Commemorating International Women’s Day: Keep on Struggling! by Nina Agerskov

2010 is the centenary of the founding of International Women’s Day (IWD), but the history of female organization goes back a lot further. Not only is it an exciting tale; the story also reminds us of how important it is to keep on struggling for socialist feminism.

Tracing the roots

When the French Revolution took place in 1789, critical voices were heard from women who saw that this revolution did not do much to give men and women equal rights. Beyond this, numerous female labor organizations started to grow following the industrialization of the Western countries in the 19 th Century. However, it was not until the women’s rights movement had developed into a socialist women’s movement in the early 20 th Century, that the IWD as a concept and as a specific day for struggle was created. The resolution for establishing a special day for the international women’s movement was passed in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the request of German socialist Clara Zetkin. This happened during the first international women’s conference, which was part of the Congress of the Second International in 1910.

This women’s conference took place in Folkets Hus (The House of the People) in Copenhagen, a house that has come to have a remarkable history. For more than 60 years the house was owned by the workers’ movement in Denmark. In 1982, when the house had been empty and under municipal ownership for a couple of years, the City Council of Copenhagen gave in to demands by young squatters for a house they could use as community center, and handed over the key of the former Folkets Hus to the activists. Ungdomshuset (The Youth House), as the house was now called, fostered a lot of ideas, events and activism.

In spite, or because, of this activity, Ungdomshuset was sold by the City Council to the Christian sect Faderhuset (The Father House) in 2007. After a period of intense protest actions by both youth and community allies, the sect tore the house down. Afterwards, many people were angry with the members of the City Council, partly because they already had given the house to the youth of Copenhagen, partly because many people considered the house an important historical artifact.

Almost three years later, the site of the historic Folkets Hus and the vibrant Ungdomshuset remains an empty lot. The destruction of this building is a great loss to Copenhagen both because so many of the ideas, networks, and initiatives in today’s anticapitalist movement in Denmark were connected to this house, and because the act of selling it reflects the increasingly reactionary tendencies of Danish society

Shaping the movement

After WW1, and the following split between social democrats and socialists/communists, the women’s movement, along with other social movements, had to decide which way to go. The aforementioned Clara Zetkin was now head of the women’s secretariat under the Comintern – The Third International – and it was during the second international women’s conference, which took place in Moscow in 1922, that March 8 was specified as the date for IWD, due to the revolutionary actions of Russian women workers in overthrowing the Czar on that date in 1917.

The growth of fascism and nazism in Europe and the worldwide economic depression during the period between the two world wars caused International Women’s Day to recede into the background. It was not until the 1960’s that it really came back in force. The student revolt and the general breakdown of norms at the end of that decade created the basis for a new and powerful women’s movement, often referred to as second wave feminism.

At this point not only economic and political equality, but also abortion, sexual oppression, the concept of the nuclear family and the commodification of the woman’s body were topics for IWD events. Thus the day of struggle was revitalized with a more anti-authoritarian perspective, and with more focus on women emancipation than ever before. That is to say, a notable difference between the women’s movement before WW2 and after 1960 was that the second wave of feminism was more thoroughly an independent, radical, social movement, rather than functioning as a marginalized sector of a political party or organization.

Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated very differently in different parts of the world. In some countries the day is an official holiday for men and women, or for women alone, and in some places IWD has almost become a combination of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. The consequence is that men in those places give their mothers, sisters and girlfriends gifts, but this practice has been heavily critizised by many feminists. They claim that this act is celebrating a femininity more binding than liberating, and that it makes a mockery of the women’s struggle, instead of using the day to focus on the urgency of this struggle and on women’s ability to speak for themselves and to make their influence felt on their own terms.

The struggle continues

In Denmark, our tradition of strong workers’ and women’s movements goes a long way back, and we always celebrate International Women’s Day with large demonstrations and with meetings and events where women’s issues are debated. It is of course not our right wing government that supports this tradition, but instead a myriad of grassroot organizations and left wing parties. Thus it is common to see many different demonstrations and happenings, but usually there is at least one joint initiative on subjects like criminalization of sex buyers or violence against women.

This year International Women’s Day coincides with national collective bargaining between workers and industry, and therefore the main theme of the day will probably be women’s issues connected to the workplace and the lack of equality still present there. This creates a much needed and welcomed opportunity for us as socialist feminists to stress the importance of combining socialism and feminism. We need to show people the difference between individual bourgeois feminism and our much more collectively minded socialist feminism, thus emphasizing why the latter is the way to go. danmarkssmukkestemakrel@gmail.com .

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