International Womens Day has come a long way, yet liberation is still elusive

International Women’s Day has come a long way since its inception in 1908. Governments recognize it. Numerous groups, unions and international bodies continue its mission.

The United Nations International Women’s Day theme this year is Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women and Girls. Violence against women is a major cause of death and disability for women aged 16 to 44 years — as serious a threat as cancer and a greater cause of ill heath than traffic accidents and malaria combined, according to the UN.

Rep. Jan Shakowsky (D-Ill.) has submitted a resolution in the House (HR 149) with more than 80 cosponsors calling on the U.S. government to support the goals of International Women’s Day, including ending discrimination and violence against women and girls, and pursuing “policies that guarantee the basic human rights of women and girls both in the United States and in other countries.”

This April, the Women’s International Democratic Federation is holding its 14th Annual Congress in Venezuela. Women from around the world, including the U.S., will be organizing, communicating and mobilizing around the effects of free trade and wars on women, the struggle for a world free of violence against women and girls, and building greater economic and political rights for women.

A brief history

International Women’s Day — like May Day — is a world holiday tied to the struggle against oppression and exploitation. And it’s a day that was born out of class and social struggles in the U.S.

On March 8, 1857, women from textile and clothing factories in New York City staged a protest over poor working conditions and pay. Although attacked by the police and press for stepping out of traditional bounds, these garment workers continued their struggle and formed a union two years later.

Many such protests and organizing rallies took place in the following years, carried out by women workers and their allies calling for justice in the work place. On March 8, 1908, 20,000 to 30,000 women marched in the bitter cold through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on Feb. 28, 1908, following a call from the Socialist Party of America to honor women. On that day demonstrations took place calling for the vote and economic rights for women.

In 1910, an international women’s conference held in Copenhagen called by the Socialist International established International Women’s Day. The following year, more than a million women and allies rallied around the world.

Horribly, soon thereafter in 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York killed over 140 mostly immigrant women workers, forever linking the image of that tragedy with the demands for justice called for on International Women’s Day (IWD).

Adding peace

Although the struggle of women workers for political and economic rights is the foundation of IWD, the conflagration of World War I and all ensuing wars has added the struggle for peace. During the early years of WWI, on or around March 8, women held rallies around the world either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters affected by the war. In 1917, with two million Russian husbands and sons dead, Russian women struck for “bread and peace” on what was March 8 on the Gregorian calendar (Feb. 23 on the Julian calendar).

This call for peace contributed, no doubt, to the fall of the czar and the Russian monarchy four day later. Continuing calls for peace, including the elimination of nuclear weapons, has been an integral part of IWD celebrations and the international women’s movement ever since.

Cold War casualty

International Women’s Day was lost in the U.S. during the early years of the Cold War, but was invigorated in the 60s and 70s with the flowering of the women’s equality movement. The United Nations began celebrating IWD in 1975 during the International Year of the Woman.

Still struggling for liberation

As we celebrate International Women’s Day in 2007, let us recognize the successes and new allies while at the same time seeing we have a ways to go.

In the U.S., reproductive rights continue to be under vicious assault by the radical right. Women still make only 77 percent of what men do for the same job.

The 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which eliminated a crucial social safety net for women and their children, has led to the growth of poverty. By 2002 one in 10 former welfare recipients in seven Midwest states had become homeless even though they were now employed in the low wage jobs.

Universal child care remains off the political agenda.

There are new groups involving young women, grannies, women of color, moms and working women who are coming together with new ideas, new ways of communicating, and new energy for these and many other issues confronting us this International Women’s Day.

Carolyn Trowbridge chairs the Women’s Equality Commission of the Communist Party.