One hundred years of International Women’s Day

The women who showed the way forward – and the work we have still to do.

The daughter of working people and a young factory worker herself, the Soviet Union’s Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel in space in 1963. From tractor drivers to doctors, scientists to engineers, the USSR pushed back the boundaries of what class society had deemed appropriate and possible for women to do.

The 8th of March 2011 will be a particularly important occasion for women and workers all over the world, since it marks 100 years since International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time.

As long ago as 1925, Josef Stalin explained the significance of the date for workers generally:

“Not a single great movement of the oppressed in the history of mankind has been able to do without the participation of working women.

“Working women, the most oppressed among the oppressed, never have or could stand aside from the broad path of the liberation movement. This movement of slaves has produced, as is known, hundreds and thousands of martyrs and heroines. Tens of thousands of working women were to be found in the ranks of fighters for the liberation of the serfs. It is not surprising that millions of working women have been drawn in beneath the banners of the revolutionary movement of the working class, the most powerful of all liberation movements of the oppressed masses.

“International Women’s Day is a token of invincibility and an augury of the great future which lies before the liberation movement of the working class.

“Working women – workers and peasants – are the greatest reserve of the working class. This reserve constitutes a good half of the population. The fate of the proletarian movement, the victory or defeat of the proletarian revolution, the victory or defeat of proletarian power depends on whether or not the reserve of women will be for or against the working class.

“That is why the first task of the proletariat and its advanced detachment, the communist party, is to engage in decisive struggle for the freeing of women workers and peasants from the influence of the bourgeoisie, for political education and the organisation of women workers and peasants beneath the banner of the proletariat.

“International Women’s Day is a means of winning the women’s labour reserves to the side of the proletariat. Working women are not only reserves, however. They can and must become – if the working class carries out a correct policy – a real army of the working class, operating against the bourgeoisie.

“The second and decisive task of the working class is to forge an army of worker and peasant women out of the women’s labour reserves to operate shoulder to shoulder with the great army of the proletariat.

“International Woman’s Day must become a means for turning worker and peasant women from a reserve of the working class into an active army in the liberation movement of the proletariat.” (1925 International Women’s Day address by JV Stalin)

Enormous advances have been made almost throughout the world since the first celebration of International Women’s Day was held on 19 March 1911 (it was only later that the date was changed to 8 March). [1] We have only to look at the demands of women at that time: a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland attended rallies on that date to campaign for a woman’s right to work in paid employment, to vote and to hold public office.

It was Clara Zetkin, a leading German socialist, who first tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day at the second International Conference of Working Women, which was held in Copenhagen in 1910. It was held in the aftermath of a successful end to a prominent and bitter struggle of some 70,000 US garment workers in New York.

The workforce in that strike had been predominantly (70 percent) female. Two thirds of the women workers were jewish, mostly of east European origin, and a third were of Italian origin. Many had had connections with the Bund, a jewish socialist organisation that had given them experience of conducting strikes in Germany.

Faced with general strike, the employers, with the backing of the forces of the state, resorted viciously to dismissals, mass arrests, manhandling, and convictions to terms in the workhouse. Led by the fiery and courageous Ukrainian Clara Lemlich, who set the example to other strikers by returning to the picket line after company goons had broken three of her ribs, the workers stood firm, and the employers, faced with the approach of the most profitable ‘season’ for the garment trade, finally backed down.

The gains that the women made were that the working week was limited to 52 hours (previously 65-75 hours depending on the time of year), workers were given four holidays with pay, employers were required to supply all tools necessary for the job (previously women having to supply their own needles, thread and sewing machines), and a grievance committee was established to deal with individual issues that came up.

However, the gains of this successful strike extended beyond the factory gates. Indeed, they extended beyond the borders of the USA. The victory energised and encouraged the working-class movement all over the world, particularly by highlighting the militant potential of women workers.

It helped many male workers to see that working women deserved equality and to overcome their prejudiced beliefs, engendered by the very fact of women’s subservience in class society, to the effect that women were inferior and that it was unnecessarily divisive for the working-class movement to embrace the demand for equal status for women. It demonstrated the fact that women could be as militant as men, and as useful in a fight as men, and that therefore there could be no justification in sidelining their demands.

As Stalin’s quotation above makes quite clear, the very success of a revolution depends on mobilising the forces of the entire proletariat, a task which would be impossible if the legitimate and pressing demands of fully half of the working-class masses were ignored.

It was in these circumstances that, in 1910, at a second international conference of working women held in Copenhagen and attended by over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties and working women’s clubs, Clara Zetkin, a prominent member of the communist German Social-Democratic party, proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. Her proposal was enthusiastically adopted by all those present.

