By Saswat Pattanayak
“Ardent greetings to working women and women toilers throughout the world who are uniting in one common family of labour around the socialist proletariat.I wish them every success:
1) in strengthening the international ties of the workers of all countries and achieving the victory of the proletarian revolution;
2) in emancipating the backward sections of women toilers from intellectual and economic bondage to the bourgeoisie;
3) in uniting the peasant women around the proletariat—the leader of the revolution and of socialist construction;
4) in making the two sections of the oppressed masses, which are still unequal in status, a single army of fighters for the abolition of all inequality and of all oppression, for the victory of the proletariat, and for the building of a new, socialist society in our country.
Long live International Communist Women’s Day!”
J. Stalin, Pravda, No. 55, March 7, 1926.
March 8th as the International Women’s Day was first observed in 1917 in Leningrad. And it was no mere coincidence that this day also marked the first day of the great communist revolution. Declaring this day as the International Women’s Day, women workers of Petrograd organized themselves, and brought over 50,000 workers to join them, demanding “bread, peace and land”. Revolutionary women were joined by students, white-collar workers and teachers heralding red banners and chanting “Down with the War!” The Tsar tried to suppress this movement by deploying over 180,000 troops, but many refused to budge, bogged down by the sheer enormity of women revolutionaries on the streets! Heeding to the calls of the women comrades, the Russian Army turned mutinous, and what was organized as the International Women’s Day resulted in abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of the Romanov dynasty and the end of the Russian Empire.
Such is the significance of March 8th!
8 March heralded the new era of communism in the world, starting with the Soviet Union that was guided by this day to incorporate policies to prioritize gender equality. Lenin on March 4, 1921 wrote in Pravda, “You cannot draw the masses into politics without drawing in the women. For under capitalism the female half of the human race is doubly oppressed. The working woman and the peasant woman are oppressed by capital, but over and above that, even in the most democratic of the bourgeois republics, they remain, firstly, deprived of some rights because the law does not give them equality with men; and secondly—and this is the main thing—they remain in household bondage, they continue to be ‘household slaves’, for they are overburdened with the drudgery of the most squalid, backbreaking and stultifying toil in the kitchen and the family household. No party or revolution in the world has ever dreamed of striking so deep at the roots of the oppression and inequality of women as the Soviet, Bolshevik revolution is doing. Over here, in Soviet Russia, no trace is left of any inequality between men and women under the law. The Soviet power has eliminated all there was of the especially disgusting, base and hypocritical inequality in the laws on marriage and the family and inequality in respect of children.”
On the International Women’s Day of 1925, Stalin wrote in Pravda, “There has not been in the history of humanity a single great movement of the oppressed in which women toilers have not participated. Women toilers, the most oppressed of all the oppressed, have never kept away from the high road of the emancipation movement, and never could have done so. As is known, the movement for the emancipation of the slaves brought to the front hundreds of thousands of great women martyrs and heroines. In the ranks of the fighters for the emancipation of the serfs there were tens of thousands of women toilers. It is not surprising that the revolutionary working-class movement, the mightiest of all the emancipation movements of the oppressed masses, has rallied millions of women toilers to its banner. International Women’s Day is a token of the invincibility of the working-class movement for emancipation and a harbinger of its great future.”
While much of the western world had not yet allowed women to vote, or to work alongside men in various spheres of life, let alone granting reproductive rights; inspired by the advances of March 8th, Soviet Union had enormously succeeded in implementing gender equality, legalized abortion, and supported one-parent families. The USSR Constitution’s Article 122 read: “Women in the U.S.S.R. are accorded equal rights with men in all spheres of economic, government, cultural, political and other public activity. The possibility of exercising these rights is ensured by women being accorded an equal right with men to work, payment for work, rest and leisure, social insurance and education, and by State protection of the interests of mother and child, State aid to mothers of large families and unmarried mothers, maternity leave with full pay, and the provision of a wide network of maternity homes, nurseries and kindergartens.”
Indeed, addressing the Central Committee on March 8th, 1949, Stalin declared that 277 women had been elected Deputies of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, and more than 1700 elected to the Supreme Soviets of the Union and Autonomous Republics and about half a million women were Deputies to local Soviets. As much as 44% of the total number of graduates in Soviet Union were women, while 237 women were awarded with the highest civilian award of the country. Motherhood and rearing of children in the USSR were also highly regarded, with the state assigning enormous funds to aid mothers with large families and to unmarried mothers. Over 2.5 million mothers were awarded the “Motherhood Glory” and “Motherhood Medal”. It was not just a coincidence that more women were elected to the Supreme Soviet than the number of women in most democratic countries’ legislative bodies combined during that time. In a way, women were empowered in varying capacities – as politicians, as factory workers, as engineers, as peasants, as mothers – with or without a husband.
Very first official recognition of March 8th in the world was made in Soviet Union due to the efforts of Alexandra Kollontai, who went on to become the world’s first female ambassador (to Norway, in 1923). Kollontai considered Women’s Day as a “militant celebration”, a “day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.” She recalled later, “but this is not a special day for women alone. The 8th of March is a historic and memorable day for the workers and peasants, for all the Russian workers and for the workers of the whole world. In 1917, on this day, the great February revolution broke out. It was the working women of Petersburg who began this revolution; it was they who first decided to raise the banner of opposition to the Tsar and his associates. And so, working women’s day is a double celebration for us.”
Prior to March 8th inspiring the Revolution and ensuring women equal rights in the USSR, struggles of women as an organized movement had already been duly observed starting 1909. On February 28th that year, women socialists of the United States had organized with meetings and demonstrations all over the country demanding voting rights. Next year in 1910, German Communist Clara Zetkin recognizing the American socialist workers, called for a demand to observe “Women’s Day” under the slogan, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
In 1911, German communists wished for March 19th to be considered the Women’s Day. Kollontai mentions that it was no mere coincidence either, for on that day following 1848 revolution, “the Prussian king recognized for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promise he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.” It was in 1913 that the Bolshevik newspaper Pravda recognized “Working Women’s Day” on March 8th, but soon thereafter the movement paused a while with the first world war breaking out.
While the First World War was ongoing, Norway alone managed to respect the Russian working women’s call to observe the Women’s Day in 1915. And finally, 1917 arrived and on the 8th of March, women of Russia marched the streets demanding “Bread for our children” and the “Return of our husbands from the trenches” as the slogans that firmly and officially established the International Women’s Day, as we know of it today. Alexandra Kollontai wrote, “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 sea of the people’s anger. The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire.”
(By Saswat Pattanayak, March 8th, 2013)
Additional reading: International Women’s Day :: A Short History