Taking Back International Women’s Day

Women’s Day was begun by U.S. socialists; it’s time we reclaimed it.

The United Nations instituted International Women’s Day (IWD) in 1975—or so the official story runs. Few remember not only that the origins of March 8 lie in the history of the international workers’ movement, but that it was the socialist movement in the United States that first launched the idea of a day devoted to women’s rights centered on working-class women. In fact, the Socialist Party USA first established a day of education and action around women’s rights called “Woman’s Day” in 1908, and the following year U.S. socialists held demonstrations in several cities to demand women’s suffrage. In 1910, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed the transformation of the U.S. Woman’s Day into an international day of action—International Working Women’s Day—which, in 1914, started being celebrated on March 8. Three years later, on March 8, 1917, Russian women workers took to the streets in St. Petersburg, organizing a strike to demand bread and peace. It was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.

Megan Ganey

When the United Nations declared IWD in 1975, it took care to remove the word “working” from the title. This was only a first step toward the transformation of the day from a demonstration of working women’s struggles to a day of festivity in celebration of “women” as such, returning to an essentialist or biology-based identity of women as natural mothers and caregivers. Once the memory of the women strikers who had fought for a better present and future was gone, IWD became a day of festivity like any other, at best an occasion for mimosa-based brunches with girlfriends and greeting cards.

Over the past three years, however, millions of cis and trans women have rediscovered the militant history and spirit of March 8. In 2017, a new international feminist movement called for the first international women’s strike. The initiative was inspired by the massive women’s strikes that took place in the fall of 2016 in Poland (where they managed to stop a total ban on abortion) and Argentina (where they protested against femicides). The 2017 strike took place in dozens of countries: in some, it managed to stop work in hundreds of workplaces in addition to mobilizing millions of women in the streets. In others—such as the United States—it had a significantly more modest size.

But everywhere, women who decided to mobilize felt empowered by the international solidarity and coordination that had made the day of actions and strikes possible. The strike movement continued to grow over the following years. In 2018, the Spanish feminist movement managed to organize a five-million-strong workplace general strike demanding cambiarlo todo, to change everything. In 2019, the strike movement spread to new countries such as Chile—where it organized a massive demonstration that was, at that time, the largest street protest since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship—and Switzerland, where it organized a 400,000-people-strong workplace strike in June.

This year, activists from Argentina, Chile, Italy, France, and Mexico, and many other countries met digitally in order to draft a joint call for strikes and actions on March 8 and 9 in response not only to the international rise of a misogynistic, transphobic, and racist far Right and in defense of abortion and bodily self-determination, and against gender-based violence, but also in protest against exploitation, the casualization of labor, and extractivism. The call, moreover, emphasized the importance of reproductive labor and insisted on the relation between productive and reproductive work under capitalism.

The international feminist strike movement is a far cry from the discourse of liberal feminism that still dominates media and public perception in the United States. The movement does not demand “equal opportunity in domination” for elite women and is not interested in electoral quotas, “diversity,” and individual empowerment at the expense of other women. Rather, it insists on the connection between gender oppression and capitalism and challenges all the institutions and practices that contribute to the oppression of women and queer people: the state, the police, the job market, imperialism and neo-colonialism, and xenophobic migration policies.

In past years, the spirit of the feminist strike movement was brought to the United States by the International Women’s Strike (IWS-US), a national network of feminist, queer, and anticapitalist collectives and organizations that organized wildcat work stoppages, rallies, and marches in a number of cities. However, the United States continues to be an exception, insofar as no mass feminist movement has yet emerged.

This weakness is due to a number of factors. Over the course of the last decades, the United States has seen the emergence of a well-funded network of liberal feminist organizations and media with no significant relation to class politics and with a political agenda at odds with anti-capitalist and anti-racist feminism. One of the difficulties faced in the past three years has been the lack of visibility and solid organizational infrastructure of the feminist strike movement in the United States, especially in contrast with the enormous financial resources and visibility of liberal-leaning women’s and LGBTQI+ organizations. The Women’s March, which managed to organize some of the largest mass demonstrations in the history of the country, adopted a typical NGO-style, top-down organizational formula (despite having a more left-leaning political program and sets of demands), which actively pre-empted the emergence of a grassroots nationwide movement. Moreover, the frame of labor laws that severely constrain the possibility of organizing workplace strikes and the weakness of the U.S. labor movement make the organization of feminist strikes much more difficult than in countries in which the feminist movement can ally with radical unions to call for legal general strikes.

At the same time, the threats faced by women and queer people in the United States under Donald Trump are no less serious than in other countries, at a moment in which Republicans are actively preparing for a challenge to Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court and even the hard-won basic civil rights and liberties of trans and queer people are under attack. Within this context, the DSA has an important role to play. There is much to be learned from the experience of millions of working-class women and queer people mobilizing around the globe. Some chapters will be showing solidarity by taking to the streets on March 8 and linking this day to ongoing struggles for Medicare for All and in defense of reproductive freedom, of women workers’ rights, and of racialized and immigrant women currently under attack. But solidarity should not be limited to one day a year. DSA could spread knowledge of this international movement by organizing public events, translating and publishing materials produced by activists in various countries, and opening a conversation about building a militant class-struggle feminist movement in the United States.