The event was successful beyond anything the organisers had hoped for and set the scene for the celebrations of future years.

Russian women, who already had a long and honourable history of struggle against tsarist oppression and inhuman working conditions, eagerly took up the call to celebrate International Women’s Day, even though it was illegal under the conditions of tsarism to do so. They marked their first International Women’s Day on what was, for them, the last Sunday in February. However, this date was according to the outdated Julian calendar that was still in use in Russia. In countries that had converted to the Gregorian calendar, the date in question was 8 March.

The Russian women used the occasion to publish articles, making whatever use they could of legal outlets, including legal workers’ newspapers. A public meeting was called by women Bolsheviks at the Kalashaikovsky Exchange in Petrograd to discuss ‘The Woman Question’. Although the meeting was illegal, the venue was packed out and a lively discussion ensued until the meeting was raided by the police and many of the speakers were arrested.

The Bolsheviks continued to give great importance to promoting the demands of women and to supporting the celebrations of International Women’s Day each year. .

In 1914, under the editorship of comrade Nadezhda Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife), the first issue of The Woman Worker (Rabotnitsa), a journal for working-class women, began to be published. Along with Iskra, The Woman Worker was printed abroad and smuggled into Russia for widespread distribution. At the same time, the Bolsheviks decided to create a special committee to organise meetings for International Women’s Day to be held in the factories and public places to discuss issues related to women’s oppression. At these meetings, representatives were elected, and the resulting proposals were discussed by the new committee they formed.

It cannot be over-emphasised how important this work turned out to be for the success of the socialist October Revolution. It is not for nothing that the tsarist secret policy reported to the ministry of the interior in January 1917 that: “Mothers of families, exhausted by endless standing in line at stores, distraught over their half-starving and sick children, are today perhaps closer to revolution than [the liberal opposition] and of course they are a great deal more dangerous because they are the combustible material for which only a single spark is needed to burst into flame.” (Quoted in William M Mandel, Soviet Women, 1975, p43)

Women’s Day 1917 in Russia

On International Women’s Day 1917, workers, including women workers in textile and metal-working industries, were on strike in St Petersburg. The most prominent issue behind the protests was opposition to Russia’s participation in the imperialist war. The war had made Russian women even more of a force to be reckoned with.

Natasha Samoilova (a founding editor of Pravda and an activist in the Baku oilfields of Azerbaijan) wrote that the war “had torn thousands of women away from housework and thrown them into the factories in place of their husbands to earn their daily bread. That war undoubtedly gave impetus to the political consciousness of women workers … and compelled them to take a more active part in the overall struggle of the working class for its liberation.” (Ibid, p47)

On 8 March (23 February on the Julian calendar), women in their thousands poured onto the streets to demand bread, peace, and the return of the men from the trenches. This was the spark that set off the February Revolution, the abdication of the tsar and the establishment of the provisional government to implement the democratic demands of the revolutionary masses. The government made the franchise universal, and recognised equal rights for women.

Subsequent to these momentous events, 8 March became the official date for International Women’s Day, when Bulgarian women attending the international women’s secretariat of the Communist International in 1921 proposed a motion that the event be uniformly celebrated around the world. The 8th of March was chosen to honour the role played by Russian women not only in their own revolution, but in the international struggle for women’s emancipation.

Today, International Women’s Day is still marked by a national holiday in China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

After the October Revolution

The grant by the provisional government of universal franchise and its declaration of women’s equal rights satisfied the bourgeois ladies, who joined their menfolk in continuing to support the imperialist war that was wreaking such appalling hardship on the mass of workers and peasants. The failure of the provisional government to extract Russia from the war sealed its fate and set the scene for the success of the October Revolution that followed.

However, the grant of these minimal formal rights, although astonishingly advanced at the time, certainly did not satisfy the Bolsheviks, who were committed to eliminating not just the formal aspects of women’s subservience to men, but also the whole gamut of conditions that gave rise to that subservience.

Although some bourgeois countries had before 1917 made a few concessions towards women’s formal equality (for instance, Finland had given the right to women to be elected to its parliament, its first three women MPs having attended the 1910 women’s conference in Copenhagen), no country could match the comprehensive abolition of all laws discriminating against women that was implemented by the Bolshevik government following the October Revolution.

The Bolsheviks introduced divorce and civil marriage laws that made marriage a voluntary alliance. They abolished all distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children. They gave women employment rights equal to those of men, equal pay for equal work (a concept not introduced in the UK until 1970, following the strike of the women machinists of Ford’s in Dagenham), and rights to paid leave during pregnancy and after the birth of children.

