International Women’s Day Belongs to Us

Capitalists keep trying to co-opt International Women’s Day, a century-old product of the working-class revolutionary movement. But the day belongs to the socialist antiwar tradition.

Petrograd workers on Women's Day in 1917. (Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

This year’s proud supporters of International Women’s Day (IWD) include such ghoulish merchants of slaughter as Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. But while those profiteers of death help fuel war in Ukraine, devastating that country’s cities, killing children, and threatening the security and well-being of millions around the world, we’d prefer to revive IWD’s history as a day for radical antiwar protest.

After several years of militant labor protest and demands for suffrage — as well as “housewives’ uprisings” against high prices — by women in Russia, the United States, Austria, Germany, and France, German socialist feminist Clara Zetkin, in 1910, proposed International Working Women’s Day to honor — and build — women’s struggles for workplace justice and political equality. For several years afterward, the day was marked by labor protests, which in New York City were greatly intensified by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a fire in a Manhattan garment factory that killed 146 workers, mostly women and girls. In Russia, these protests were also fueled by demands to end the tsarist regime. Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai later reflected that IWD served as “an excellent method of agitation among the less political of our proletarian sisters” because the framing was so inviting (“This is our day,” she imagines working women saying to themselves as they hurried to the rallies and meetings).

She also noted that IWD strengthened international solidarity. This aspect of IWD became particularly salient when, in 1914, as ruling classes around the world began mobilizing for World War I, Zetkin, along with revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, used International Working Women’s Day as a focal point for antiwar protest.

After many socialist parties disintegrated due to divisions about the war, in March 1915, socialist feminists from Russia, Poland, Switzerland, Britian, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, and France gathered for a conference in Berne, Switizerland; out of that meeting came a manifesto addressing “women of the working people.” While earlier drafts of the manifesto addressed the split over the war in the socialist movement, the final draft, authored mostly by Clara Zetkin, instead emphasized the antiwar message against war profiteering (she even gives a shoutout to the Lockheed Martins and Northrop Grummans of her time) and capitalism. She argued that socialism was the only path to peace: “Who benefits from the war? Only a small minority in every nation. . . . Workers have nothing to gain from this war and stand to lose everything that is near and dear to them. . . . Proclaim in your millions what your sons cannot yet affirm. . . . Down with the war! Forward with Socialism!”

Socialist feminists continued to organize antiwar protests on International Women’s Day throughout World War I. Most significantly, on March 8, 1917, women filled the streets of Petrograd, then the capital of Russia, demanding “bread and peace.” They protested the deaths of over two million Russian soldiers in the war and the food shortages devastating the population. The protesters also demanded the removal of the tsar. Workers walked off their jobs to join in. Kollontai, writing a few years later, described it this way: “At this decisive time the protests of the working women posed such a threat that even the Tsarist security forces did not dare take the usual measures against the rebels but looked on in confusion at the stormy seas of the people’s anger.” These protests are now viewed as the beginning of the Russian Revolution, and shortly afterward the tsarist government disbanded. “On this day,” Kollontai wrote, “the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire.”

Since then, socialist feminists have continued to keep IWD alive as part of an antiwar, anti-capitalist tradition. In 1937, Spanish women protested Francisco Franco’s fascist war forces on IWD, and similarly, Italian women used the day for demonstrations against Benito Mussolini’s insistence on sending their sons to die for his fascist cause in 1943. Because of Cold War anti-communism, International Women’s Day receded in the United States during the middle of the twentieth century. But in 1970, all over the world, including in the United States, socialist and leftist women organized protests against the Vietnam War on IWD.

In 2003, tens of thousands took to European streets — in Stuttgart, Cork, Pisa, and many other cities — on IWD to protest the beginning of the Iraq War. In the United States, Medea Benjamin and others launched Code Pink, a women-led leftist antiwar group that is still going strong (remarkable given the lack of US antiwar and anti-imperialist voices in recent decades). Code Pink organized a four-month-long vigil against the war beginning in November 2002, culminating on IWD 2003 with some ten thousand people protesting at the White House. This year, Code Pink and others held worldwide protests on March 6, a little ahead of IWD, to protest Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and demand an end to the war in Ukraine and no NATO expansion.

Perhaps fittingly given the early history of International Women’s Day, Russians are once again protesting a tyrannical warmongering regime with no regard for working people. The Guardian reports protests in 53 Russian cities, with more than 4,300 people arrested.

Protests alone probably won’t stop war in Ukraine. But International Women’s Day presents an annual opportunity to honor the socialist antiwar tradition, and invites us to find new ways of bringing it back. What Kollontai wrote in 1920 is still true over a hundred years later: “This day has remained the working woman’s day of militancy.” It belongs to us, not to Lockheed Martin.