It was Clara Zetkin, a leading socialist of her time (prior to WW1) who introduced a proposal, which called for an annual international socialist women’s day.
“In agreement with the class-conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.” (August 27, 1910. From a proposal to the Second International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen).
The date – March 8 – was chosen because of an event that had occurred on that day in the United States. A women’s demonstration was called on March 8, 1908 under the leadership of women workers in the New York City garment trades. Hundreds gathered to demand the vote and to urge the building of a powerful garment trades’ union.
The success of the 1908 demonstration became known internationally among socialist women and Clara Zetkin proposed that the day of the demonstration of American working women become an International Women’s Day and that March 8 each year be dedicated to fighting for equal rights for all women in all countries.
In 1911, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in four countries, Denmark, Austria, Switzerland and Germany. The demands were voting rights for women, improvements of women’s working conditions, the right to be hired as public servants.
It was with a sharply defined Marxist vision that Clara Zetkin pointed out that women’s struggle is primarily class struggle.
“As far as the proletarian woman is concerned, it is capitalism’s need to exploit and search incessantly for a cheap labour force that has created the women’s question. It is for this reason, too, that the proletarian woman has become enmeshed in the mechanism of the economic life of our period and has been driven into the workshops and to the machines.
“She went out into the economic life in order to help her husband in making a living, but the capitalist mode of production transformed her into an unfair competitor.
“She wanted to bring prosperity to her family, but instead misery descended upon it. The proletarian woman obtained her own employment because she wanted to create a more sunny and pleasant life for her children, but instead she became almost entirely separated from them.
“She became an equal of the man as a worker, the machine rendered muscular force superfluous and everywhere women’s work showed the same results in production as men’s work. And since women constitute a cheap labour force and above all a submissive one that only in the rarest of cases dares to kick against the thorns of capitalist exploitation, the capitalists multiply the possibilities of women’s work in industry. As a result of all this, the proletarian woman has achieved her independence. But verily, the price was very high and for the moment they have gained very little…
“The proletarian woman has gained her economic independence, but neither as a human being nor as a woman or wife has she had the possibility to develop her individuality. For her task as a wife and a mother, there remain only the breadcrumbs, which the capitalist producers drop from their table.
“Therefore the liberation struggle of the proletarian woman cannot be similar to the struggle that the bourgeois woman wages against the male of her class. On the contrary, it must be a joint struggle with the male of her class against the entire class of capitalists.
“She does not need to fight against the men of her class in order to tear down the barriers which have been raised against her participation in the free competition of the market place. Capitalism’s need to exploit and the development of the modern mode of production totally relieves her of her having to fight such a struggle. On the contrary, new barriers need to be erected against the exploitation of the proletarian woman. Her rights as wife and mother need to be restored and permanently secured.
“Her final aim is not the free competition with the man, but the achievement of the political rule of the proletariat. The proletarian woman fights hand in hand with the man of her class against capitalist society.
“To be sure, she also agrees with the demands of the bourgeois women’s movement, but she regards the fulfilment of these demands simply as a means to enable that movement to enter the battle, equipped with the same weapons, alongside the proletariat”.
Source: Clara Zetkin, Selected writings, pp 76-78.
Edited by Philip S. Foner, foreword by Angela Y. Davis (1984).