It was decades before any bourgeois country caught up, and, even then, the implementation of these laws in bourgeois countries could never match up to the thoroughness with which they were implemented in the USSR.

Ensuring women could take up their new rights in practice

The Bolsheviks were not satisfied with merely passing laws. They also undertook a vast array of measures to ensure that women could enjoy equality in practice. This meant not only ensuring that jobs were equally available to men and to women, but that women were able to catch up despite the fact that they were mostly much more uneducated than men.

The literacy campaign undertaken by the Bolsheviks, which was able to put an end to Russia’s prevalent illiteracy in just a few years, was a major factor enabling women to come into their own. On the one hand, they could read to find out about their new rights and to learn of the positive examples set by other women in various part of the country; on the other hand, the ability to read opened the door to more advanced education and to skilled and intellectual jobs.

The party also battled hard against prejudice and discrimination exercised by people who had never had the opportunity to experience for themselves the sight of women doing perfectly competently what had hitherto always been ‘men’s work’. With a view to sweeping away such prejudices as quickly as possible, a policy of positive discrimination in favour of women was adopted, which required women to be offered any job ahead of male candidates with equivalent qualifications.

In the countryside, the lot of the peasant woman changed drastically when, in the collective farms, she found that all workers were paid individually according to how much work they did. She ceased to be dependent on her husband’s income, which in the past had delivered into his hands the fruits of all her labour simply because the land that was worked was always in his name.

The fact that the burden of housework had traditionally always fallen on women, whether or not they worked outside the home, always diminished the contribution that women could make either to labour or to participation in political life. Following the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks led a major effort to provide as many social facilities as possible to lift that heavy burden from women’s shoulders.

Creches, kindergartens and nurseries were provided for the care of children (of excellent quality, and very affordably priced), public dining rooms were set up for workers and their families so that it was not necessary to cook every day. Men were also encouraged, with varying success, to take up some share of the remaining housework. After the second world war, families tended to ensure that housework was reduced to a minimum by confining themselves to only one child.

Women’s emancipation in practice

One way or another, the Soviet Union revolutionised women’s position. Women were introduced en masse into professions and trades that they had never been considered capable of undertaking. By the 1970s, three-quarters of Soviet doctors were women – and this at a time when in western imperialist countries most people’s stereotype of a doctor was uncompromisingly male. [2]

The introduction of women into every male preserve was not only carried out in the Soviet Union decades before capitalist countries followed suit, but was far more thorough than any capitalist country has ever done it. To this day, British and US professional women complain of a ‘glass ceiling’ that prevents most of them from reaching the highest echelons of their profession. Such a thing was unknown in Soviet Russia, where there were any number of women in top positions.

At the same time, the skill of jobs that had traditionally been regarded as ‘women’s work’ and had by association acquired the same low status as women themselves, became fully appreciated, and paid accordingly. As Mandel, writing in 1975, explained:

“Milkmaid in a collective … or state … farm, which involves feeding and care of the animals and their calves as well as milking, is a new job arising out of the real history of farming and of culture … in a real country. Champion milkmaids are awarded the country’s highest honour: the title of Hero of Socialist Labour. They are elected to Congress …

“In old Russia men worked with the draft animals as women did with the producing livestock. So today men are virtually all the operators of farm machinery, despite 40 years of real effort on the government’s part … to involve women in that work …

“But milkmaids usually earn more than tractor drivers. This is because animal care is harder work under Russia’s present conditions … Earnings have a lot to do with one’s prestige in interpersonal relations, as well as with one’s independence, of course.” (Ibid, p79)

By the time William Mandel was writing his book, women in the USSR were in a majority among employed graduates. It is therefore no accident that the first woman in space, as early as 1963, was a Russian, Valentina Tereshkova, daughter of peasants who had been the poorest of the poor until collectivisation.

At the time, it was unheard of in western countries for women even to be pilots of anything other than light planes, let alone test pilots. After Soviet women had blazed the trail, a woman in the USA was elevated to the position of second officer in a scheduled airline – but not until ten years after Tereshkova made her historic flight.

Another sphere that was largely closed to western women (although there were always exceptions to prove the rule) was navigation. Every kind of prejudice made it impossible for them to aspire to imitate the example of Captain Anna Schetinina, the master of a 20,000 ton freighter, or Captain Valentina Orlikova, who in 1956 was given command of a large refrigerated ocean fishing trawler with a crew of 90.

Since those days, the US navy (to take one example) has hastened to appoint a certain number of women to the highest positions. A high proportion of women admirals, however, are medical personnel rather than navigators or commanders of ships.

