Decolonization Is Women’s Work

March 8, 1950—International Women’s Day—Marked the Embrace of a Feminist Battle Against Imperialism

The 12-day Asian Women’s Conference in Beijing saw attendees from across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America and “forged a movement for all women to fight against colonialism and demand equal rights with full sovereignty,” gender studies scholar Elisabeth B. Armstrong writes. Pictured above is the Korean delegation for the conference. Courtesy of Sophia Smith Archives, Smith College.

It was 1950, and the world was in flames: In Vietnam, Iran, Madagascar, Algeria, West Africa, South Africa, Tunisia, Malaya, Burma, and Cuba, wars of counterinsurgency were being waged against colonial powers that refused to leave. Women, with weapons in their hands and the courage to hide soldiers, grow food for the frontlines, and pass messages across their battlefronts, took part in fighting these wars for independence. At the same time, they sought peace, freedom, and women’s rights.

On March 8, International Women’s Day, they erupted in protests to demand an end to imperialism—the starting point for imagining decolonization as a global culture.

Today, corporate sponsors have sought to commodify International Women’s Day and turn it into women’s access to rule like capitalists. But this 1950 fight for decolonization built a culture that—if you look closely—still fuels the revolutionary spirit, and promise, of the day.

International Women’s Day began as a way to join working-class women’s struggles for basic rights to livelihood with middle-class women’s fight for the vote. At the International Socialist Women’s Congress, held in Copenhagen in 1910, German activist Clara Zetkin proposed holding an international women’s day in March. These meetings and demonstrations incited protests, including the Russian Revolution in 1917. From 1922 onward, the day was mostly celebrated as a holiday in the USSR and socialist countries to honor women’s rights gained under socialism.

The need for a decolonial agenda around International Women’s Day arose from the Global South, during the anti-imperialist Asian Women’s Conference held in Beijing, China, in December 1949. There, attendees found solidarity and carried that spirit back home in countless manifestations of anticolonial feminist activism. During those 12 days in Beijing, women from across Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and South America forged a movement for all women to fight against colonialism and demand equal rights with full sovereignty. Many women from colonized countries had already joined their countries’ battles to crush colonial occupation. They had their own slogans: Bury the corpse of colonialism! If anyone is oppressed, no one is free! And they demanded that women from colonizing countries dismantle their countries’ war machines.

Women at the conference gathered at the National Art Academy tables. Courtesy of Sophia Smith Archives, Smith College.

Attendees took that charge with them when they got back home. Just two weeks after returning from Beijing, for instance, Jeanette Vermeersch, a parliamentarian and member of the French Communist Party, addressed the French parliament to call for the withdrawal of France from Vietnam: “The Vietnamese people are fighting a just war,” she said, “a war in the defense of your aggression. You are fighting an unjust war, a colonial war, a war of aggression.”

Through networks of anti-imperialist and socialist women’s groups, the message of the Asian Women’s Conference traveled around the world. It would be a global, coordinated refusal of imperialism. The conference resolution spread: Celebrate International Women’s Day, a day for working-class women’s struggles, like never before.

When International Women’s Day arrived, it joined together women from all around the world in the anticolonial struggle for their full emancipation, as women from colonizing countries like France and the Netherlands demanded an end to imperialism in solidarity with women from Vietnam, Indonesia, Tunisia, and beyond. This included the demand that women hold equal rights to fully enfranchised men, not the truncated rights of colonized men with negligible rights to vote, apartheid rules of unfree movement, fettered access to jobs, and stolen lands.

The day punctuated ongoing insurgencies by people who were geographically far from each other, but were bound by common occupiers of colonial nations.

When International Women’s Day arrived, it joined together women from all around the world in the anticolonial struggle for their full emancipation, as women from colonizing countries of France and the Netherlands demanded an end to imperialism in solidarity with women from Vietnam, Indonesia, Tunisia, and beyond.

