Why have women been discriminated against in history?

Women's Day and the long struggle for equality

Status: March 8th, 2021 9:08 am

For 100 years, women have been demonstrating for more rights and equality on March 8th with International Women's Day. But women's days existed before that - and the fight against discrimination goes back much further.

by Stefanie Grossmann

August 26, 1910 went down in history as an important day for all European women: At that time in Copenhagen, more than 100 delegates from 17 nations came together for the Second International Socialist Women’s Conference in an association house of the Danish trade unions. At the instigation of American socialists, led by May Wood Simons, the participants are supposed to initiate Women's Day, which was introduced in the USA in 1908, worldwide. Twelve delegates came from Germany alone. At the forefront: the women's rights activist and socialist Clara Zetkin and the trade unionist and social democrat Käte Duncker. Together they put the proposal to hold a Women's Day to the vote - with success. This is accepted unanimously without specifying a fixed date.

"In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat in their country, the socialist women of all countries organize a women's day every year, which primarily serves to agitate for women's suffrage." Renate Wurms: "We want freedom, peace, law. International Women's Day. On the history of March 8th", 1980

"Bread and Roses" - A song shapes the women's movement

In 1909 seamstresses in New York went on a general strike for better working and living conditions.

This date marks the beginning of a new era for women in the fight against oppression, political ignorance, poor working conditions, low wages, unreasonable working hours and living conditions. But women workers around the world take to the streets for more rights much earlier - and risk jail sentences or even their lives for doing so.

In the USA it is mainly women textile workers who have been drawing attention to the precarious situation of women since the middle of the 19th century. In 1909, around 20,000 seamstresses in New York took to the streets of New York for 75 hours a week for a starvation wage. They strike for more rights for 13 long weeks of winter until the companies finally give in. As a result, women workers in North America celebrate a national women's day on February 20, 1909. In 1912 around 20,000 textile workers went on strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, chanting the song "Bread and Roses", which has been part of the women's movement ever since. It's not just about a life worth living - the roses are a symbol of the appreciation of women in a male-dominated society.

Suffragettes are radicalizing in Great Britain

The suffragettes around Emmeline Pankhurst (2nd from right) campaigned for women's suffrage with radical campaigns.

In Great Britain, too, women's rights activists organized for universal suffrage and more equality at the beginning of the 20th century. After they got stuck with political persuasion, the suffragettes around leader Emmeline Pankhurst make themselves heard with militant protest actions. They disrupt public events, throw in windows and set fire to mailboxes. In addition, they break social taboos by smoking in public. They risk prison terms, go on hunger strikes in prison and endure painful force-feeding.

German women's rights activists initially operate in secret

In 1911 women demonstrated in Berlin for the right to vote.

To act politically as aggressively as the British women can only dream of at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany. The advocates of women's rights have no rights, they are not allowed to get involved in politics or join a party, not even take part in meetings. That is why they camouflage their political activities in educational associations, handicraft groups or reading groups. They do this with great commitment, often to the point of total self-abandonment. Because the fight for women's rights is difficult to reconcile with the typical female role at this time - as mother and housewife. Only with the resolution of the Prussian Reich Association Act on May 15, 1908, the bans were lifted and women were allowed to get involved in political associations. The political majority for this legal milestone is also thanks to the tireless commitment of bourgeois and proletarian women.

Clara Zetkin calls for the first International Women's Day in 1911

Editor Clara Zetkin calls for participation in the first International Women's Day on March 19, 1911 in the newspaper "Die Gleichheit".

While the bourgeois women's movements are primarily concerned with women's suffrage, the socialist women's movement strives for much more: protection of workers, social welfare for mother and child, equal treatment of single mothers, the provision of day nurseries and nurseries, free school lunches and freedom from Teaching aids. The goals are also international solidarity and intensive cooperation between organized women. On March 13, 1911, the newspaper "Die Equality", of which Clara Zetkin is the editor, issued an appeal to take an active part in the first International Women's Day: "Comrades! Working women and girls! March 19 is your day. It counts." your right. " A million people in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland follow the call, which both the SPD and the trade unions support. March 19th is tantamount to a provocation, as it is based on March 18th - the day of remembrance of the "March fallen" of 1848. Because Women's Day is also committed to political and economic rights and against war, exploitation and disenfranchisement.

Overview of the development of Women's Day

  • December 1908: The women's organization of the Socialist Party of America decided on a women's day as a day of struggle for women's suffrage.
  • February 28, 1909: Workers and bourgeois suffragettes celebrate First Women's Day in North America.
  • August 1910: The women's conference of the Socialist International in Copenhagen adopts the idea of ​​a women's day.
  • March 19, 1911: Trade unions, social democrats and socialists call for a women's day. Around a million people in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland responded to the call.
  • 1912: Sweden, the Netherlands and France join Women's Day.
  • 1913: Russia joins Women's Day.
  • May 5, 1917: After a break caused by the First World War, women are back on the streets to fight for more rights.
  • June 1921: At the Second International Conference of Communists, a World Women's Day is decided on March 8th.
  • March 8, 1946: After the ban on Women's Day in the Third Reich, it will take place again for the first time, but only in the Soviet-occupied zone.
  • 1975: As part of the "International Women's Year", the UN declares March 8th as "International Women's Day".
  • December 1977: The UN General Assembly officially names March 8th as the "Day for Women's Rights and World Peace" - with the request that each member state celebrate it annually in the future.

