“In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade organizations of the proletariat in their respective countries, the socialist women of all nationalities will hold each year a Women's Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women's suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women's question according to socialist precepts. The Women's Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.”
– 1910, International Conference of Socialist Women
On March 19, 1911, Austrian women demonstrated in Vienna after the official decision to celebrate International Women's Day (IWD) in 1910. The march was a political expression by women in the socialist movement to carve out space for women's rights distinct from the male-dominated leadership of labor unions and left political parties. The protection of working women and mothers and most prominently, women's suffrage and peace were the demands made. Women's issues in the socialist movement were often seen as secondary to an ungendered analysis of class struggle. IWD built on the progressive women's networks and helped bring visibility to their cause.
European socialist women condemned liberal and bourgeois women's organizations approaches to the issue of women's suffrage. They understood that displacing the issue of class from the issue of women's suffrage could potentially lead to a situation of some women within the bourgeoisie having the same political franchise as men – they militated against that possibility. Therefore, the campaign for suffrage challenged the sexist gender order that denied women political agency as well as critique the liberal and bourgeois approaches to women's emancipation.
At the U.N. Women's Conference in Mexico, 1975 it was proposed that International Women's Day should be a U.N. day. In 1977, the U.N. General Assembly adopted the resolution. Today, we observe the global adoption of International Women's Day. For decades, IWD was limited to observation and commemoration primarily by socialist countries. In the Caribbean community, the issue of development was placed alongside the agenda of equality and peace. As a day of significance, countries gradually adopted IWD but the longer history of socialist and political activism was downplayed, discredited and put at a distance. Still, left, progressive and grassroots feminist women in the Caribbean took advantage of the international environment that took shape in valuing and recognizing women's rights and activism (Antrobus 2004).
It is not only the forces of capitalist penetration through globalization that shrinks the world; global solidarity campaigns also do. The most significant characteristic of International Women's Day is its internationalist character. Women's assertion of their rights and struggles connected to broader experiences of women's issues – racism, sexism, capitalist exploitation, ecological degradation, land rights, etc. Therefore, the day offers scholars and intellectuals a site to investigate women's perspectives on internationalist politics.
International days, especially in the age of vague and politically empty hashtags run the risk of homogenizing struggles that differ by regions and nationalities. Progressive groups make room for competing demands and advocacy priorities based on the varying standpoints of women struggling. #BeBoldForChange is the leading slogan and social media rallying call for International Women's Day 2017. While the movement does not call for radical social change, the campaign calls upon all women to share their messages about their political visions while highlighting the problem of wage inequality and its implications on women.
In and out of International Women's Day, socialist feminists are bold for socialist change that breaks with the capitalist engineering of power relations and the patriarchal oppression of women. The historical transitions in the meaning and political tone of International Women's Day provide an understanding to the reasons why, where and by whom it was picked up. In the early 20th century, the IWD was almost entirely a socialist women's project, it later transformed into a feminist project and more recently it has taken up the voice of a gender project. Gender analyses of all sectors are necessary but we must guard against the colonization of discourse when the term ‘gender' comes to displace the political demands and cause of women's rights. State and non-state actors need to position themselves as political mechanisms to advance women's rights and gender justice. As the global consensus on the failure of modernity and globalization grows, putting social protections, conflict, women's poverty and the disempowerment of women in social, economic and political life need to be on the agenda again like the socialist women of an earlier time proposed and struggled for!
Amílcar Sanatan, interdisciplinary artist and writer, is a Research Assistant at the Institute for Gender and Development Studies and coordinator of the UWI Socialist Student Conference at The University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus. Reach him on Twitter @amilcarsanatan.