The first woman to be put in command of a US Navy cruiser, Captain Holly Graf, did not achieve that position until 2003. Last year, however, she was out on her ear, after displaying ‘inappropriate’ behaviour classically consistent with having been subjected to long-term low-grade bullying. When her ship shuddered as though it had run aground, her crew started clapping and cheering to show how happy they were that her career would undoubtedly end as a result.

Mandel’s book gave countless examples of Soviet women in positions of the highest responsibility – directors of scientific establishments, college principals, hydraulic project managers, hospital managers, top-flight medical consultants, etc, etc.

Maria Volodina was in charge eight hours a day of distributing electrical power throughout all the territory between Poland and Siberia, just at a time when in Colorado USA, a construction crew walked off the job when, for the first time in the history of the industry, a woman engineer entered a tunnel when work was in progress.

In the early 1970s, one-third of all judges in the USSR were women. In 1974, in Britain, Rose Heilbron became only the second female high-court judge. Even today in the UK, women are only about ten percent of judges appointed to the high court, and there have only been 20 in total. The situation is better in the USA, where women have today almost caught up with the Soviet women of the 1970s, since they represent about 25 percent of all judges.

Women’s work received the highest honours, including when they were working in areas that had previously been men’s exclusive preserve. Mandel noted that nominations for state prizes in the early 1970s included nominations for women working in the fields of earthquake geography, English literature, thermodynamics, automotive engineering, steel-mill engineering, and computer design and development.

Furthermore, in 1975, there were more female engineers in the USSR than in the rest of the world combined. They were greater in number than male engineers in the USA, and of course far outnumbered US women engineers, who at that time were only two percent of the total. In the USSR, they were 30 percent of the total number of engineers – but 38 percent of engineering students, laying the basis for becoming a higher percentage of the total employed once these students had graduated.

Meanwhile, if we zoom ahead to the UK in the early 21st century, we find that although in professions such as medicine and law women rapidly caught up with men after the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 (horizontally but not yet vertically – there are few women at the top), the same cannot be said of science and engineering, which still persist as virtual male preserves.

Professor Juliet Glover of Surrey university has researched the current situation and found that in engineering and science-related areas of employment “women’s representation remains persistently low”, while in ITEC (information technology, electronics and telecommunications) it was actually decreasing in 2002. Only about 20 percent of A-level science students were female, and only 35 percent of mathematics students.

In 1973, only three percent of Britain’s engineering undergraduates were female, and by 2000 this had only risen to 12 percent, while students of physics and computing did not increase the proportion of females from around 20 percent in all that quarter of a century.

Few though women engineering students were, and small though the number was entering scientific or engineering employment (teaching being the only area where a higher proportion of women graduates obtained employment as opposed to men, though even there women becoming science teachers were far fewer than men who did so), half of the women who did enter such employment dropped out within a few years, with many failing to return to work after the birth of their first child. As one goes higher up the promotional ladder, the percentage of women gets smaller and smaller, until at the summit it is all but imperceptible.

If Soviet women were well represented in the highest echelons of jobs requiring graduate qualifications, they also expanded their presence in manual jobs that had hitherto been overwhelmingly reserved for men.

“By 1959, one third of all crane, derrick and forklift operators were women. In their mothers’ generation, in 1926, only one such job in a hundred was held by a woman … In the earlier year, one streetcar driver in thirty was a woman, but by 1959 women were a majority of those at the control of these vehicles, trolley buses and subway trains.” (Ibid, p106)

In Britain, we would appear still to be closer to the 1926 Soviet woman than the 1959 one!

The historic end of women’s oppression

In his seminal work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Friedrich Engels showed that the inferior status of women in all societies existing at the time he was writing was not due to women being in any way inferior to men, but to the fact that they had been stripped under class society of their independent economic role. Instead, they were confined in the home as a chattel of their husbands, with no role other than to perform household chores and bear children, and were totally financially dependent on their husbands for their every need.

Class society condemned women to inferiority by depriving them of education and of the opportunity to develop and put to work their underlying talents. From this, Engels drew the natural conclusion that once they were returned to social production and became economically independent of their husbands, the basis would be laid for their emancipation.

He and Marx had already noted how the status of working-class women had risen within the family as a result of their having been drawn back into social production by greedy capitalists keen to exploit their cheap labour – but also how their full emancipation was held back by the fact that by tradition they still had to bear a massive burden of domestic drudgery alongside their backbreaking jobs outside the home.

