hitting women financially (where wage freeze took place), physically and psychologically (with a stronger perception of insecurity and concern of losing jobs accompanied by increased stress and workload because of redundancies).

I wonder what Clara Zetkin would think, 100 years after establishing a day for women about how much — or little — progress women have made. It’s a safe bet she would not be satisfied.

David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.

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