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In Bread and Roses, Andrea D’Atri makes a fiery plea for dismantling capitalist patriarchy. In this excerpt, D’Atri explores the radical roots of International Women’s Day.

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While one part of feminism individually and comfortably reclines on the couch, asking itself, “who am I?” and another part searches anxiously for the reference needed for a footnote that certifies its work as trustworthy, […] out there the world is bursting with poverty: millions of infants, born as women, look out upon a model of society that reserves a cradle of thorns for them.

—Victoria Sau Sánchez

Today, we still celebrate International Women’s Day every year on March 8. However, among all the advertisements for flowers and chocolates, the great majority of people do not know the origin of this holiday. It began with an action organized by women workers in the nineteenth century to demand their rights: on March 8, 1857, the workers of a textile factory in New York went on strike against exhausting twelve-hour days and miserable wages. The demonstrators were attacked by the police.

Half a century later, in March 1909, 140 young workers were burned alive in a textile factory where they were trapped under inhumane conditions. And in that same year, 30,000 New York textile workers went on strike and were repressed by the police. In spite of the repression, however, these workers won the support of university students, suffragettes, socialists, and other sectors of society.

A few years later, at the beginning of 1912, the “Bread and Roses” strike broke out in the city of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The striking textile workers used this slogan to summarize their demands for increased wages and also for better living conditions. In this struggle, the strike committee set up nurseries and communal kitchens for the children of the women workers in order to facilitate their participation in the conflict. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) held meetings for children in the union hall to discuss why their mothers and fathers are on strike. After several days of conflict, the children are sent to other cities. They are to be taken in by families in solidarity with the workers’ struggle. On the first train, 120 children leave. As the second train was set to depart, the police unleashed repression against the children and the women accompanying them. With this incident, the conflict reached newspapers across the country and also the halls of Congress, increasing solidarity with the strikers.

Two years earlier, during the Second International Socialist Women’s Conference held in the city of Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin from Germany had proposed to celebrate International Women’s Day every year in March, to commemorate the women workers who had carried out the first organized actions against capitalist exploitation.

At this conference in August 1910, 100 socialist women from different European countries debated about voting rights for women and social welfare for working mothers, as well as measures to establish relations between socialist women around the world. They passed a motion to fight for the eight-hour working day, sixteen weeks of maternity leave, and other demands.

It was the German delegates who presented a motion that was passed unanimously and went down in history. The resolution presented by Clara Zetkin and Käte Duncker said:

In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade organizations of the proletariat in their country the socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day, which primarily has to promote Women Suffrage propaganda. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole women’s question according to the socialist conception of social things. [Women’s Day] must have an international character and be prepared carefully.

In the following years, International Women’s Day was celebrated in many countries—but on different days in March. It was not until 1914 that the German, Russian, and Swedish socialists agreed to hold it on March 8. This date became fixed in history as International Women’s Day because on March 8, 1917 (in February according to the Russian calendar at the time) the textile workers of Petrograd took to the streets demanding “bread, peace and freedom.” This signaled the beginning of the greatest revolution of the twentieth century, which led to the seizure of power by the working class in October of that year.

The emergence and development of capitalism did not only increase the exploitation and oppression of women, but also led to profound changes in women’s resistance and struggles against these chains. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the bourgeois revolutions, feminism emerged as a social movement and a theoretical, ideological, and political current. This movement passed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taking on different forms and reaching the present day in the form of different theoretical tendencies, diverse practices, and multiple experiences of organization.

We revolutionary Marxists continue to maintain that the class struggle is the motor of history, and that the working class, leading the poor masses and all oppressed sectors, is the subject of the social revolution that will liberate us from wage slavery and all forms of oppression, striking capitalism in its heart, paralyzing its mechanisms of extortion and plunder, and destroying its machinery of war against the subaltern classes. Today, that class has millions of women in its ranks. Capital produces this contradiction alongside so many others. The bourgeoisie permanently creates and recreates its own gravedigger. It is our conviction that the women of the working class will play a fundamental role in these future battles for the complete toppling of the exploiting class.

Andrea D’Atri is founder of the Argentinian women’s organisation, ‘Pan Y Rosas’ (Bread and Roses), one of the largest socialist women’s organisations in the world. She is also a psychologist and specialist in women’s studies.

Get your copy of Bread and Roses: Gender and Class Under Capitalism here.