Photo: International Working Women’s Day march in Petrograd, Russia, 1917
By Audrey Hellenbrecht
On February 27, 1917 (March 8 modern calendar), thousands of women factory workers took to the streets of Petrograd, Russia on International Working Women’s Day (IWWD) to strike against harsh working conditions, bread rationing by the Tsarist government, and World War I, which sent so many workers and peasants into the trenches to die for the imperialist redivision of the world. The fury the women workers displayed on this day sparked the February Bourgeois Democratic Revolution in Russia, which would initiate the series of events which would lead to the Great October Socialist Revolution later that year.
Due to World War I, large portions of Russia’s men were kept on the front lines, leaving a massive labor shortage in the factories. From 1914-1917, women took their place in production but only received half the wages of men. The women mostly occupied positions at textile mills and within chemical industries, where conditions were extremely poor. On top of the intense exploitation of their labor, women factory workers also faced physical and sexual abuse from bosses.
The Bolsheviks, along with other social-democratic groups, had planned to hold illegal factory meetings in the Vyborg district of Petrograd to create propaganda for IWWD. During these meetings, agitation around war, food rationing, and the plight of the woman worker was conducted and aroused the rage of proletarian women so much that they voted to strike and immediately took to the streets by the thousands.
The women marched to nearby factories and demanded that other workers join in their strike. They would bang on factory gates, throws stones and snowballs, and enter the factories to recruit other workers into the strike. By noon of that day, 27 factories were shut down and 27,000 workers had joined the strike.
The Bolsheviks saw the fury of the working men and women, and correctly seized upon the opportunity to provide leadership in the struggle. They would popularize the slogans “Down with the autocracy! Down with the war! Give us bread!”
The strikes initiated on International Women’s day, with the leadership of the Bolsheviks, spread across all of Petrograd and turned into the eight-day February Revolution, which forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate the throne and set the stage for the formation of the Russian Provisional Government.
From National Women’s Day to International Working Women’s Day
International Working Women’s day has a history stemming as far back as 1908, when 15,000 women garment workers went on strike in New York City for higher wages and the right to vote. Inspired by this strike, the Woman’s National Committee in the US called for one day of the year to be designated for a nationwide protest for women’s suffrage. This call resulted in the first National Women’s Day which was held February 28, 1909.
In 1910, the Second International Conference for Socialist Women was held in Copenhagen, Denmark from August 26-27. It was at this conference that German Marxist and revolutionary Clara Zetkin would claim it was the duty of all socialist women of all countries to agitate for the political emancipation of women. Zetkin called for an IWWD for this purpose:
“On occasion of the annual May demonstration—without regard to its form— the request of full political equality of the sexes must be proclaimed and substantiated. In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade organizations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day”
Zetkin recognized that the struggle for women’s suffrage was not enough to liberate women, but it would unite women with proletarian men and put them on the same political footing, strengthening the working-class as a whole. This call was made at a time when capitalism demanded that women participate in national industry, but they were still refused equal political rights. Zetkin maintained that the struggle for women’s suffrage must be tied to the socialist conception of the women’s question and used to incorporate women into the revolutionary struggle.
It was decided that the first IWWD would be held on March 19, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. The masses of working-class women would take to the streets in the thousands, directly confronting police who would attempt to suppress the demonstrations. It was a huge show of determination as husbands would stay home with children while the women attended meetings to discuss their political emancipation.
From 1913-1917, The Tsarist government in Russia would violently repress any attempts to organize formal demonstrations for IWWD and would throw those who attempted to do so into prison. In the face of violent oppression, the call for women’s suffrage necessarily meant the revolutionary overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy.
In 1913, Russian working women attempted to organize the first IWWD, however due to the severe repression by the Tsarist government and police, public demonstrations were prevented from taking place. Proletarian newspapers like the Bolshevik Pravda featured articles for IWWD that spoke on women’s issues, carried the portraits of women in the socialist movement, and even contained a greeting from Clara Zetkin. These newspapers were able to connect the international solidarity of working-class women to those in Russia who were unable to hold public demonstrations.
It wasn’t until the 1917 IWWD that the fury of women finally overcame the Tsar’s repression and sparked the February Democratic Revolution in Russia.
From 1917 forward, after the Great October Socialist Revolution, IWWD celebrations and marches rallied behind the cause of the Soviet Union, which saw the largest strides in women’s liberation of the entire world under the Communist leadership of Vladimir Lenin and later Joseph Stalin. Lenin and Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai made it an official holiday in the Soviet Union. It had pushed past its roots in the fight for women’s suffrage and became fully intertwined with the struggle for socialism.
To this day, IWWD is upheld by revolutionaries across the world by honoring the revolutionary women that fought in the past, upholding women’s role in the revolutionary struggle, and uniting the fury of proletarian women in the struggle to end all exploitation and oppression.
Many bourgeois feminist organizations have attempted to mask the socialist history of IWWD. They pay lip service to events such as the strike in 1909 that inspired National Women’s Day or Zetkin’s call for an international day to struggle for women’s suffrage, but ignore her claims that it must be tied to the socialist struggle. In 1975, the United Nations adopted “International Women’s Day” to fit their imperialist agenda of incorporating a false notion of women’s liberation into the capitalist system, divorcing it from the struggle for socialism.
Bourgeois feminists refuse to recognize the proletarian origins of IWWD and only refer to it as International Women’s Day. They’ve attempted to divert the women’s struggle away from socialism and liberation and toward bourgeois woman’s issues such as equal representation within the top levels of corporations, imperialist governments, or repressive forces like the military and police. Over the past 20 years, major corporations have also inserted themselves into March 8 to further strip the day of any calls for a radical transformation of society in favor empty affirmations of womanhood.
It is an absolute necessity that IWWD be upheld by all women revolutionaries and be clearly demarcated from the bourgeois attempts to co-opt and suppress the socialist character of IWWD. Women must continue to harness their fury and use revolutionary violence to free themselves and the entirety of the working-class from their oppression under imperialism.
The history of IWWD is a shining example of women’s potential to fight back against their oppressors using revolutionary violence and to make the capitalists tremble in their wake. All working women should uphold this history of militancy and revolutionary struggle to organize their sisters into the proletarian world revolution.