April 17, 2021

political emancipation and working conditions


In 1975, the United Nations commemorated International Women’s Day for the first time, proclaimed two years later by its Assembly. Was it an exclusive initiative of the organization? Why was March 8 chosen? If there are cross stories –and several misunderstandings–, it is because the march of women for greater freedoms has a long journey, full of milestones and references; of mobilizations and persecutions; of defeats and conquests; of various claims that changed – and do change – according to the time and latitudes. Some battles are known, others come to light as studies and movements that demand rights, but also the recognition of their place in history advance.

The original proposal to have a day of your own came from the German socialists in 1910, although the myths are interesting to explore. Above all, the most widespread, the one that dates back to an alleged intentional fire of a North American textile factory in 1909, which would have resulted in the death of more than a hundred workers. Although erroneous, this account provides elements to reconstruct the context in which the date actually arose. In the words of the historian Pierre Broué, it allows “to catch the tip of the ball, pull it and advance in the understanding of this world in progress, which must be transformed”.

It is true that there was a company called the Triangle Shirtwaist, where the workers suffered inhuman conditions; It is also true that they rebelled on different occasions for better wages, greater security, a reduction in working hours and union rights; and, unfortunately, there was a fire where many lost their lives, in a completely avoidable way: they were overcrowded, the hoses were not working and the exits were kept closed to exercise strict control over the personnel. But this happened at the end of March 1911.

The tragedy shows that employer exploitation and gender-based oppression were a widespread reality at the beginning of the 20th century. Despite the prevailing social mandates –which sought to confine women to the domestic sphere, at the same time that they forced them to take the worst jobs–, the ferocity of the bosses, anti-union laws and the persecution of left-wing currents, female workers they did not sit idly by. They organized around the world, in unions and political parties. In addition, they created instances to discuss their specific problems. In fact, it was at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, convened in August 1910, that the proposal for an International Women’s Day was born.

Women have their day

There, more than one hundred delegates participated, of 17 different nationalities. The condition to attend was to recognize “the beginning of the class struggle.” In this way, its promoters openly confronted a certain feminism composed of intellectuals and representatives of the proprietary classes, which explicitly excluded the revolutionary militants.

Clara Zetkin, leader of the German Social Democratic Party and president of the International of Socialist Women who would end up as a member of the German Communist Party, opened the sessions. Neither she nor her colleagues stopped being feminists, as they sought equality between genders and the liberation of women; but they believed that these aspirations could only be achieved through a system change. As researchers Cintia Frencia and Daniel Gaido explain in ‘Marxism and the liberation of working women: from the International of Socialist Women to the Russian Revolution’: “Zetkin used derogatory terms Frauenrechtelei and Frauenrechtlerei, usually translated as’ feminism ‘or’ feminist movement ‘, but whose real meaning would be’ the preaching (or the talk) about equal rights for women ‘”. In fact, they shared different aspirations with their adversaries. Especially, that of the female vote. They differed with respect to the strategy to achieve it, its characteristics and the role it occupied within the set of demands of the movement.

The Conference approved five resolutions, linked – on the eve of World War I – to the maintenance of peace; social protection for pregnant women, mothers, their sons and daughters; the defense of women workers; the discussion about the high costs of living … and the unrestricted female vote. This last word represented a clear message to a sector of suffragettes –particularly English–, which was satisfied with a restricted opening of this right –in 1918, the British Parliament approved access to the elections only for women owners over 30 years old– .

The North American delegates commented in their report that, on February 28 of the previous year, “National Women’s Day” had been celebrated in their country, at the proposal of the United States Socialist Party and its recently created National Women’s Committee. “An event that has aroused the attention of our enemies and the recognition of all men and women of free thought,” they asserted.

Inspired by this example, the German representatives Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin made the following motion:

To promote the political emancipation of women, it is the duty of socialist women of all countries to agitate tirelessly among the working masses (…). In order to carry out this propaganda, elections must be held, above all, to all kinds of political and public bodies. (…) If women do not have the right to vote or have limited voting rights, socialist women must unite and guide them in the fight for their rights; in any case, the demand for full political female suffrage should be emphasized.

The request for full political equality of the sexes must be proclaimed and substantiated in the annual May Day demonstration (whatever form it takes). According to the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their country, socialist women of all nationalities must organize a Women’s Day every year, which, above all, must promote agitation for women’s suffrage. . This claim must be explained in relation to the whole question of women according to the socialist conception. Women’s Day must have an international character and must be carefully prepared.

Once the resolution was approved, it can be read in the report of the meeting that its editors did not foresee the importance that the event would have. For this reason, they warned, it was necessary to commit strongly to the cause “without giving ourselves any illusions about that it will mean a transcendental change for the conquest of women’s political rights, but with the firm will to give it the greater practical scope than one day Well-prepared Woman’s can and eventually must have “.

A calendar revolution

One thing remained to be decided: the date. The following year, the Germans chose March 19 (recalling both the Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune). The Swedes took advantage of May 1 to add their flags. About a million people demonstrated around the world. In 1913, when warfare was in the air, Russian women organized rallies for peace on the last Sunday in February … on the Julian calendar. For the rest of the countries, it was March 8, a day set from 1914, before the agreement of the German, Swedish and Russian socialists. Others were added to the slogan of the female vote, linked to working conditions, the ability to hold public office, the rejection of political ban and war.

1917 marked a watershed. While the main powers were vying for world hegemony, in Russia – the weakest link of imperialism that took part in the contest – a revolution emerged. “February 23, 1917 [u 8 de marzo, según el calendario gregoriano], they bravely took to the streets of Petrograd. These women, workers and soldiers’ wives, demanded bread for their children and the return of their husbands from the trenches, “recalled Alexandra Kollontai, one of the main leaders of the Bolshevik Party and future People’s Commissar for Public Assistance. In the words of Trotsky: “It never occurred to anyone that Women’s Day could become the first day of the revolution.” But it was.

Old and new demands

Many issues denounced by the socialist referents, whose legacy is taken up by different groups and parties, are still valid: the indicators show that women are the hardest hit by crises, poverty and unemployment. And despite the progress, there are still different gaps in the labor and political spheres.

Many issues denounced by the socialist referents are still valid: the indicators show that women are the hardest hit by crises, poverty and unemployment.

From the following decades, with the achievement of the vote, and according to the changing political and social situations, the date was gaining adherence of women from different backgrounds and integrating new slogans. With the feminisms of the second wave, issues previously considered “private” took political status: sexuality, abortion, interpersonal relationships, unpaid work and the different types of violence are some examples, which remain on the feminist agenda to this day.

One of the threads that connects the origins of this date with the present is the power of the organization against sexist structures and institutions that sustain, legitimize and reproduce inequalities and violence. In the cry of “not one less” coexists pain, anger, the request for justice for those who are no longer there and the search for a freer life – one that deserves to be lived – for all. As 111 years ago, women not only recognize themselves as victims of patriarchy, but also agents of change to turn it around.

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