James Keating & Michelle Staff

 

This year’s International Women’s Day (IWD) has two themes. The first—‘Cracking the code: Innovation for a gender equal future’—was devised by the United Nations (UN), which officially recognised 8 March as IWD in 1977. The second—#EmbraceEquity—is promulgated by the British consultancy Aurora Ventures, whose pithier mottoes are increasingly popular among public sector and corporate event planners. Australian media have sought to ‘historicise’ IWD since the mid-1980s. Yet, the ubiquity of such slogans, which often bear little relevance to most women and gender-diverse people’s lives, alongside the lingering shadow of Cold War paradigms in feminist historiography and the shift from street politics to boardroom breakfasts, might explain why few associate 8 March with its radical past.

 

Origins
Like much of the architecture of early feminist internationalism, IWD has transatlantic roots. It began life as National Woman’s Day, declared on 28 February 1909 by the Socialist Party of America (SPA). The party drew on the template established by the May Day demonstrations, seeking to build support for improvements to women workers’ wages and conditions while also challenging the political primacy of the burgeoning middle-class suffrage movement.

In 1910, inspired by the SPA and the New York garment workers’ ‘uprising’ the previous October, German Marxists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin used the International Conference of Socialist Women to propose that ‘socialist women of all nationalities … organize a special Women’s Day’. From the following year, IWD rallies and marches were staged across Europe and the United States, marking an ‘uneasy alliance’ between socialism and feminism without resolving differences over their respective priorities or the necessity of gender separatism. Although the date of 8 March was not fixed until the Second International Conference of Communist Women (1921) selected it to commemorate women’s roles in Russia’s February Revolution, whenever IWD was observed the anniversary was associated with campaigns against workers’ exploitation and the expansion of their civil and political rights.[1]

 

Edna Ryan (Australian National University)

IWD in Australia
While the USSR celebrated IWD as a public holiday, Australian women had little formal connection to the circuits of international socialism before the 1920s.[2] It was not until the Communist Party of Australia’s Militant Women’s Group—among their number a young Edna Ryan, who later co-founded the Women’s Electoral Lobby—gathered in Sydney’s Domain on 25 March 1928 that IWD reached Australia. By 1931, marches were taking place in Sydney and Melbourne alongside soapbox rallies in other cities and regional centres such as Newcastle, Wollongong, and Ipswich. Reflecting both the male-dominated membership of trade unions and the mainstream women’s movement’s middle-class base, as historian Jude Conway argues it was common to see ‘more men than women listen[ing] to speakers discuss how to involve a greater number of women in radical activities’ at interwar events.

Within a few years, IWD committees were formed across the country and brought a wider range of women’s organisations into the fold, including the United Associations of Women (founded by Jessie Street in 1929) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.[3] In 1937, for example, a ‘widely representative and successful gathering’ of over 200 women met in Sydney, with many of their speeches emphasising women’s role in achieving world peace: one of the foremost concerns of the day. Beyond demands for equal pay, an end to piecework, and benefits for the unemployed, from the mid-1930s Indigenous activists such as Australian Aborigines’ League leader Anna Morgan used the day to excoriate the so-called ‘protection’ system and demand opportunities for Aboriginal women’s education.

IWD activities persisted throughout the Second World War. According to activist-turned-historian Joyce Stevens, IWD still provided an opportunity to discuss topics such as women’s economic rights and motherhood but the war effort—especially women’s roles in it—became central. Charity afternoon teas were commonplace; in 1942 one such gathering in Ipswich raised funds for the Red Cross Society and praised the ‘unity’ of women in the Allied countries ‘in the determination to do our utmost to defeat Fascism and once again make our celebration truly international’.

By the 1950s Cold War tensions challenged the unity of women across political lines and ensured radical women became sidelined in histories of activism for women’s rights. The collaborations that women’s organisations had enjoyed in the 1930s gave way to a deeper split between left-wing and centrist or right-wing groups. The new Union of Australian Women (1950) kept the IWD flame alight in the post-war period. Yet with anti-communist sentiment high, Australian IWD organisers struggled to find public venues that were willing to host them and their discussions of equal pay, peace, nuclear disarmament, and Aboriginal rights. Nevertheless, women persisted and even hosted visitors from countries like China, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Soviet Union throughout the 1960s and 1970s, choosing to emphasise the strength of women’s bonds across borders.

In the context of the Women’s Liberation Movement, IWD began to transform. As one part of Australian feminism’s feted ‘cultural renaissance’, the day became an occasion for celebration as much as for activism. Instead of charity teas, a more diverse group of organisers staged IWD festivals, dances, shows, and other artistic performances. This new energy came with new political demands. In 1972 women marched to end gender discrimination, adding contraception, abortion, and domestic violence to the list of injustices women aired publicly. Two years later, the ‘Women Against the Violent Society’ forum—held after Sydney’s IWD rally—marked a turning point in the public consciousness of gender-based violence and preluded the opening of Elsie, Australia’s first feminist refuge. The breadth of concerns expressed each March did not sit easily with all women, however, as the far-left Spartacist League’s Sydney members reminded IWD spectators in 1978 when they marched behind a banner demanding ‘class struggle, not bourgeois feminism’.[4] Likewise, the agenda advanced by Women’s Liberation, alongside other strands of mid-century feminist thought, was subject to fierce criticism by queer, migrant, and Indigenous voices within and outside the movement (most comprehensively by Goenpul woman and scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson). Nevertheless, IWD proved a malleable platform, from which—at the local level—marginalised groups could advocate their own demands, from Aboriginal mothers’ rights to children’s liberation and gay liberation.[5]

