Broad Recognition

A Feminist Magazine at Yale

Remembering the Leftist Roots of International Women’s Day

Earlier this month, on March 8th, countries across the world celebrated International Women’s Day. Browsing the IWD website, I was surprised, and interested, to see a short historical timeline of the event, revealing an apparently radical background. The Socialist Party of America first celebrated National Women’s Day in the United States in 1909, following a march of working women the year before, demanding shorter hours, better pay, and enfranchisement. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in 1911, after the unanimous vote of the socialist International Working Women’s Conference. It came to be celebrated on March 8 after working Russian women protested for food and the end of WWI on that day in 1917, instigating four days of unrest that caused the Czar to abdicate and ushering in the Russian Revolution. Even today, of the countries that recognize IWD as a national holiday—the U.S. not among them—more than half are or were socialist. These roots, however, have largely become obscured or forgotten.

It’s interesting to consider the origins of IWD in light of the move to hide the Leftist roots of the U.S. feminist movement. Popularly, the trajectory of U.S. feminism takes a huge leap from 1920, when women achieved suffrage, to the 1960s, when Second-Wave feminism emerged. Yet historical research from the last decade shows that Leftist organizations, largely associated with the U.S. Communist Party, served as an important locus of feminist activism and analysis in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s—a period of time best known for McCarthy-styled repression and conservative retrenchment. This generation of feminist activists laid the foundations for the Women’s Liberation movement that would erupt later on. Perhaps most emblematic of this struggle is Daniel Horowitz’s recent biography of Betty Friedan, Betty Friedan and the Making of “The Feminine Mystique”: The American Left, the Cold War, and Modern Feminism. Though the popular embodiment of the disaffected 1950s middle-class suburban housewife, Horowitz argues that in fact, Friedan was integrally shaped by a radical education at Smith College and her early work as a labor journalist for Leftist organizations. Though she later staunchly disavowed associations with the Left, Horowitz claims that Friedan’s feminism was intimately tied up in the progressive politics of her early years. Anti-communist sentiments in the U.S. cast a shadow over the feminist efforts of Leftist organizations during the time period discussed. Like Friedan, many activists involved in these efforts felt compelled to downplay their Communist influences when feminists of the 1960s and 70s unearthed their work. It is unsurprising, then, that the socialist-communist roots of IWD have been relegated to a footnote to the event.

Remembering the Leftist history of the IWD does more than restore a historical fun fact, just as the works of Horowitz and others do more than color in a three decade gap in feminist history. Understanding the consequences of this erasure matter, and can be examined by looking at the current manifestation of IWD. As the IWD site acknowledges, “The tone and nature of IWD has, for the past few years, moved from being a reminder about the negatives to a celebration of the positives.” This, it claims, is because while women face a wage gap, underrepresentation in politics, health and education disparities against men, and violence, “We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices.” The focus of the event, then, is to “inspire women and celebrate achievements.” Abstractly, this goal, and shift in focus, seems laudable. As the Women’s Media Center pointed out in its IWD roundup of women’s victories in 2011, “Rarely are feminist victories recognized by the mainstream media, or even for that matter, by our very own women’s movements.” Feminism too-often defines itself in opposition to existing norms, an exhausting strategy that holds little hope for the future. Perhaps, then, IWD, in “celebrating achievements,” really can inspire and propel the movement forward.

Yet, “achievement” is a subjective term, and IWD provides no metrics for what counts as positive gains. With its shift in “tone,” IWD ignores the importance of radical critique in creating a body of political actors able to make change. Instead, IWD has been reduced, in many countries, to a highly depoliticized event that stands, according the Wikipedia page, somewhere between “Mother’s Day” and “Valentine’s Day”—two events that hardly present a revolutionary view of the value of women. Its stated theme of the year, “Connecting Girls; Inspiring Futures,” is about as vague as the amorphous concept of “International Women.” Admittedly, the IWD website does not represent how the event is celebrated by everyone worldwide. The website is the product of a non-profit founded in 2001, and serves as an umbrella organization to publicize events and allows site users to upload their own initiatives in the struggle for women’s rights. The United Nations, for example, which has celebrated IWD since 1975, drew attention to the plight and potential of rural women with its 2012 theme, “Empower Rural Women—End Hunger and Poverty.” Moreover, women across the globe took it as an opportunity to stage demonstrations, from Filipino women protesting oil power in Manila, to Spanish women in Sevilla covering a wall with thoughts about women’s empowerment.

However, with its broadness and its opaque agenda, IWD still enables a lot of misdirected energy. This year, President Obama, in his March 1st proclamation opening U.S. Women’s History Month, invited Americans to celebrate IWD but failed to even once mention reproductive health, a political battle raging in state legislatures across the country, in the chambers of the U.S. Congress, and the stump speeches of his Republican would-be opponents. Last year, Diane Van Furstenberg launched a line of IWD-inspired tote bags and T-shirts. In an article promoting the line, the text read, “Even if we’re not political movers or shakers, we can still support the initiative by picking up one of these cute totes online”—quite explicitly diverting potentially political energies into status quo consumerism. An IWD without a vision for the future of women worldwide, without a measure of “achievement” or an understanding of the “negative” forces that impede such “achievement,” has lost a great deal of its meaning, and its power. It becomes an opportunity to gesture toward the idea of women’s rights without furthering the cause.

