March 1, 2015

International Women’s Day: Reinvigorating Marxist-Feminist Struggles in Canada

 Jenna Amirault

This March, the Young Communist League and the Communist Party of Canada will celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) by expressing solidarity with the ongoing and past struggles of women. While IWD is widely celebrated in civil society today, often little is known about the holiday’s socialist roots. IWD would not have been possible without the struggles of socialist women. The political activism of Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) and Luise Zietz (1865-1922) was particularly influential. Zetkin and Zietz were committed communists dedicated to organizing working class women and educating their male comrades on the importance of women’s struggles. They understood that the success of socialism depended on proletariat women and men “fight[ing] hand in hand…against capitalist society.”1   In August 1910 at a general meeting of the Second International, Zietz suggested holding an International Women’s Day to bring attention to equal rights, the suffrage and the struggles of working class women. Zetkin seconded the motion and over a hundred women from seventeen different countries voted in support of creating IWD. The next year on March 18 (chosen to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Paris Commune) the first IWD demonstrations were held in Europe. It was a tremendous success with an estimated 300 demonstrations being held across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1922, with the help of Zetkin, Lenin would name International Women’s Day an official communist holiday.
Zetkin commemorated on
postage stamp from German
Democratic Republic
Since its formation in 1911 IWD has been used as a platform to rally the masses around a number of issues including exploitation, poverty and war. It is useful to revisit a couple examples here. In 1915 in Berne, Switzerland, Zetkin led socialist women from both neutral and warring countries in a demonstration against the ongoing destruction of World War I. Demonstrators distributed manifestos arguing that the working class had little to gain from the bourgeois war and called on women to organize in its opposition. Zetkin argued:

Who profits from this war? Only a tiny minority in each nation: The manufacturers of rifles and cannons, of armor-plate and torpedo boats, the shipyard owners and the suppliers of the armed forces’ needs. In the interests of their profits, they have fanned the hatred among the people, thus contributing to the outbreak of the war. The workers have nothing to gain from this war, but they stand to lose everything that is dear to them.2

Kollontai on postage stamp
from the USSR
In 1917, Alexandra Kollontai led one of the most dramatic IWD demonstrations in protest of the deteriorating living conditions in Russia. Women marched from the factories to the breadlines in protest of high food and rent prices and along the way they persuaded a number of male workers to join in solidarity with the march. The Czar felt so threatened by the women’s rebellion that two days later he ordered it to be stopped by means of gunfire if necessary.3  

Today, International Women’s Day continues to be celebrated by communists around the world although in many countries IWD has lost its popularity as a distinctly communist holiday. In Canada IWD celebrations encompass a broad array of feminist perspectives and often the holiday’s connection to socialism is unknown or dismissed. Torn from its socialist roots IWD is easily coopted to fit mainstream or ‘hegemonic’ discourse. As an example of this cooptation, this year’s IWD celebrations in Canada included events like, “Speed Networking for Superwomen,” “The Women and Wealth Networking Event,” and “Celebrating Women in Business.” Rather than helping to forward the cause of women, these events help propagate the mainstream liberal and conservative fallacy that ‘female empowerment’ and ‘equality’ come from bettering one’s individual position within capitalist society. The idea that women’s equality and freedom depends on their further incorporation into the capitalist marketplace is the same logic that is used to help bolster neo-colonialist and imperialist pursuits. For every successful woman CEO, entrepreneur or capitalist there exists many others who face the continued exploitation and oppression necessary to create the luxuries that ‘successful’ women in capitalism can afford. Far from Kollontai’s description of IWD as a “campaign for the political equality of women and the struggle for socialism”.4   IWD, when coopted by the right, becomes an important tool in maintaining capitalist hegemony.

In light of IWD’s bourgeois transformation it is useful to revisit the ongoing struggles that women face in capitalist society and re-examine what type of ‘equality’ is possible within capitalist relations of production more generally. For Marxist-feminist Rosemary Hennesy, this means considering how “difference is made intelligible and translated into strategies of exclusion and abjection” within capitalism.5   For example, throughout the history of capitalism gender and race have been two important ways that difference has been made meaningful. Sexism and racism become “ideological and institutional props of the industrial system and its model of accumulation”  creating further divisions among the working class.6  While early socialist organizers like Zetkin and Zietz easily identified the exploitation women faced in the workplace, they often overlooked the role of women and racialized persons in the social reproduction of capitalist society. That is, the daily unpaid, underpaid and often unrecognized labour that is necessary for the reproduction of the worker and working class as a whole (i.e. housework and care work). Today, the majority of unpaid or underpaid work continues to be done by women and racialized persons. It is therefore necessary that the struggle for socialism confront sexism and racism as well as other forms of oppression and exclusion like homophobia, trans-phobia and ableism. Hennesy rightly observes that capitalists are “deeply threatened by the prospect of people organizing across lines of difference.”7  

It is clear that unless we reconfigure society to one where we produce for human need over profit, there can be no hope of substantive equality for women or any other persons within capitalism. ‘Mainstream’ feminism’s focus on individualism and self-development are harmonious with capitalist hegemony. It is necessary to once again reclaim International Women’s Day and feminism to the socialist cause. Following in the footsteps of our communist sisters we must help agitate and educate on issues of gender, race, and sexuality in the pursuit of socialism.

This article is included in Rebel Youth's 18th print issue released in March 2015. This issue is produced by women identified members of the Young Communist League of Canada. To subscribe to Rebel Youth click here. To learn more or to join the YCL or click here.


[1]                 Zetkin, Clara. 1896. “Only in Conjunction With the Proletarian Woman Will Socialism Be Victorious.” Retrieved March 29, 2014            (

[2]                 Schulte, Elizabeth. 2014. “Clara Zetkin, Socialism and Women’s Liberation.” Retrieved March 29, 2014 (

[3]                 Kaplan, Temma. 1985. “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day.” Feminist   Studies 11 (1): 163-171.

[4]                 Kollontai, Alexandra. 1920. “International Women’s Day.” Retrieved March 29, 2014 (

[5]                 Hennesy, Rosemary. 2000. Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. New   York: Routledge. Pp. 5.

[6]                 Mies, Maria, Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Claudia Von Werlhof. Women the Last Colony.  New Jersey: Zed Books. Pp. 2.

[7]                 Hennesy, Profit and Pleasure, p. 12.

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