International Women’s Day is held worldwide on 8 March each year. Women’s Day still appears to be necessary to draw attention to the disadvantage of women and girls and the violation of their rights. A hundred years ago, that was no different.

Universal suffrage

It is hard to imagine now, but before the First World War, ‘workers’ –their foremen were often gentlemen – from different countries fought side by side for their right to decent pay for decent work and for universal suffrage. A worker in Germany had more in common with a worker in France than with someone from the upper classes in Germany. And so it was in many countries. In the wake of the men’s struggle, the international fight for women’s suffrage also emerged.

But general women’s suffrage was not a foregone conclusion for everyone even in socialism. For example, at the Women’s Conference of the International Socialist Kongres, there was a fierce debate about whether the actions of the so-called suffragettes should be supported for women’ssuffrage. After all, this would ‘break the solidarity with the working class’, and married women and workers would not have the right to vote.

Why March 8th?

The General Women’s Day was presented by Clara Zetkin at the Women’s Conference in 1910. She expected “a great flourish of the socialist women’s movement of such a women’s day, which is derived from the example of the American women’s movement.”

In 1909, a women’s day was organized for the first time in the USA to commemorate a major strike by textile workers that took place in New York on 8 March 1908. They protested against their abominable working conditions. Nearly a decade later, on March 8, 1917, a similar strike took place among textile workers in St. Petersburg. Later, March 8th was chosen to draw worldwide attention to women’s rights, although this date has not been kept everywhere and always.

After the right to vote – against the war

In the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, women were given the right to vote in more and more countries. After that, Women’s Day focuses on other topics. The economic crisis of the 1930s brings (social democratic) women to their feet ‘against fascism and war, for bread and labour’. The general peace movement had already emerged at the end of the nineteenth century – an International Peace Conference took place in The Hague in 1899 – but now gained a larger following. Women’s Day is now firmly anchored.

Although it seems afterwards that only socialism and communism were committed to women’s rights and position, through the newspapers inDelpher(link is external) we also find other, more cautious noises in favour of women – for example, from the corner of the Christian-Historical Union (one of the forerunners of the CDA).

In the 1950s, the early years of the Cold War, International Women’s Day seemed tainted by the communist label attached to it.

Second feminist wave

Crisis, World War II and the years of reconstruction were not a good breeding ground for further emancipation. In many cases, working women lost their jobs when they married; also a married woman was incapacitated until the late 1950s and subordinated to her husband. “The woman’s only right was the countertop.” When prosperity began to increase in the early 1960s and more girls attended higher education and education, and no longer felt so at home behind that countertop, the time began to mature for further emancipation. The general interest in Women’s Day revived with the second feminist wave, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In Western Europe, women fought for the right to self-determination over their own bodies: the right to birth control, to abortion. In the Netherlands, women united in Dolle Mina, with slogans: ‘the woman decides’ and ‘boss in her own belly’. 1975 was even declared the Year of Women by the UN and in 1978 the UN established 8 March as the official International Women’s Day.

Today, even for official institutions such as the European Parliament, 8 March is a day to call attention to women’s rights and women’s problems.


Vrouwen in tentoonstelling Geschreven Portretten: o.a. Annie M.G. Schmidt en Aletta Jacobs.
Denken over sekse in de eerste feministische golf / Ulla Jansz, 1990

Joke Smit (1933–1981)

Joke Smit had studied French, was a scientific associate at the Institute of Translation In Amsterdam, editor of the magazine Tirade, married and mother of two young children, when she made a name for herself in 1967 with her article ‘The unease with women’.

“The unease with the woman”

The text of a lecture on women’s work that Joke Smit had given ended up with Hedy d’Ancona through her husband Constant Kool. D’Ancona asked Joke to work on an article for De Gids (published in no. 9/10, 1967). No one could have foreseen then that this would prove to be the most important text of the second feminist wave. For months Smit scraped the piece in which she explained how women could develop and escape from the trap of motherhood. She called for better training opportunities, contraception, the right to abortion, childcare, abolishing the principle of breadwinners, equal pay for equal work, redistribution of paid and unpaid work for both women and men. Smit wanted to break all kinds of limitations and role patterns, giving women the chance of a satisfactory, independent existence.


Smit was combative, but she wanted to fight her battle through the political channels. As she believed that her ideals in the Labour Party (PvdA) would take best shape, she joined the party in 1967. Smit was not part of the left wing of the party where men like Van der Louw and Van Dam were hoping to take power. The New Left was not interested in the women’s issue, but only in power. Joke Smit wanted feminism to be a basis for the renewal of social democratic views. It was only with the arrival of the Red Women (1975) that the women’s issue became a real issue for the PvdA. Smit later felt that she had been too naïve about a left-wing home for feminism.

In 1970 she joined the Amsterdam City Council for the PvdA – and soon discovered that people were not waiting for her feminist ideas. She lasted less than two years; in her farewell speech, she compared the masculine way of doing politics to a monkey rock.

Male Woman Society

The Guide was inundated with responses to ‘The unease with the woman’. Smit understood that the time was right for a feminist organization. This was to become an advocacy organization for expert women and men to whom politics and trade unions would listen. Together with D’Ancona and Inez van Eijk, she sent out a programme to everyone who had responded to ‘The Unease’ and everyone who they believe should become a member of the interest group. By the year 2000 ideals could then be accomplished. The action group Man Vrouw Maatschappij (MVM) was founded in October 1968; many higher educated people in their 30s with good jobs joined. MVM stood for influencing politics and policy, not so much for playful actions. Smit was also too much of a researcher and too little protester. MVM spent two decades ‘influencing’; the association was dissolved in 1988.

Under the Den Uyl cabinet

Joke Smit contributed to the discussion about the principles of the PvdA in 1974 with her article ‘Feminism and Socialism’. She advocated individualization, for the break-up of family thinking in the party, which she called feudal. Women posed in marriage not to employ their talents and labour in the service of husband and children, without their own income. Work indoors and outdoors had to be evenly distributed. It was time for emancipation policy; in other countries, this was already getting off the ground. The Den Uyl cabinet therefore decided to be advised by an Emancipation Committee. In December 1974 Smit was installed as a member of the European Championships after much discussion about her participation. She was unable to attend many meetings, but she put her many ideas on paper. She was also committed to adult education (the ‘mother’s mom’) and, as a member of the ABVA (General Association of Civil Servants), contributed to the renewal of the union.


Joke Smit developed into an example of what she envisioned: a person who fully developed his own talents, combined full-time work and family, broke up the marriage – and later broke up. In her case, the personal was really political. She wrote down her ideas and experiences and recorded them on tapes. Unfortunately, her extensive archive is not housed with Aletta, where it belongs and would be kept under the right conditions, but rests with her last partner.

In Joke Smit, Biography of a Feminist (2008), Marja Vuijsje did justice to Smit’s personality and ideas and painted a nuanced picture of this combative intellectual of feminism. From the mid-1970s Smit was often sick or on the verge of overtime. In September 1980, she was diagnosed with cancer. Joke Smit died, aged just 48, on September 19, 1981.

Her name lives on in schools and streets, and in the biennial Joke Smit Prize, which the government established in 1985. The prize will be presented on March 8, International Women’s Day. Many of Joke Smit’s ideas have been introduced, although it has taken a little longer than she expected. However, her ideals are far from all achieved.