On 8 March, nations marked the umpteenth International Women’s Day, which is meant to uplift women by acknowledging and celebrating their achievements. This year’s theme is Gender Equality Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow. The aim this year is to focus “on women and girls worldwide, who participate in promoting climate change, adaptation and mitigation as a response to build a more sustainable future for all”.
Regarding the history of International Women’s Day, the United Nations notes on its website that the first milestone related to woman’s rights activism in United States was in 1848, when indignant women were barred from speaking at an anti-slavery convention. Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) assembled a few hundred people at their nation’s first women’s rights convention in New York.
They demanded civil, social, political and religious rights for women. Among their credits, Stanton and Mott are considered as pioneering abolitionists. So historically these two American women form part of the cohort recognised as founders of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the US. It is unacceptable how the UN’s narrative omits black women activists such as Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), Harriet Tubman (1822-1913) and Ida B Wells (1862-1931), among others.
The activism by the pioneering women listed is missing in the bulk of historical narratives concerning the origins of organised activism by women. The genesis of International Women’s Day is problematically narrated as dating back to 1908, when the leftist Socialist Party (SDP) of America designated the day to honour the garment worker’s strike, which took place in New York City, wherein women garment workers marched for shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. Such rights were only for white males.
The consequence of the latter activism seemingly inspired the initial Women’s Day commemoration in 1909 across the US. The following year the first international conference of working women was hosted in Copenhagen, Denmark. That occasion is believed to have marked the first time that the idea to permanently host an annual International Women’s Day. It was pitched by Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) who was a leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany.
Endorsement of Zetkin’s motion led for the first time, on 19 March 1911, to International Women’s Day being commemorated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. On 2 February 1913 and 1914, courtesy of communist and socialist women’s labour movements in Russia, the day was observed in Russia.
It is the overwhelming pressure of the leftist and socialist inclined feminist labour movements in Russia that also contributed to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Among the aftermath of the latter protests, was the adoption of 8 March as the globally accepted day to commemorate International Women’s Day.
Although the UN declared 1975 as International Women’s Year, it only officially listed 8 March on their calendar in 1977. In the UN website’s History of Women’s Day, it narrates that the day “is celebrated in many countries around the world. It is a day when women are recognised for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.”
On our home front, South Africa is among the countries where International Women’s Day is hardly observed. It is certainly not a public holiday, as in other countries. This is in contrast to the hype given to the National Women’s Day public holiday, observed annually since 9 August 1995. That date correctly commemorates the women’s protest march, which took place on 9 March 1956 to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, against discriminatory laws by the apartheid regime.
Among the snags of deciding to commemorate the brave class of women activists of all races in South Africa in 1956 was the unintended relegation of their predecessors to obscurity. More efforts are needed to counter this risk of erasure.
A case in point of one of the neglected pioneering black South African women activists was Alice Victoria Kinloch (1863-1946). She was a Cape Town-born human rights activist, who challenged the conditions of black miners, who were abused as cheap labour on instructions of arch British imperialists such as Barney Barnato and Cecil John Rhodes. Kinloch’s concern about what she observed in the single sex mining compound system in Kimberley, prevalent since 1869 when diamonds were discovered there, spurred her activism to expose such abuse by writing articles to expose the denigration of black miners.
Her activism led her to depart to the United Kingdom in 1895 where she campaigned tirelessly by writing and giving public lectures against racial oppression. Her public addresses translated into an opportunity for her to become a co-founder and serve as the first and solitary female executive member of the African Association in September 1897.
Her pioneering leadership in the organisation advances the argument that she must be fittingly recognised as the founding mother of Pan-Africanism. South Africa’s history curriculum at schools renders invisible pioneering leading figures such as Kinloch. It is for this reason that occasions such as International Women’s Day must be used to encourage South Africans to acknowledge and extend our celebrations to the multitudes of forgotten pioneering woman activists.