The history of IWD is a history of the struggle of ordinary women to throw off the burden of the oppression and discrimination they faced. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. The first National Women’s Day was celebrated in 1909 to demand right to vote, be trained, hold office and an end to discrimination on March 19.
Socialist women in Germany and Russia fought for an international women’s day to recognize the struggles of working-class women for better jobs, training and working conditions within the context of the fight for women’s suffrage and at the same time to push the socialist movement, massive at that time, to take seriously women’s demand for the vote and political participation. From the beginning, IWD was about a more inclusive women’s movement and a more feminist political movement
In 1911, the first International Women’s Day marches were held across Europe. A few days later on March 25, 146 immigrant women were killed in the Triangle Factory fire because the bosses locked the doors from the outside. Russian socialist Alexander Kollentai proposed that the next year IWD would honour these women and the theme of IWD became bread and roses and the date March 8.
At the time, most women workers in Canada were domestic or textile workers. As soon as they got married or pregnant they were fired. They made up to 80% less than men for the same job. So the demand for bread was obvious.
As the song Bread and Roses, which has become an anthem of the women’s movement says, “Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses.” The rose is a powerful symbol of the female and of love. That symbol comes not only from its beauty but also from its tenacity. The rose bushes in my garden still have leaves on them in early winter and they bloom almost until the frost.
On March 8 1917, women in Russia marched for bread and peace in to protest the 2 million men killed in WWI. The march grew into a full scale revolution, the Czar resigned and the rest is history. In the former Communist countries and many developing countries IWD became a state holiday a little like Mother’s Day. Women’s equality was official but not very real in the lives of women.
In Europe, women’s groups continued to celebrate but the IWD tradition was lost in North America even once a new generation challenged patriarchy in the late 60s and early 70s. On the 50th anniversary of IWD in 1960, delegates from women’s groups in 73 countries adopted a declaration for the political, economic and social rights of women. Then in 1975 the UN declared International Women’s Year and women’s liberation became official.
The first visible celebration of IWD in Canada was in Quebec, but the first IWD march was in 1978, when a small Marxist group with strong feminist leadership decided to try a re-establish the tradition of IWD in Canada. Varda Burstyn, representing that group, approached Carolyn Egan with the proposal to organize women across issues and organizations and hold an IWD march. They felt a visible presence of the women’s movement was needed and that feminists needed to unite with their allies across issues. Thousands came out.
Every year about a hundred women would meet in a kind of mass democracy to decide on themes. So IWD always reflected the debates within the women’s movement. The first debate was whether men would be permitted to march. They were. In 1986 the theme was “Women Against Racism from South Africa to Toronto” and the issue of racism inside the movement began to be debated. In the 1990s, Women Working with Immigrant Women took over the organizing and today, IWD became one of the few political events that really reflect the diversity of the city. Over the years the themes change, usually reflecting the different priorities or issues of the time. One of the biggest marches was in 2003 on an anti-war theme. This year the theme is Women Take on the Fight for public services. There are lots of other events as well, all through the next week. In fact, IWD has become very mainstream with a wide array of events in countries around the world.
IWD also provides a focus for making visible the women’s movement in countries where women face heavy oppression; for example in 1982, women in Iran protested against the Islamic revolution’s turning back of women’s rights. This year women in Egypt have called for a million women march in Tahrir Square on March 8.
Loving anniversaries as they do, the mainstream media is actually paying attention to IWD this year. The National Post is doing a full week series and asked me to write an article, about what we have achieved and what is left to do. It seems that the newest backlash against feminism is that feminism has actually won all its demands so why can’t we just shut up now and be happy or concentrate on helping women in the Middle East and Africa achieve equality. Being of the generation that fought these guys every step of the way, I am glad that they now have admitted defeat in their attempt to keep us barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Of course a lot of women agree that there is nothing left to do, accepting the argument that the double day with women generally taking on more work in the home as well as working full-time outside the home is just individual choice. So we must still to make the arguments about continuing the struggle until men share the caring and nurturing work and that society values that work and violence against women is a memory.
History is often re-written to erase the work of radicals, workers and poor people in the changes that have made all of our lives better. The recent CBC documentary on the history of feminism is a good example, suggesting that the second wave was primarily American and all white. It ignored pioneer Canadian feminists like Doris Anderson, Laura Sabia, Ursula Franklin, and Rosemary Brown who were ahead of American feminists in many ways and Black American feminists like bell hooks. IWD was started by working-class women and its traditions were continued by working-class women and women of colour. It is important that we remember the diversity of our movement and the important role played by ordinary women at the same time as we remember the achievements of the more visible leaders.
We have achieved a revolution in the status of women in the hundred years since IWD began. Our grandmothers who fought those early battles couldn’t even have imagined how much closer to liberation we are today. But we have not yet fully transformed the ancient system of patriarchy that continues to promote male domination, militarism and the objectification and oppression of women. That will take a new generation, of women and men, to take power out of the hands of the politicians, the corporations, including the media, and the experts, into their own hands and share it more equally and fairly.