100th Anniversary of the Working Women’s Day (1917)
Two days before International Women’s Day in 1917, the Petersburg Interdistrict Committee, largely populated by Bolsheviks, sent out a call for widest participation in the march on March 8th. The temperature seemed high. Soldiers on the front wilted in poor morale as the Great War turned out to be anything but great for them. Peasants and workers suffered economic chaos, as the Tsarist bureaucracy seemed incapable of solving the basic problems of hunger and insecurity. There was little expectation that this suffering would catapult the people into full-scale revolt. In Petersburg, the revolutionary socialists were themselves divided.
International Women’s Day had its origins in the socialist movement. It was celebrated on March 8 from 1911 onwards. The revolutionary socialists could not come up with a united platform for 1917’s celebrations. The Interdistrict Committee’s call was sent out to educate workers about the reasons for their difficult conditions.
On March 8, fuel shortages prevented the bakers from baking their bread. Women left the long queues without bread and returned home or to the factories. Many were angry. Women workers in the textile industry left their factories to join the march. Others would leave their workplaces and follow the banners. The Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai wrote of that day,
Then came the great, the great year of 1917. Hunger, cold and trials of war broke the patience of the women workers and the peasant women of Russia. In 1917, on the 8th of March (23rd of February), on Working Women’s Day, they came out boldly in the streets of Petrograd. The women – some were workers, some were wives of soldiers – demanded “Bread for our children” and “The return of our husbands from the trenches.” At this decisive time, the protests of the working women posed such a threat that even the Tsarist security forces did not dare take the usual measures against the rebels but looked on in confusion at the stormy sea of the people’s anger.
The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February revolution marks its beginning from this day.
The March 8 start of the revolution is known as the February revolution because Russia – at the time – used the Julian calendar. It is also why what we know as the October Revolution began on 7 November (in the Gregorian calendar, which we use today). This first protest – on March 8 – opened the door to the revolutionary spirit.
In late March, Lenin would write, ‘To the Russian workers has fallen the honor and the good fortune of being the first to start the revolution—the great and only legitimate and just war, the war of the oppressed against the oppressors’. It would have been appropriate for Lenin to be more specific. It was to the Russian women workers that the honor and the good fortune go, for it was they who started the Revolution on March 8.
(Below is the pamphlet from the Petrograd Interdistrict Committee, translated by Barbara C. Allen, author of Alexander Shlyapnikov, 1885-1937: Life of an Old Bolshevik).
Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party.
Proletarians of all countries, unite!
Working women comrades! For ten years, women of all countries have observed February 23rd as Women Workers’ Day, as women’s “May First.” American women were the first to mark this as the day to review their forces on it. Gradually, women of the entire world joined them. On this day, meetings and assemblies are held at which attempts are made to explain the reasons for our difficult situation and to show the way out of it.
It has been a long time since women first entered the factories and mills to earn their bread. For a long time, millions of women have stood at the machines all day on an equal footing with men. Factory owners work both male and female comrades to exhaustion. Both men and women are thrown in jail for going on strike. Both men and women need to struggle against the owners. But women entered the family of workers later than men. Often, they still are afraid and do not know what they should demand and how to demand it. The owners have always used their ignorance and timidity against them and still do.
On this day, especially, comrades, let’s think about how we can conquer our enemy, the capitalist, as quickly as possible. We will remember our near and dear ones on the front. We will recall the difficult struggle they waged to wring from the owners each extra rubble of pay and each hour of rest, and each liberty from the government. How many of them fell at the front, or were cast into prison or exile for their brave struggle? You replaced them in the rear, in the mills and factories. Your duty is to continue their great cause – that of emancipating all humanity from oppression and slavery.
Women workers, you should not hold back those male comrades who remain, but rather you should join them in fraternal struggle against the government and the factory owners. It is for their sake that war is waged, so many tears are shed, and so much blood is spilled in all countries. This terrible slaughter has now gone into its third year. Our fathers, husbands, and brothers are perishing. Our dear ones arrive home as unfortunate wretches and cripples. The tsarist government sent them to the front. It maimed and killed them, but it does not care about their sustenance.
There is no end in sight to the shedding of worker blood. Workers were shot down on Bloody Sunday, January 9, 1905, and massacred during the Lena Goldfields strike in April 1912. More recently, workers were shot in Ivanovo-Voznesensk, Shuia, Gorlovka, and Kostroma. Worker blood is shed on all fronts. The empress trades in the peoples’ blood and sells off Russia piece by piece. They send nearly unarmed soldiers to certain death by shooting. They kill hundreds of thousands of people on the front and they profit financially from this.
Under the pretext of war, owners of factories and mills try to turn workers into serfs. The cost of living grows terribly high in all cities. Hunger knocks at everyone’s door. From the villages, they take away cattle and the last morsels of bread for the war. For hours, we stand in line for food. Our children are starving. How many of them have been neglected and lost their parents? They run wild and many become hooligans. Hunger has driven many girls, who are still children, to walk the streets. Many children stand at machines doing work beyond their physical capacity until late at night. Grief and tears are all around us.
It is hard for working people not only in Russia but in all countries. Not long ago the German government cruelly suppressed an uprising of the hungry in Berlin. In France, the police are in a fury. They send people to the front for going on strike. Everywhere the war brings disaster, a high cost of living, and oppression of the working class.
Comrades, working women, for whose sake is a war waged? Do we need to kill millions of Austrian and German workers and peasants? German workers did not want to fight either. Our close ones do not go willingly to the front. They are forced to go. The Austrian, English, and German workers go just as unwillingly. Tears accompany them in their countries as in ours. War is waged for the sake of gold, which glitters in the eyes of capitalists, who profit from it. Ministers, mill owners, and bankers hope to fish in troubled waters. They become rich in wartime. After the war, they will not pay military taxes. Workers and peasants will bear all the sacrifices and pay all the costs.
Dear women comrades, will we keep on tolerating this silently for very long, with occasional outbursts of boiling rage against small-time traders? Indeed, it is not they who are at fault for the people’s calamities. They have ruined themselves. The government is guilty. It began this war and cannot end it. It ravages the country. It is its fault that you are starving. The capitalists are guilty. It is waged for their profit. It’s well-nigh time to shout to them: Enough! Down with the criminal government and its entire gang of thieves and murderers. Long live peace!
Already the day of retribution approaches. A long time ago, we ceased to believe the tales of the government ministers and the masters. Popular rage is increasing in all countries. Workers everywhere are beginning to understand that they can’t expect their governments to end the war. If they do conclude peace, it will entail attempts to take others’ land, to rob another country, and this will lead to new slaughter. Workers do not need that which belongs to someone else.
Down with the autocracy! Long live the Revolution! Long live the Provisional Revolutionary Government! Down with war! Long live the Democratic Republic! Long live the international solidarity of the proletariat! Long live the united RSDRP.
Petersburg Interdistrict Committee
Published in A. G. Shlyapnikov, Semnadtsatyi god, volume 1, 1923, pp. 306-308.
(Translation by Barbara C. Allen).
First published in LeftWord Blog
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