The celebration of International Women’s Day – an effort at recognising women’s contributions to society that often go unnoticed – is not without its share of trouble even after over a century of its inception and despite the United Nations having given a formal recognition to it since 1975 – the International Women’s Year. Perhaps, this is because within its origins is embedded a voice of protest, of dissidence that doesn’t sit well with formal celebrations that only address the privileged few.
The significance of March 8 is argued to have been drawn retroactively from an 1857 strike of female textile workers in New York, which was met with repression. This is said to have been commemorated in a March 8 rally in 1907 on its fiftieth anniversary.
An International Woman’s Day (singular) was, however, first observed on February 23, 1909 in the United States. The Women’s National Committee to Campaign for Suffrage had been appointed by the Socialist Party of the United States in 1908. A mass meeting on woman suffrage was then organised on March 8, 1908. The following year the socialists in the United States started celebrating the last Sunday of February as both a National Women’s Day and an International Women’s Day.
Meanwhile, Clara Zetkin, beginning from 1889 Bastille Day Paris meeting and through the women’s newspaper of the German Social Democratic Party had been promoting the rights of working women. It was, however, only perhaps with the February revolution against rising prices and poor living conditions in Russia in 1917, after which the Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate and women got the right to vote, that International Women’s Day came to be a state-recognised holiday in many European communist countries beginning with Russia in 1922. But the socialist men were loathe to include suffrage and women’s rights in their movements for the rights of the male working class early on.
And in the same manner the fight for suffrage – which was an important aspect of celebration of International Women’s Day – seemed to have excluded black women. While white women fighting for rights equal to men secured voting rights in the United States in 1920, the Jim Crow laws continued to discriminate against black women. The National American Women Suffrage Association was often discriminatory of black women despite them being active in the work for suffrage for women. The sentiment is perhaps best expressed through an earlier speech made in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights convention by Sojourner Truth, now well known by its title: “Ain’t I A Woman?” It took several more decades after 1920 and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement that black women were effectively enfranchised.
It is, therefore, pertinent to ask today too whether we are fighting for all women, whether we include all women when we ‘Step It Up for Gender Equality’. Hillary Clinton, who spoke for gender equality on International Women’s Day at the UN last year, seeks support, for instance, from women and feminists in general for her nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Yet she has had a history of not only working against the interests of working-class women – who started the International Women’s Day in the first place- but also been ambiguous on abortion rights and has supported the war on Iraq and Afghanistan.
There is a definite discordant note then in even her being part of the International Women’s Day Celebrations at the UN, because the UN’s own introductory history of the Day does point out the anti-war stance taken by Russian women celebrating International Women’s Day through World War I. Her tiffs with the Black Lives Matter during her nomination campaign further raise doubts on what kind of gender equality she vouches for.
In countries like India, where brutality and discrimination against trans women is regular, there is hardly ever a massive uprising or support for them during IWD celebrations. Dalit and tribal women, women raped by armed forces in “disturbed areas” are commemorated and fought for separately (often with lesser zeal) but do not seem to become the rallying point for an urgent social transformation – as in the origins of the Day – on IWD. They are relegated or deferred to the fight for rights of the scheduled caste / scheduled tribe people and the fight against oppressive legislations (like the AFSPA), acknowledged by feminist groups but rarely fought for at the scale at which demonstrations take place for relatively privileged women.
An International Women’s Day then cannot be “international” truly until it is also intersectional and addresses the specific concerns of those marginalised within the larger community of women. While gender-parity has been a dominant theme in UN celebrations, we hardly hear about trans-women from this international organisation on this day, despite their demand for their struggles to be recognised.
Speeches, conferences, and celebrations on Women’s Day mark a long struggle- one that has had roadblocks, one that has needed sacrifices. A patriarchal world that thrives on not recognising the work done by women can only benefit from women occupying public space on such occasions and reminding us of the battle that has been and the battle that remains. But the origins of the International Women’s Day also remind us of a more militant struggle for radical social transformation. The potential for such transformation still rests with it if we do not let it be hijacked by corporations making small incremental promises and instead demand what is accepted as a far-flung dream.