Demonstration of women in St. Petersburg (wikipedia)

Women’s Day in 1918 – Not when and not like today

International Women’s Day was not always held on March 8, traditions of this this modern-day celebration are extremely complicated. For example, in Hungary, in the last three years of the First World War, celebrations took place on different dates, one of the programmes was even organized on 1 April.

Today Women’s Day is a kind and respectable celebration, but in 1918 “International Women’s Day” was not at all an event full of snowflowers and bouquets. Holding events was primarily a labour movement issue, accordingly, let us recall the events of the time based on the Social Democrat Népszava.

“Comrades! Women’s Day, the international celebration of the fights for the political rights as well as economic and social emancipation of worker women is held in Budapest on March 24, while in the countryside on March 17, 24 an 25. Prepare to celebrate this day worthy of the present extraordinary times. Celebrate Women’s Day everywhere if you can” – this was Népszava‘s announcement on March 3, 1918, in the name of the “national women organising committee”.

It turns out from the announcement that Women’s Day was not at all held on March 8 in that era. As an example, in 1916, it was celebrated on 26 March, or more specifically, they stood for the women’s suffrage in a fierce manner, while in 1917 celebrations were held both on 25 March and April 1. In 1918, organizers of Hungarian events focused primarily on 24 March, but there were celebrations on 17 March as well, especially in smaller settlements.

On March 20, 1918, more information could be learnt about the event in the capital, from repeated Népszava-announcements. As reported by the paper, Women’s Day was held by “worker women of Budapest and its neighbourhood” on 24 March in the garden of the house of iron and metal workers at Thököly Road. According to the announcement on 20 March: “This year’s Women’s Day has to be grand and imposing, with the participation of thousands of worker women, to outgrow any similar previously held events in significance.” As it turned out by 20 March, Dezső Bokányi was to hold a speech on the event.

Meanwhile, on March 15, 1918, Népszava published another article about women suffrage. Pursuant to this, “the delegation of feminists contacted Sándor Wekerle Prime Minister and Vilmos Vázsonyi Minister of Justice, who assured the delegation that persist on the suffrage of women and compromises may only be made in the sense that, instead of the census of war widows, which did not meet much sympathy, the census of widows earning a living independently would be included.” The delegation also met Count István Tisza, whose Labour Party – without elections – was in majority in the Parliament, even though he failed as a Prime Minister himself. Tisza had been against any reforms regarding suffrage for many years, just like in the March of 1918, when he was also welcoming the delegation. “Count István Tisza said that though he recognized there are many reasons for women suffrage, he cannot stand for this viewpoint. Sándor Giesswein, Ákos Bizony and Count Mihály Károlyi declared to be relentless devotees of women suffrage” – summarized Népszava the results of the negotiations of the delegation.

It was not surprising from Miály Károlyi, since he and his party was a devotee of general, secret and equal suffrage, and the Christian Socialist Sándor Giesswein was also known as a supporter of feminists. Ákos Bizony was a prestigious Independence Party member, who even defeated István Tisza on the elections in 1905, in the Northern district of the town of Miskolc.

All this shows that women suffrage was on the agenda of domestic politics regarding the demand for general suffrage in the era. All this was attached to international women’s right movements as well. Népszava published an article entitled “Call for the Socialist women of all countries!” on 15 March. A reporter of the paper, delegated to Switzerland, reported from Lugano that Swiss party papers published the call of the international Socialist women secretariat, signed by the leader of the organization, Clara (Klara) Zetkin, about holding the international “Women’s Day”. The announcement was the following:

“Comrades! The consequences of the World War depict how necessary and justified the fulfilment of our demand for women’s economic, political and social emancipation. […] Under the circumstances, it is self-evident and does not need to be justified that, let me recall: Women’s Day is to be celebrated by socialist women in all countries this year as well. “

The call of the international secretary addressed Hungary separately, with an optimistic tone: “In 1918 there are good signs for the fulfilment of our demands! In the spirit of the significant transformation in Russia that has brought about the full equality of women in public administration, legislative and governing bodies of the state and society, of the implementation of women’s political suffrage in England, the Canadian provinces and US states, and of the implementation of passive women suffrage in the Dutch Chamber, in Hungary, we have the prospect of limited political rights in view, while in Austria, of the women’s municipal right to vote.”

Zetkin also raised the attention to the fact that “Women’s Day, amidst existing transport difficulties and other inhibitory conditions,” could be hardly held at the same time and in the same form in each country. He also added: “instead of suggesting one specific date, we should trust each country’s female comrades to choose the time and form of celebration”.

So this international call also reveals the little-known fact that Women’s Day did not have an officially set date in the era. (Online articles on International Women’s Day are mistaken about a central date established during the First World War.) Women’s Day, in spite of being a modern celebration, has a quite vague origin. Pursuant to the French Liliane Kandel and Françoise Picq, the contemporary American press did not really report on the American protest in 1857 referenced by “founders” of Women’s Day.

The date of Women’s Day – as already mentioned in the introductory paragraph – was not “fixed” either. One thing is for sure: it was not held on 8 March as the mythical American protest in 1857. The day was held at the end of February and in mid-March as well, but we have already mentioned that in 1917 there were similar events on the first of April as well in Hungary. As an example, pursuant to Andrea Pető, a professor of the Social Genders Department of the CEU (Central European University), in the Netherlands, the birthday of the queen became the Labour Day from May 12, 1890, and later Women’s Day (from 1911).