Because the Soviet Union was committed to securing the full emancipation of women, every effort was made to ensure the provision of facilities such as creches, kindergartens, public dining rooms, public laundry services, etc, as well as maternity benefits and flexible working hours, so that women could be genuinely free to participate in social production and in social life on an equal basis with men.

On this front, capitalist countries have always lagged way behind the Soviet Union and there is little chance of their catching up. To the extent that there are social facilities at all, they either tend to be terrible (eg, old people’s homes) or financially beyond reach of all but the best paid (nurseries, kindergartens, decent restaurants providing healthy food) – sometimes both. And as the present crisis bites deeper, it is clear that what facilities had previously been won for British workers are going to be cut to the bone in the coming years.

The only relief from backbreaking drudgery for women under capitalism is provided by technological developments that provide laboursaving household devices such as washing machines, refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. And as more women have entered the workforce, particularly as it has become the norm for middle-class women to go out to work, more and more husbands have gradually been taking up a share of household chores.

Compared to the kind of social provision, especially for the care of children and the elderly, that was available in the USSR, however, gadget-wielding husbands and wives still have a heavy burden to bear and are often forced to leave children to the care of the television set far more than is recognised to be physically, intellectually and morally good for them.

The introduction of ‘market’ socialism, while it was still way ahead of the capitalist competition in the west in mobilising female labour, hampered progress in the USSR to full equality. When the aim of production ceased to be to satisfy to the maximum possible extent workers’ material, cultural and spiritual needs and became instead the generation of maximum profit, then providing workers with social facilities was bound to appear to be an overhead that was best avoided.

Social facilities began to wither away for much the same reason that they are barely provided in the first place in capitalist countries. As a result, the process of the emancipation of women in the USSR began to slow down significantly by the time they had on average attained an earning potential that was three-quarters that of men, which was already the case by the 1970s.

International Women’s Day 2011

As we celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day, it has to be admitted that the cause of women’s liberation has advanced a long way towards what was dreamed of in 1910 – and that it was the Soviet Union which led the way and which went furthest along that path.

By demonstrating that anything men could do women could do too, the Soviet Union established that there was not a single branch of social production that could not be open to women. Even capitalists in these circumstances were able, if painstakingly, to break with tradition and start employing women in all kinds of jobs in which they had never been seen before.

Women were originally paid only low wages because male wages were supposed to include the cost of maintaining a wife and family. This is because the value of male labour equals the cost of reproducing himself as a labourer from generation to generation, which at a time when women did not generally work outside the home, included maintenance of a wife. As a result of it becoming the norm for women to work outside the home, the wage a man would once have received alone has been split, and now pays for the labour of both the man and his wife (the latter at least part time), so that these days the capitalist is getting two workers for the price of one, and both men and women have to do household chores on top of their jobs.

In spite of all this, women in Britain are much freer. They have independent incomes that make it possible for them to leave a loveless marriage; they do not have to tolerate bullying and violence against either themselves or their children; they have access to education to a far greater extent; they are able to engage in work that is far more stimulating and satisfying than confinement to household drudgery.

They still have, however, a long way to go. Working-class women, in particular, desperately need access to social facilities to make their lives bearable and to enable them to give their children as good a start in life as they deserve, and so that society can benefit from people whose potential is fully developed in childhood.

As the crisis deepens, the situation of women is becoming worse and not better. The few areas in which women could find some support are being ruthlessly cut. While taxation rises, wages plunge in inverse proportion to rising unemployment. It is time to take up the cudgels again in the fashion of the New York garment workers, and more particularly in the fashion of the women of Russia’s revolutionary proletariat.

Experience shows that it is only under socialism that women’s needs can really be given priority, for it is only under socialism that the whole of production is geared to serving the needs of working people in general rather than the interests of profit, which always grudges every penny spent on wages and social facilities.

Women workers must stand shoulder to shoulder with the revolutionary proletariat as a whole to overthrow capitalism and establish and build socialism. And it stands to reason that the revolutionary proletariat must always put attending to the needs of the working-class women as one of their most urgent priorities, both in their demands on the capitalist class and in the measures that they implement as soon as they seize state power.



1. The date was chosen because on 19 March in the year of the 1848 revolution, the Prussian king recognised for the first time the strength of the armed people and gave way before the threat of a proletarian uprising. Among the many promises he made, which he later failed to keep, was the introduction of votes for women.

2. At that time, most people in the UK presented with the following scenario simply could not work out the obvious explanation: A man and his son are travelling in a car and are involved in an accident in which the man is killed outright. The son is rushed to hospital and into the operating theatre where the surgeon on duty takes one look at him and exclaims, “Oh my God, it’s my son.”