The original March 8 was neither “Women’s Day” nor was it celebrated in March. What does today’s celebration really commemorate and when did it cease to be what its creators intended it to be?
First phase: “International Proletarian Women’s Solidarity Day”
The official history of March 8 tells us that it was originally born on February 28, 1909 as a day of protest of the Socialist Party of the United States. Although it is true that the SPUS convened on that date, it should be noted that it was a strictly national convocation… and without any impact. Socialism in the US was the weakest in the developed world and its own internal battles, which expressed that weakness, prevented the new day of mobilization from being followed up in the US beyond 1913.
In fact, the birth of March 8 as a day of international struggle occurred in 1910, when Clara Zetkin proposed to the second women’s conference of the International a day of annual mobilization: the “International Proletarian Women’s Solidarity Day”. The first date chosen, at Clara Zetkin’s suggestion, was March 19, the anniversary of the Paris Commune, a symbolic gesture that revealed the extent to which the date was a confrontation with the feminism of the time. The Commune had highlighted in Europe the terror of the bourgeois classes in the face of the workers’ revolution, and one of the details most highlighted by the bourgeois press of the time was the “unnatural” role played in it by women workers. In vindicating the Commune and the women communards, the International stressed both the unity of the workers and their objectives, whether men or women, and the gulf between them and the democratic radicalism represented by the feminists.
The official history of the United Nations reaches the oxymoron in order to cast a shadow over its objectives: it tells us that it was to “strengthen women’s struggle to obtain universal women’s suffrage”. It was about the socialists’ refusal to accept women’s suffrage as an objective in itself. What the International was stating was that universal suffrage is… universal and therefore would provide a political lever to the whole of the working class. In summary, that there was neither a “universal male suffrage” nor a “universal female suffrage”. And that the “women’s union” above class divisions, which feminists advocated in order to promote censitary suffrage, i. e., suffrage for women of the bourgeois classes, was even less acceptable.
To women, far and wide the trumpet call goes forth. Come and fight with us in our battle for freedom… come and join us, whatever your age, whatever your class, whatever your political inclination… if you have any class feeling you must leave that behind when you come into this movement. For the women who are in our ranks know no barriers of class distinction.
“Votes for Women”, number 1, October 1907
This is why the “International Proletarian Women’s Solidarity Day” really was part of the battle between the left wing of the International and feminism:
It is a matter of affirming the socialist and working class character of the movement for a truly universal suffrage, that is, including the achievement of the vote for women. In other words, the creation of 8 March was part of the struggle of the women of the Left of the Second International for the democratic rights of all workers and against the feminist idea of the “women’s union”, “against which I have fought all my life” as Rosa Luxemburg wrote.
“Rosa Luxemburgo contra el feminismo”, 12/2/2018
However, it was difficult to keep the symbolic date of March 19. In 1911 it had fallen on a Sunday, which allowed for the organization of demonstrations without calling a strike. But obviously it wasn’t going to be like this every year. The following year it was celebrated on 3 March and the following year on 2 March. That year the women’s sector of the Russian party joined for the first time, calling for the last Sunday in February, i.e. 23 February according to the Russian calendar then in force, a date that was equivalent to 8 March in the rest of Europe.
When the war broke out in August of that year, the leadership of all the major parties of the International betrayed the class and supported recruitment and even war credits. The internationalists were left in a tiny minority, persecuted and imprisoned by governments and separated from the structures of the International by the party leaderships. Only one German party structure, the women’s section, organised by Zetkin, remained under internationalist leadership, organising the first rallies in Germany and the first meeting under internationalist positions in the middle of the war.
Meanwhile, in Russia, the International’s calendar of activities was buried under state pressure and war mobilization. Since 1915, the class struggle had been recovering. By early 1917 it was already an emerging tide. The women of the Social Democratic Party -Mensheviks and Bolsheviks- decided to “pick up” where they left off with a call for a strike and demonstration on February 23 on their calendar. The demonstration became the final detonator of the fall of Tsarism. The “February” revolution had begun… on March 8.
From then on, the peculiar permanent revolution character of the Russian Revolution as a whole led to the emphasis in the calendar of celebrations being obviously on the takeover by the Soviets, i.e. in October according to the old calendar, in November according to the new one. March 8 was increasingly devoted to highlighting the role of working women in the revolution, leaving the celebration of the February revolution, its bourgeois-democratic phase, in the background.
Second Phase: The Counter-Revolution and “Working Women’s Day”
The Stalinist counter-revolution was of a magnitude proportional to the historical importance of the first world revolutionary wave. By its nature of “internal counterrevolution,” it kept the husk of celebrations, calendars and banners, first mummifying them and then systematically reversing all the meanings in the midst of a vicious and massive repression of the revolutionary generation that became global. In daily life this meant a radical change of values: from the exaltation of inequality to the return of religious symbols, passing, as could not be otherwise, through the reaffirmation of old gender roles in the exaltation of the state.
The “Working Women’s Day”, routinely celebrated already every March 8, thus became a moral battering ram for the state bourgeoisie at home without renouncing, from the 1950s onwards, to be part of the bloc’s propaganda abroad. International meetings of women bureaucrats, tours by women astronauts and choreographed celebrations of a military-folkloric nature served to peddle the “solution of the women’s question” in Russia.
Third phase: “International Women’s Day”
At the end of the 1960s, during the propaganda war between the two blocs, the Russian bloc was already as far behind as it had become in the arms race. The US turned “human rights” – which it has violated as often as its allies – into its main ideological bloc battering ram. The feminist “second wave” had emerged in its universities, a movement which, as the Encyclopaedia Britannica enthusiastically describes, was based on…
…the frustrations of college-educated mothers [well-to-do petty bourgeoisie] whose discontent impelled their daughters in a new direction. If first-wave feminists [suffragettes] were inspired by the abolition movement, their great-granddaughters were swept into feminism by the civil rights [human rights] movement, the attendant discussion of principles such as equality and justice, and the revolutionary ferment caused by protests against the Vietnam War.
The United States thus discovered in feminism a “revolutionary” discourse born from the petty bourgeoisie, rooted in its university youth and perfectly suited to the framework of “human rights”. A renovated aesthetic movement, sixtyeightist, that made obvious the staleness of Stalinism under a perfectly banal framework. And to clarify this, with an “offer cannot be refused”, it pushed the UN to celebrate the first “International Women’s Year” in 1975, making March 8 of that year the first “international women’s day“. The Americans had no problem competing on the same ground as the Russians. Did anyone remember what actually happened on March 8? The Russians had been the first to wipe out memory and rewrite history. The success in both blocs was such that from 1977 onwards it was decided to hold an annual celebration.
Like so many other things inherited from the revolutionary movement of the Second and Third Internationals, if the 8th March still exists today it is because the states made it theirs and it was because they made sure that all traces of class struggle remained, at most, as harmless decoration. It is no coincidence that the “revival” of the March 8 demonstrations coincides with the exaltation of feminism towards state ideology in an increasing number of countries. They are not “reviving” the March 8th, they are burying its original meaning even more deeply.