However, one thing is for sure: in Europe Clara Zetkin proposed the celebration of Women’s Day. In 1907, she only initiated a women’s march in Germany, but in 1910 she already presented her concepts internationally: at the Second International Congress in Copenhagen, she stood for women suffrage, and she was probably also inspired by an American women’s march in 1908, the date of which was actually 8 March here. (They also protested for the suffrage of American women.) Thereby the first International Women’s Day was held on March 19, 1911 in four countries, in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Denmark, with the participation of one million people.

In Russia, Women’s Day was already celebrated in 1913, at the end of February, while in 1917, demonstrations of women protesting in St. Petersburg for bread and peace at the end of February led to the February Revolution. These protests could be linked to Women’s Day too, and thereby the march of women in Petersburg contributed to the fall of the Tsar. It is therefore not accidental that Lenin declared March 8 as the date for this celebration. He made this decision in 1921, potentially “for the proposal of a Bulgarian female comrade”.

However, in 1918, Zetkin and her group focused more on the unified message of Women’s Day, not on the coordinated celebration: “What must, however, be upheld by all means is the unity of feeling, conviction and will, the nature of the international solidarity of the world’s socialist women and female proletarians. Facing the unspeakable misery and endless barbarism of the war, let Women’s Day be the symbol of elevated humanity, without any national, racial or gender differences, the dignified humanity that is the meaning and purpose of socialism. “

As a result, in 1918, Women’s Day was held on different dates in Hungary too, but the main date was the day of celebrations in Budapest. Therefore Népszava published an editorial for this day, March 24, the author of which emphasized: “On Sunday Hungarian worker women celebrate Women’s Day for the seventh time.” The paper also mentioned that “the world war gave increased significance” to this day: “Men were called everywhere to arms and women were called to factories. The significance of the work of women showed an enormous increase. In the German industry, more than half of all workers are women.  In England and France, their ratio is almost the same, and more than one-third of industrial production in Hungary can also be attributed to the work of women”. Pursuant to Népszava, therefore, “women can demand with full powers to have influence in all spheres of social life”, since “there are hardly any fields in production today where women do not stand in the same line as men”. “They are equal to men in terms of exploitation, however, they would still like to give them less rights, because they know it very well that political injustice means economic dependence and less income” – the author adds.

Népszava‘s issue on March 26 published a strongly censured report on the celebration in the capital, where Dezső Bokányi held a speech. Pursuant to this, the well-anticipated event was held on March 24 indeed at the house of iron and metal workers at Thököly Road. “The spacious courtyard of the house was filled up by visitors, most of whom had arrived from far-away regions” – the report noted. – “Szeréna Buchingerné Ladányi comrade was elected to be the chairwoman of the meeting”. This was followed by the speech of Dezső Bokányi, about which only general information is provided by the newspaper owing to the censure. Pursuant to this, Bokányi talked about “how much women participate throughout their entire life in the sufferings everywhere, and are still not recognized by society as equal to men”. He also stressed that women should be granted political rights, “since there are issues that need the judgement of women”. After a lengthy white spot, the censured part, we can read the following: “Bokányi comrade’s speech, accompanied by noisy cheering, was applauded by the audience of the meeting for minutes.”

On Mach 27, Népszava reported on meetings in the countryside, some of which were held before the event in Budapest. Among smaller towns and settlements, Kiskunhalas organized Women’s Day on March 17, in the banquet hall of the town. In Szigetszentmiklós, the celebration was held on March 24, just like in Dunakeszi. In Debrecen, „the huge court of Margit bath was filled with various professional worker women. Visitors included the delegation of women from Balmazújváros, and though an official decree ordered that »only women« were allowed to be present on the meeting, male comrades participated in large numbers too.” What exactly was said in the speeches cannot be reconstructed well from censured reports. There were however meetings in Nagykanizsa, Sopron, Temesvár, Nagyvárad and Szeged as well. Regarding the latter, it has turned out that “The significance of Women’s Day was presented by Müllerné comrade (Budapest), who pointed out the terrible consequences of the war and the changed living conditions of women with the vivid acclamation of the audience. She talked about the importance of political enlightenment of worker women and showed the close relationship of politics with peace, high costs of living and social welfare. Eventually she presented a proposal for resolution, which was adopted unanimously by the audience with enthusiasm.”

Elvtársnők! Elvtársak! = Népszava, 1918. március 3.
Fölhívás valamennyi ország szocialista nőihez! = Népszava, 1918. március 15.
A Nők Napja = Népszava, 1918. március 24.
A Nők Napja. Tüntetés a békéért és a választójogért = Népszava, 1918. március 26.
A Nők Napja. A vidéki gyűlések = Népszava, 1918. március 27.
Bizony Ákos meghalt = Magyarország, 1922. július 28.
Szegő Iván Miklós: Mi köze Leninnek a nőnaphoz? =, 2016. március 7.
Kandel (L.) & Picq (F.): Journée des femmes: le mythe des origines (1982) = Archives du féminisme
Lénine décrète le 8 mars journée internationale des femmes. 8 mars 1921=
Un million de femmes manifestent en Europe. 19 mars 1911 =

Written by: Iván Miklós Szegő