The British Labour movement is well poised to claim the original roots of International Working Women’s Day.

On 18 March of 1911 the first International Working Women’s Day, organized following a proposal by Clara Zekin, the Grande Dame of the German Marxist movement, took place. Calling “female comrades and their inventive”,  a day for raising the voice for international recognition of the often omitted contribution of women in the labour force finally became a call for action[1].

National days of recognition of women before that were founded in the Labour Movement too; in 1909 the first National Women’s Day was observed in the USA in honor of the garment workers’ strike.[2] During the First World War the day also signalled resistance to militarism and during the Russian Revolution women protested for “Bread and Peace”.

But along the years, the day lost its roots in the struggle and became appropriated by capitalism. Expensive “feminist” themed goods are now for sale everywhere and social media is full of events that seem more like exclusive salon parties than days of resistance and swearing of allegiance to the Struggle.

There is no better time than 2017, and no better place than Great Britain, to claim the radical origins of International Working Women’s Day back. Eleanor Marx was[3] the only Marx to be born in England was the foremother of socialist feminism. Her work inspired Zetkin to put forth the proposal for International Working Women’s Day.

More than a century later, from origins to present, there is a growing awareness in the UK of the need to recognise women within the Labour Movement and the need to recognise working women within feminism. The GMB , of whom Eleanor Marx was a founding member, gave its first ever Eleanor Marx award following Eleanor Marx Day (after a proposal from David Hamblin) [4] to outstanding organiser Cath Murphy, recognising her constant hard work for GMB[5].

Nadine Houghton, formidable GMB organiser who carries ahead the work of Eleanor Marx, in an important piece argues that working women are the unsung heroes of 2016 and lists all the accomplishments of working women in 2016 that deserve not only honour and celebration but building upon[6].

Finally, Marx’s biographer Rachel Holmes has recently argued that the new recognised relevance of trade unions in the current political turmoil is due to Trade Unions putting women at their forefront, citing labour victories organised and carried through by women as well as voices such as Angela Rayner, shadow education minister, a care worker turned Senior Steward at Unison and of course, the formidable Frances O’Grady, Trade Union Congress’ General Secretary, a clear voice championing the rights of working people and never forgetting the Woman Question within the Labour Movement.

What better time and place, then, to reclaim International Working Women’s Day?

Although the dates of the day varied historically, the day always fell nearby the birthday of Zetkin’s closest comrade and collaborator, Rosa Luxemburg, who was born on the 5 March 1771. When reflecting on women’s suffrage she writes: “the proletarian woman’s lack of political rights is a vile injustice, and the more so for being by now at least half a lie. After all, masses of women take an active part in political life”.[7]

It is high time that International Women’s Day is taken away from closed venues and exclusive festivals, from expensive “feminist” merchandise (at times produced in sweatshops) and middle class self appeasing faux celebrations of womanhood. Let us remember our debt to Marx, Zetkin and Luxemburg, and remember that the day was founded in the struggle to achieve political rights for those whose contributions to society are not recognised and reciprocated.

As Luxemburg wrote,”the present forceful movement of millions of proletarian women who consider their lack of political rights a crying wrong is such an infallible sign, a sign that the social bases of the reigning system are rotten and that its days are numbered”. This statement, written in 1912, reads as poignantly today as it did when it was written. Let us make 8 March International Working Women’s Day again.



[3] Rachel Holmes, Eleanor Marx: A Life, Bloomsbury: London, 2014.


[5] The Eleanor Marx award is now an annual award.



Dana Mills

Dr. Dana Mills is an academic and an activist. She has held positions in New York University, Bard College, New York, Oxford University and Oxford Brookes. Her first book: Dance and Politics: Moving beyond Boundaries was published In 2016 by Manchester University Press. .