According to one legend, International Women’s Day commemorates a March 8 demonstration in 1857, when women garment workers on New York City’s Lower East Side took to the streets to protest their deplorable working conditions. Problem is, there is no record of such a protest on that date.
Legends aside, the official holiday had modest beginnings in 1908 when the Socialist Party of America appointed a Women’s National Committee to Campaign for the Suffrage. This committee recommended that a day be set aside every year to work for women’s right to vote.
“CURSED WITH THE REIGN OF GOLD LONG ENOUGH”
Socialists in the U.S. were not as rare in the early 1900s as they are today. Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, received 900,000 votes when he ran for president in 1912. “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity,” he said. “We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.”
By 1914, Oklahoma (!!) had elected six socialists to the state legislature. In Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, there were 55 weekly socialist newspapers.
Helen Keller, Jack London, and other famous people were not afraid to be identified as socialists.
“HOME SHOULD MEAN THE WHOLE COUNTRY”
In 1909, American socialists agreed to designate the last Sunday in February as “National Woman’s Day.” Women throughout the U.S. held mass meetings and listened to union organizers and others call for equal rights for women. In one address, writer/ lecturer Charlotte Perkins Gilman said, “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home…” but she clarified, “home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state.”
In 1910, in Copenhagen, at the Second International Conference of Women, Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin, the German women’s rights leader, proposed internationalizing the American Woman’s Day. It passed unanimously among the women, as it did a few days later at the general International Socialist Congress.
FEBRUARY OR MARCH?
The first celebration of International Woman’s Day was in 1911. There were rallies worldwide. According to an account by Russian delegate Alexandra Kollontai, the slogan of the new celebration was, “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism.”
The day was named, the slogan chosen, but a date was never specified. Consequently, from 1911 to 1918, International Woman’s Day was celebrated on different days throughout the world.
In the U.S., it continued to be celebrated in February; in other countries, March. Whatever the date, it became a day for women’s celebrations, demonstrations for women’s liberation and workers’ rights, speeches, and, increasingly, a day for peace activism. It was widely held that women would use the ballot to end war.
With the outbreak of World War I in 1915, Clara Zetkin called on socialist women from neutral as well as warring nations to use the day to protest the war. Two years later, in Italy, women protested food shortages and posted this notice:
Hasn’t there been enough torment from this war? Now the food necessary for our children has begun to disappear. It is time for us to act in the name of suffering humanity. Our cry is “Down with arms!” We are part of the same family. We want peace. We must show that women can protect those who depend on them.”
THE WOMEN’S STRIKE THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
The International Woman’s Day protest that changed the world occurred that year in Russia. Women had planned a day of speech-making and leafletting (March 8 by Western reckoning on the Gregorian calendar, February 23 on the Julian calendar used in Russia at the time). The spirit of the day carried them beyond these simple plans.
Coming on the rise of long struggle and many strikes, thousands of women left their homes and factories to protest food shortages in Russia, high prices, war, and the suffering they had so bitterly endured.
That day, the women went on strike. Trotsky wrote in The History of the Russian Revolution:
A mass of women, not all of them workers, flocked to the municipal duma demanding bread. It was like demanding milk from a he-goat. Red banners appeared in different parts of the city, and inscriptions of them showed that the workers wanted bread, but neither autocracy nor war. Thus, the fact is, that the February revolution was begun from below, overcoming the resistance of its own revolutionary organizations, the initiative being taken of their own accord by the most oppressed and downtrodden part of the proletariat, the women textile workers, among them no doubt many soldiers’ wives.
Russian women inadvertently inspired the last push of a revolution. A general strike spread through Petrograd, and, within a week, Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.
FROM WOMAN TO WOMEN TO EXTRAORDINARY
After 1917, in honor of women’s role in the Russian Revolution, International Woman’s Day secured its place on March 8. The day became official in 1921, and the name changed to plural (Women’s) after 1945.
Today, IWD is celebrated around the world, from Afghanistan to Zambia. In the U.S., a consistent effort has been made to downplay its labor roots.
Here, International Women’s Day morphed into Women’s History Week and finally Women’s History Month — a time set aside to celebrate noteworthy women who have made extraordinary contribution’s to history and, um, not so much women garment workers. Sigh.
TO GO DEEPER
“International Women’s Day History” The University of Chicago summary