The origins of International Women’s Day are, as historian Jinty Nelson put it, “international, socialist and feminist”. The story begins with the celebration of National Woman’s Day on February 23rd 1909 in New York. Many, including the UN on their website, claim that this was “in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York” but that seems to be an apocryphal story containing little truth. It would be more instructive to note the importance of the moment as one of the first acts of solidarity between the socialists (focused on economic rights) and the suffragists (fighting for women’s political rights). Over in Europe, women socialists led by Clara Zeitkin were agitating across countries and on March 18th 1911, they organized the first International Women’s Day. Through the efforts of these women, the socialist movement across Europe began to put its strength behind the call for votes for women but then the First World War put an end to all social reform for five years.
There is an interesting connection with the Russian revolution as explained nicely by Temma Kaplan: “On February 25, two days after the women’s insurrection had begun on International Woman’s Day, the czar ordered General Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District to shoot if necessary in order to crush the women’s revolution. Khabalov summarized the problems authorities feel when confronted with women’s consumer demands. He explained that when they said, ‘Give us bread!’ we could give them bread and that was the end of it. But when they said, ‘Down with the autocracy!’ we could no longer appease them with bread. Thus began the February revolution in Russia.”
International Woman’s Day became an official Communist holiday in 1922 thanks to Lenin and Clara Zeitkin’s efforts. The communist governments of China and Spain celebrated it as well. It remained a Communist holiday till the early 1970’s when with the help of the United Nations, it became (or rather, returned to being) a global phenomenon.
And now, more than a hundred years later, women are India are still fighting for both economic and political rights. In September 2015, the mostly women workers of a tea plantation in Munnar in Kerala took to the streets in huge numbers – possibly around 4000. They were demanding a bonus and increase in daily wages but more importantly, they saw the mostly-male leadership (of both the unions and the political parties) as a threat to their struggle. The workers did get a 20% bonus but the daily wage increase was ‘deferred’ till October 2015 when, with one eye on the upcoming local body elections, the government increased the daily wage rate to Rs. 301 as against the demand of Rs. 500. The movement did try to become expressly political with the formation of the Pembili Orumai but factionalism and a poor electoral performance has more or less ended any hopes of a larger effect. The whole incident can be seen as a reminder of the terrible gender equity in Kerala politics as described in detail by Leena Raghunath.
She writes: “In an assembly with 140 MLAs and with a demography of 1,084 females per 1,000 men, the number of women MLAs in the state has never crossed to double digits. Kerala takes a lot of pride in the high literacy, high life expectancy, and the political awareness of its female population. Despite this, the representation of women in the state assembly and Parliament continues to be poor. In every general election, Kerala sends 20 MP’s to Parliament, and the state has 9 seats in the Rajya Sabha. But since independence, only nine women – Annie Mascarene, Suseela Gopalan, Bhargavi Thankappan, Savithri Lakshmanan, AK Premajam, P Sathi Devi, CS Sujatha, PK Sreemathy, and TN Seema – have represented the state in both houses of Parliament. The shameful numbers make one question whether gender equality in Kerala exists only in statistics.”
It’s also been the case that women workers in their fight for their own economic rights, fight for the economic rights of the whole country – as was the case in April 2016, when Bangalore’s garment workers took to the streets to protest the 2016 budget resolution to tax provident fund withdrawals. Bangalore Mirror, albeit not the most reliable source, claimed that there were 20,000 workers at one strike. Bangalore has 5-6 lakh garment workers, of which 90% are women. To some of them, their provident fund is more important to them than their wages. After they took to the streets, other workers joined them, swelling their numbers till the government couldn’t ignore them anymore. The same can’t be said for their individual employers. On a day to day basis, their exploitation continues – poor occupational safety and health, no job safety, sexual harassment. But as one piece of reportage by the New York Times shows in evocative detail, for these women, these jobs are the only ticket out of a despondent rural scenario. Seen in this light, their strike seems more like a fight for keeping the one element of security that society has seen fit to bestow on them.