First World War: Women's Day is getting into the gray area

This can be seen in the course of increasing militarization in 1913 and 1914, when Women's Day turned into days of protest for pacifism. During the First World War, critical women's events on the part of the SPD are not welcome. Therefore, with its political actions, Women's Day is on the verge of legality. Organizers are threatened with reprisals. 1917 will be a decisive year. Disappointed socialists split off from the SPD and founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) in protest. The reason for the split is the approval of war credits and support for the war. The USPD immediately resolved to continue International Women's Day and organized a "Red Week" from May 5 to 12, 1917. In the following year, left-wing forces in the party also initiate a Women's Day, which takes place on the 100th birthday of Karl Marx, May 5, 1918.

Two women’s days are in competition

The socialist and later communist Clara Zektin fought tirelessly for women's rights.

With the introduction of universal suffrage in November 1918, Women's Day seems to have become less important. Especially since the split of the socialists into the SPD and KPD in 1919 also co-existed two women's days. A new design is therefore needed to give more emphasis to Women's Day. In both 1919 and 1920, applications by the SPD for a women's day failed. A year later, in June 1921, Clara Zetkin is again the driving force in the fight for women's rights. She is now a member of the KPD and heads the Second International Conference of Communists.

1921 March 8 is established for Women's Day

The result of this meeting: International Women's Day is to take place globally on March 8th. The date commemorates the strike by Russian textile workers against Tsarist Russia. On March 8, 1917, there were en masse women in St. Petersburg under the motto "Peace and Bread!" went out into the street. In 1923 the SPD finally followed suit. At the founding conference of the Socialist Workers' International in Hamburg in 1923, Adelheid Popp and Marie Juchacz decide to reintroduce Women's Day, which was decided in Copenhagen. Time and topics are left to women in the various countries. It was not until 1926 that both parties, in cooperation with trade unionists, convene a women's day - for general world peace and more international solidarity.

Third Reich: Mother's Day supersedes Women's Day

International Women's Day experienced a renewed and even more severe damper when the National Socialists came to power in 1933. Mother's Day took its place. But it does not find approval in the communist and social democratic workers' movement. Nor does it play a role in the trade unions. Since the socialist movement played a major role in the development of Women's Day, it was officially banned until 1945. Despite the ban, International Women's Day continues, but more in secret, in private - and no longer in the form of demos on the street. March 8th is now a symbol of resistance and socialist activity in the underground. Sympathizers, for example, display illegal leaflets or set an example by "airing out" red objects on windows or clotheslines.

Post-war period: Women's Day is becoming less important in the West

In the GDR in the 1950s, coffee tables were held on the women's day of honor - like here at the University of Jena.

After the end of the Second World War and with the division of Germany, Women's Day was also divided into two parts. In the Soviet-occupied zone, a Women's Day was held again as early as 1946. A year later, after the founding of the Democratic Women’s Association in Germany (DFD) in March 1947 in Berlin, March 8th is declared a day of struggle for women. From now on it will be a good form, especially in companies. Speeches will be given on socialist achievements, including equal rights for women. On the women's honor day, there are also coffee tables at which awards and red carnations are presented. In West Germany, the commitment almost comes to a standstill. In 1950 there was a celebration of the 40th birthday of International Women's Day under the motto "Through social justice to world peace". But in large parts of the SPD there is skepticism about events on International Women's Day. And so the affair of the heart of a political day of action for women is lost among social democrats and trade unionists well into the 1960s.

New women's movements are giving new impetus to Women's Day

While women in the GDR celebrated the "realization of the new position of women" every year on March 8 in the following years, International Women's Day in West Germany only gained importance again in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The background is the emergence of new movements: committed women show solidarity with the student movement against the "must of 1,000 years under the gowns". In addition, they protest against paragraph 218 and demand impunity for abortions. They stand up for equal career opportunities and against discrimination against lifestyles outside of marriage.

The federal state of Berlin celebrates the woman's day of honor as a public holiday

Finally, March 8th prevails again as a common day of struggle. In 1975 the United Nations declared the date "United Nations Day for Women's Rights and World Peace". International Women's Day is now a public holiday in a total of 26 countries. In Germany, the day of honor for women is so far only a day off in Berlin, decided in 2018 by the government coalition of the SPD, the Left and the Greens.

With their tireless commitment, women have already achieved a lot since the movements began. But the long struggle for equality is far from over. And so the goals of Women's Day 2021 do not sound much different than a century ago - and just as necessary: ​​equal pay for equal work, better opportunities for advancement and working conditions, and more rights against violence and sexism.

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NDR Info | 03/08/2021 | 4:36 pm