Society and Culture

The socialist origins of International Women’s Day

This year’s International Women’s Day theme was #InspireInclusion, one of those clichéd phrases which do little other than signal adherence to the woke progressive orthodoxy of our time. Feminism, a movement which was originally easily compatible with classical liberalism, has long been taken over by the progressive Left, often incorrectly blaming “problems” like the gender pay gap on sexist discrimination. But was it ever thus? Is International Women’s Day a day of celebration, of protest… or a clever marketing ploy?

IWD began in 1909 after Russian refugee and labour organiser Theresa Malkiel led a strike in Manhattan, New York. Malkiel served on the women’s committee of the Socialist Party of America, and sought to encourage more women to take an active role in the socialist movement. On 28 February 1909, following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, thousands of women marched on New York. The date was chosen to mark the anniversary of the garment industry strike led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union the year prior. Three years later, socialist activist Meta L. Stern reflected on the meeting:

 “The very first observation of our national Woman’s Day proved so successful that Woman’s Day became generally accepted as an annual Socialist holiday”.

The celebration of International Women’s Day later became an opportunity for the communist regimes of the 20th century to spout female-centred state propaganda. For example, in the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania and the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic, women were given flowers to celebrate their emancipation into the workplace. But as argued by Monika Vrzgula of the Slovak Academy of Science, this was a false populist depiction of their true position:

“Women were praised as emancipated [being] able to be excellent at work and in the home. This was false and far removed from the real life of women and their real position in society.”

 In what can only be described as a tragic period of history for those countries, where millions lost their lives at the hands of a dangerous ideology, International Women’s Day was the perfect populist marketing opportunity targeted at female citizens.

Most who celebrate IWD today are likely unaware of the holiday’s socialist origins, and there is obviously nothing inherently “socialist” about it. But IWD remains strongly “Left-coded” to this day. Arguably, it has not really travelled all that far from its origins.

Admittedly, I only became aware of the history of IWD this year. The confusion around how it began is in many ways what makes it the perfect modern marketing ploy: it allows for a broad scope of businesses and activists alike to talk about anything they wish. International Women’s Day is what Professor Sarah Jones describes as “slow commemoration”. It is a date in our calendar that appears to celebrate something specific, but its meaning is “slippery”, meaning it attaches itself to multiple histories and multiple meanings. IWD can contain content “to persuade you to fight for something, vote for something, or simply buy something”.

It is certainly a date that feminists across the political spectrum gear up for, seizing the opportunity (as they often do) to discuss women-specific issues. Unfortunately, most of the current debate on gender equality operates through the prism of leftist ideologies, arguing that capitalism oppresses women and that the solution to many of the problems women face is more government. Leftists have dominated feminism for far too long, perpetuating dangerous victimhood narratives that teach women we cannot compete with our male counterparts, and instead must be reliant on genuinely discriminatory affirmative action measures.

This could not be further from the truth. Economic freedom has enabled women to own their own property and earn their own money. Capitalist endeavours, from the dishwasher to the contraceptive pill, gave women the autonomy and freedom to pursue their own destinies, rather than have it dictated by men.

There are still many women across the world that aren’t afforded these freedoms. In Iran, women must obtain permission from men to pursue education, employment or travel, and girls can be compelled to marry at as young as ten years old. In Yemen, a woman is considered half a person in legal settings, meaning that their testimony is worth half a man’s. Women across the world are still forced into child marriages, and many lose their lives to honour killings.

Perhaps they ought to be the focus on International Women’s Day.


Reem Ibrahim is the Communications Officer and Linda Whetstone Scholar at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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