A recent article written by Bryce Covert at The Nation demonstrates the importance of evaluating, qualitatively, “achievements” of women. A short time ago, the national media was in awe at statistics indicating a possible “mancession.” Data seemed to suggest that women would be the winners in the new economy. Covert’s piece, however, tempers this apparent victory. While women are holding an increasing proportion of jobs, she reports, they are the low-paying, long-hours jobs that hold little opportunity for career advancement and poor benefits. “It’s true that women disproportionately hold retail sales, home health and personal care jobs, all of which are set to see the most growth. But these jobs not only pay poorly and have few benefits; they are also unstable and are poorly protected by labor laws or unionization,” she writes. A lack of paid leave for maternity and a lack of childcare, she continues, hamper women’s success in the workforce. Significantly, IWD was once heavily associated with the strength of unions. Shortly after the 1911 IWD, a devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed 146 female garment workers. IWD came to focus its events on the tragedy, galvanizing the labor organization of women.  As Covert shows, women workers today might benefit from the focus on unionization IWD once held. At any rate, a failure to understand actual labor conditions, and focusing instead on their triumph over men in the “mancession,” or bare, increasing numbers of women in the workforce, obscures significant qualitative challenges, and offers no means of solution for the difficulties women still face.

What Leftist activists struggling for women’s rights offered was a full-fledged structural understanding of the forces that oppress women, and a positive vision for how to transform it. As Kate Weigand notes in her book, Red Feminism, among the demands of the CP-affiliated Congress of American Women stood “Adequate childcare facilities with federal and state support for nurseries, recreation centers, and schools with hot lunches.” Rather than “celebrating” the uptick in working mothers, as some of this year’s IWD promotional videos do, they acknowledge the reasons why entrance into the workforce is difficult and seek to combat them. While today individual governments celebrate IWD separately with locally specific practices, in the past IWD was appealing to a specific constituency, working women worldwide. “We must be bold to reach the women—in the shops, and factories, on the farms, in the homes—to make them part of a peoples’ movement for peace, democracy, security, here and the world over,” wrote Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, leading U.S. CP member, for a 1948 celebration of IWD. In 1920, Alexandra Kollontai, a women’s rights activist and leader of the Soviet Union, writes of the IWD celebration improving women’s “political consciousness,” swelling the ranks of “socialist parties” and “trade unions,” and improving the “international solidarity of workers.” In its original form within socialist-communist circles, IWD sought not merely to survey advances achieved by women, but recognize the obstacles to those achievements and organize women for advances further still.

The historians Horowitz, Weigand, and others show that such a Leftist orientation indeed contributes to inciting important change. Betty Friedan is but one example of a woman trained in U.S. Leftist politics of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, who went on to stoke the fires of the Second-Wave. Weigand documents the prevalence of “red-diaper babies” in the social justice movements of the 60s and 70s, that is, individuals whose parents were members or supporters of the U.S. CP. In her work, Personal Politics, oral historian Sara Evans was surprised to find that independent of one another, many of the earliest leaders of the feminist movement had families with radical backgrounds. She writes, “They were not schooled in Marxist analysis…they simply had learned a willingness to question and a deep sense of social justice.” Thus, she contends, they made up “a significant proportion of the early leaders…in developing new feminism.” The idea of feminist “consciousness raising,” a strategy that became key to the movement, Weigand writes, has its origins in Old Left understanding of political movements. Such evidence suggests that the loss of Leftist roots has not just conceptual but material consequences. The conceptual visioning, commitment to and strength in organizing, and oppositional stance of the Left were once driving forces behind both IWD and American feminism.

To finish, it’s worth noting that IWD is not necessarily either a positive source of good or a neutral, harmless holiday. Providing governments, organizations, and individuals the opportunity to pay lip service to the cause of “International Women” without advocating for substantive change is counterproductive. A nod to women, one day a year, without coming to terms with the year-round and centuries-old oppression of women, obscures the problem, rather than working to solve it. A recent Yale Daily News opinion column perhaps most effectively sums up this problematic attitude toward IWD. Elaina Plott, SC ’15, writes of IWD, “On what was supposed to be a celebration of the brilliance, beauty and achievement of the female sex, we were complaining about our entitlement to insurance coverage for contraception.” The base celebration of women as women seems, at best, reductive, and at worst, offensive to those in the gender-queer and trans communities that see themselves on the same side of the fight.  What Leftist organizers understood was that IWD was not about paying homage to an essentialized ideal; it was about agitating for social justice.

This IWD, I most appreciated the coverage given to women and the challenges they face worldwide, which, in raising awareness, hopefully, contributed to increased political consciousness as well. Perhaps a raised awareness of IWD’s Leftist history will, too, contribute to a holiday more committed to women’s social justice struggle.

Emily Villano is a junior at Yale College. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Broad Recognition.

Comments (2)

  • Great reminder of history that’s been too often forgotten or buried. Great analysis.

    posted by Bob Lamm      March 26th, 2012 at 4:48 pm

  • What a damning quotation from Furstenberg’s site.

    I second Bob Lamm’s comment. I’d observe, though, that the ideological left has no monopoly on “conceptual visioning, commitment to and strength in organizing”, nor are leftists the only potent social activists, even (perhaps especially) in the modern U.S. Perhaps it’s merely an indication of the drifting of political terminology, but radical activism no longer implies leftist politics. On abortion, for example, there’s a lot more radical activism on the right (e.g. reverse Roe) than on the left. Experience with activism is certainly important for feminists, but I think that can be distinguished from experience with leftism (even if that’s not historically been the case). Of course that complicates the job of IWD promoters–how do you advance an activist cause without explicit political alignment?

    posted by Ben Miller      March 26th, 2012 at 10:07 pm

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