In Mar del Plata, Argentina, leftist women’s groups—such as the Union of Argentine Women and the Women’s Cultural Group—held the Congress for Peace in dozens of cities around the country to evade the authorities (who had banned their activities) and fight for a decent standard of living and political rights. In Brazil, women chose to protest the high-level U.S. economic delegation visiting Rio de Janeiro. They printed 100,000 leaflets and covered the city with 20,000 posters under the name “Protect Brazilian Petrol” to condemn the economic treaty signed with the United States. Their slogans sought peace and an end to U.S. interference in the Brazilian economy—its own form of neoimperialism—and protested the high cost of living.

Across the world, in Damascus, the Union of Syrian Women led a demonstration of women and children to the parliament to condemn war. Their protests were not without cost. Amine Aref Kassab Hasan, who had recently returned from the Beijing conference, was beaten and arrested, along with two other women and a 5-year-old girl. In Homs, another delegate of the Asian Women’s Conference, Salma Boummi, along with five other women and girls were arrested for a similar protest for peace. But in the face of the Syrian government’s violent response, 13 Syrian women’s organizations presented a memorandum to the Constituent Assembly to demand women’s equal rights, particularly equal pay for equal work. Though they were beaten back, the movement pressed onward.

Anticolonial leaders of the women’s movement, like Celestine Ouezzin Coulibaly (familiarly known as Macoucou) and Baya Allouchiche, took the lead in organizing working-class women in their countries, but also in their regions of North Africa and West Africa, respectively.

The Mongolian delegation at the conference. Courtesy of Sophia Smith Archives, Smith College.

In Ivory Coast, Coulibaly toured Sudan, Upper Volta, and Ivory Coast to spread the word after attending the Beijing conference. She described the solidarity of women she witnessed, and she told of the success won by communist women in the People’s Republic of China, who drove out an army that had far greater armaments supplied by the Americans. After touring the region, Coulibaly led demonstrations of thousands of women on International Women’s Day in Grand Bassam, the French colonial capital of Ivory Coast, in protest of police repression and the murder of women who, in December 1949, had demanded the release of political prisoners who fought for independence from French colonial rule.

Like Coulibaly, after Allouchiche returned from the Asian Women’s Conference, she galvanized women in Algeria to join the anticolonial struggle. She toured Algeria and Morocco, spending 12 days in the radical province of Oran, where women were not yet organized. She described a world of solidarity among women, one that refused to buckle under the yoke of colonialism nor the yoke of patriarchy. She dared them to imagine: “the sun that has risen in Beijing will shine for us too!” Her speeches held in the month of February tipped the balance toward solidarity and a wage strike among dockworkers. Only a week before International Women’s Day 1950, over 300 Algerian women joined the strike on the docks of Oran to protest poor working conditions and to refuse to load ships with soldiers and supplies for the colonial counterinsurgency frontlines of Vietnam.

Global anticolonial solidarity required resistance in colonial centers. Delegates from the Netherlands, the United States, France, and England who attended the conference in Beijing took direction and brought colonized women’s struggle home. On the same day as the protests in Syria, Lebanon, Ivory Coast, Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria, Dutch women supported dock workers who refused to load ships with American armaments bound for the Dutch occupation of Indonesia by laying in the road and blocking the trucks from reaching the docks. In Enshede, Dutch women connected Dutch peoples’ high cost of living to the priority given in the national budget for military purposes over the needs of the working population of the Netherlands. Bread not Barracks, they shouted.

Formal colonialism fell in the decades after the 1949 Asian Women’s Conference. But economic colonialism continues today. Economic blockades have human rights consequences and debt packages dictate national policies. But women’s struggles for decolonization, peace, and equal rights hasn’t ebbed. If we turn our heads to Latin America, one memorable slogan from strikes held on International Women’s Day—“What they call love, we call unpaid work!”—draws the connections between the debt bondage and the need for women to provide structural networks of care. Femicide, drug trafficking, border policing, and U.S. intervention in Central America and Mexican economies have fueled endemic murders of women and girls. We see inspiration, too, from women in Mexico reacting to this, to join their internationalist call against systemic femicide, for “Ni Una Mas!” (Not One More).

International Women’s Day in 1950 revived the fight for anticolonial, anti-imperialist solidarity on the terms of the people most oppressed. Our regional and national women’s struggles are still global, still marked by economic and political colonialism in new forms. Survival for many is still precarious—we have a strong tradition in International Women’s Day to imagine an alternative future without inequity.


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