By Saswat Pattanayak
“Down with the world of property and the power of capital! Away with inequality, lack of rights and the oppression of women – the legacy of the bourgeois world! Forward to the international unity of working women and male workers.” (Alexandra Kollontai)
The radical roots of International Women’s Day are being systematically suppressed via liberal appeals for male virtues to prevail upon a patriarchy. Revolutionary struggles waged by the women and men to challenge feudal and capitalistic orders are being overshadowed by reformist emotions dramatized in commercials targeting women as a burgeoning consumer class. Incessant demands for emancipation of the working class under the banner of International Women’s Day (IWD) are being discarded in favor of trickling down of legislative charities.
When in 1917, the IWD was first observed in Leningrad, women workers of Petrograd had organized a mass of 50,000, comprising their fellow male comrades in demanding for “bread, peace and land” and to end the imperialistic world war. They confronted the Tsarist military exceeding 180,000 troops, and refused to disperse. Not only that, the organizing women proved to be so exemplary in their resistance, that the Russian Army had to turn mutinous and the first International Women’s Day resulted in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the end of Romanov dynasty and the end of Russian Empire.
Alexandra Kollontai, who spearheaded the movement to establish March 8th as the International Women’s Day, had declared it as a “militant celebration, a day of international solidarity, and a day for reviewing the strength and organization of proletarian women.”
Far from being a day for reviewing the strength of working class, March 8th today has been rendered as merely a day for symbolic overtures. Far from a celebration of solidarity across working women, it has become a day to cheer for the women celebrities bossing over structural inequalities. Defeat of the very corporate culture which cemented the women’s day has today usurped the principles and made the anti-capitalist day into an event of consumerist fanfare.
March as the Women’s History Month:
With much of the capitalist world failing to officially regard March 8 as the International Women’s Day, considering its communistic roots, they have however acknowledged the month of March as one to acknowledge the role of women in nation-building. Women’s History Month is now celebrated in the US, UK and Australia among a few other countries. Just as they have succeeded in obliterating the significance of May Day by not celebrating it officially because of its communistic history, they have also managed to avoid IWD as an occasion to duly observe. Instead of celebrating the working class struggles against the imperialistic power structures, Women’s History Month has become a marketing opportunity to further reinforce capitalistic ethos. Instead of celebrating the mass movements and unsung protesters, the Month is instead being used as a way to iconize individuals, bereft of their political contexts.
This March 8 should serve as a reminder that despite the collapse of Soviet Union and despite the lack of global initiatives to bring the women’s rights struggles to the political forefront, the principles guiding the International Women’s Day remain as relevant as ever. IWD is an anti-war, pro-working class global movement that aims to emancipate all women and men. On the March 8th of 1970, the Berkeley Women’s Liberation Front outlined the heroism of Vietnamese Women while answering “What does the Vietnamese War have to do with women’s liberation?” In the words of these radical American feminists: “Everything! Women in the movement here are talking about the essential right of people to live full and meaningful lives, demanding an end to the way women, throughout history, have been objectified and dehumanized. How then can we not recognize these same claims that are being made not only by the oppressed in our own country, but by those who are oppressed by this country abroad?”
The very heroic struggles of Vietnamese women which once informed the revolutionary potential of women in the US are at the core of the IWD history. Although the IWD was celebrated only in the communist countries, it had its roots in American labor history, and this is something the American ruling class conveniently overlooks. After all, it was on March 8, 1911 that the American working women had gathered to commemorate this occasion for the first time, even as it was never granted an official status in the US. And even during the anticommunist era, American women gathered again to celebrate the IWD in 1969 in the city of Berkeley. In subsequent years the day was to be commemorated across institutes in the US, despite official disapprovals. The popularity of IWD grew so much that to evade further embarrassment, Jimmy Carter had to proclaim the week of the March 8th as the “National Women’s History Week” in 1980. Under the Reagan Administration, this History Week was to be formalized and finally celebrated, starting 1982. Five years hence, in 1987, Ronald Reagan would finally expand the History Week to a month, upon the insistence of “National Women’s History Project” (NWHP). Through 1988 to 1994, several legislations ensured that Women’s History Month would be formalized and it has been so since 1995.
This series of reluctant observations on part of American administrations also corresponds directly with the half-hearted approaches towards addressing issues of women’s rights in this country. Struggles for equal pay across sexes, maternity leaves, freedom from racial discriminations, wealth disparities across classes continue to define oppression of women in the United States, and pretty much rest of the world. Without any alternative economic model of women’s empowerment in this vastly unipolar world, capitalistic values continue to impose themselves on people everywhere. It has become almost impossible to break away from the chains of slavery gifted to us by capitalistic greed and mindless competitions which have systemically left behind the traditionally oppressed people, most significantly, the women of color and the disabled women.
If history teaches us any lessons, then the International Women’s Day teaches us a few: that, women will not be emancipated anywhere without women’s liberation everywhere; that, without the recognition of the ways race, class, gender and other social locations intersect, there is no way to bring the historically oppressed women to the same platform that has been achieved by the privileged women; that, the radical history of working women’s movements to liberate women and men must not be diminished by those eager to erase the history of struggles and replace them with history of charities. That, the month of March, the week of March 8th and the Day of the International Women instruct us this: the working women (and, men) of the world must unite in cause, because they have nothing to lose. And, everything to gain.
(Written for Women’s Rights NY Blog)