 

Women’s Liberation demonstration in Melbourne to mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 1975 (National Archives of Australia)

IWD goes global
After losing momentum across the Global North amid the bitterness of the Cold War, in the 1970s IWD went global. It was first observed by the UN in 1975, which was designated as International Women’s Year after lobbying from the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), whose executive included Sydney’s Freda Brown. Established in 1945 with a focus on peace, as the Cold War progressed WIDF’s membership—which spanned 106 countries by 1975—developed an anti-imperialist agenda. International Women’s Year, and the three World Conferences of Women that punctuated the UN Decade for Women—Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985)—was characterised by generative clashes between delegates from the Global North and South which germinated more diverse, polyglot, and decentralised feminisms. As in Australia, during these years local activists used IWD to advocate for myriad causes superseding the demands of the old left, including anti-racist and anti-Vietnam protests in the United States, institutional gender equality in Greece, and protests at UN headquarters as staff exposed gendered discrimination within the organisation, while in Eastern Europe it was refashioned into ‘apolitical socialist “mother’s day”’.[6]

 

From militant to middle-of-the-road?
These radical socialist origins can be hard to find in the IWD of the twenty-first century. Since the 1980s, attendance at street protests has dwindled. Increasingly co-opted by multinational companies and governments alike, the day all too often foregrounds supposedly empowering catchphrases rather than urgent demands for drastic change.

Contemporary critiques of IWD abound. In 2018 Arrernte woman and unionist Celeste Liddle highlighted the whitewashing of IWD, including by companies whose exploitative labour practices harm the world’s most vulnerable women and girls. ‘International Women’s Day itself has nothing to do with corporations and pithy hashtags’, she wrote, emphasising that ‘IWD is a call to action’; an incredibly pressing one for Aboriginal women, who continue to fight the injustices not only of gender inequality but also of racism and colonialism. As Cobble Cobble woman and academic Megan Davis points out, ‘[t]he trickle down theory of “women on boards” changes little’ for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who occupy less privileged positions in society.

These are not calls to abandon IWD altogether. As moments such as the 2021 March4Justice showed, there is still a desire to protest gendered inequalities and people can and will take to the streets if energised to do so. IWD has become so popular that it has lost some of its revolutionary edge; so diffuse that some of its meaning is lost, buried beneath slogans that are a far cry from the rallying calls of the movement’s first fifty years. But there remains an opportunity. As political scientist Lauren Rosewarne explains, the day offers a platform for discussions that might encourage people to ‘leave thinking about things a little differently than they did before’. A simple return to the past may not be the answer, but a revitalised IWD may yet have things to offer the battle for gender equality.

 

 

 

[1] Women workers in Petrograd first went on strike on 23 February 1917 [Russia then used the Julian calendar, but the date corresponded with 8 March on the Gregorian calendar employed in the Western world and Russia after 1918], their actions marking the beginning of the February Revolution.

[2] Joy Damousi, Women Come Rally: Socialism, Communism and Gender in Australia 1890–1955 (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994), pp. 89–91.

[3] Emma Grahame, ‘International Women’s Day’, in Barbara Caine, Moira Gatens, Emma Grahame, Jan Larbalestier, Sophie Watson, and Elizabeth Webby (eds.), Australian Feminism: A Companion (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 438.

[4] Emma Grahame, ‘Sydney Women’s Liberation’, in Caine et al. (eds.), Australian Feminism, p. 500.

[5] Isobelle Barrett Meyering, Feminism and the Making of a Child Rights Revolution 1969-1979 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2022), pp. 33–34; Sophie Robinson, ‘The Lesbian Presence in Feminism, Gay and Queer Social Movements in Australia, 1970s–1990s’, PhD Thesis, UNSW Sydney, 2018, pp. 77–78, 228.

[6] Sue Kedgley, Fifty Years a Feminist (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2021), p. 125.

Cover image: International Women’s Day – Petrograd (Wikimedia Commons)

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James Keating
James Keating

James is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Australia and New Zealand and works as a Teaching Associate at the University of Melbourne. Tracing the stories and material legacies of Australasian activists, his research interrogates local, national, and international feminist movements to better understand the history and memory of transnational organising. His writing on suffrage, feminist historiography and material culture, the Contagious Diseases Acts, and world’s fairs has been featured in a range of journals and his book, Distant Sisters: Australasian Women and the International Struggle for the Vote, 1880–1914, was published by Manchester University Press in 2020. You can follow him on twitter @Keating_JW.

Michelle Staff
Michelle Staff

Michelle is a gender historian based at The Australian National University, where she recently submitted her PhD thesis on interwar feminist internationalism. She is especially interested in transnational and biographical approaches to exploring the feminist past. Her writing has been published in the Journal of Women’s History, Australian Historical Studies, the Australian Book Review, and elsewhere. You can follow her on twitter @michellecstaff.