Twisted Origins of International Women’s Day

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day, key word: Celebrated.

Social Networks were filled with congratulatory messages towards “the best thing God ever created”, thanking them for “everything they do”. Women tirelessly posted how appreciated they felt when they found a flower or some kind of gift left for them.

However, I think that before indulging in all kinds of self-rewards just one day out of the year, we should take a moment to remember the real meaning behind this day: The struggle millions of women all over the world went through to fight for the rights we easily take for granted today.

This internationally observed day had its origins in the United States of America, back in 1820. Little strikes of working women started happening in the New England area in Massachusetts. However it wasn’t until march 8th, 1857, that larger strikes took place and caught the attention of men and larger masses. Garment workers marched in New York City to demand an improvement in their working conditions, a ten hour day (To think that we’re now complaining about our 8 hour day jobs, sitting in an office!), and equal rights for women. The police intervened and shut down the whole thing.

It wasn’t until fifty-one years later, on March 8 1908, when 15,000 women (Including immigrants, BTW) marched again through New York City’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square to honor their forbears sisters and to demand the right to vote for women, end sweatshops and child labor. And yes, the police were present on this occasion too.

 I’d like to point out something here: Think how long the story of the world civilization is. Now look again at the year when women asked for the right to directly participate in the making of decisions. Notice anything weird? Out of all that time, we’ve been cheering from the side lines for millenniums and have just been part of the “race” for about a century. I can guarantee that back then most people were also thinking that these “radical way of thinking” was nonsense and just way too extreme, but really, is it that different from what we’re asking today? History just keeps repeating itself, and in a century from now, people will be looking back at this movement the same way we are looking back now: Thinking how those women were completely right, ahead of their time and misunderstood.

So yeah, make sure you are in the right side of history.


A year later on 1909, United States celebrated the first National Women’s Day, on February 28th. And inspired by the march, women immigrant garment workers staged a three-month strike against Triangle Shirtwaist and other sweatshops, called the “Uprising of the 20,000”, and scattered all the way through the next year.

This period was rich with social protesting, and in Europe, the “European Socialist Movement” was closely following these events developing in the U.S. while fighting the same battle at home.  At an International Socialist Congress that was held in Copenhagen in 1910, German Socialist Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) proposed the idea of having a day every year in every country to commemorate the suffrage of women and to unite them in sisterly solidarity to move forward and keep fighting for their rights.  The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval. However, no specific date was established and each country continued to commemorate the day on their own and it wasn’t until the 1970’s when March 8th was selected as International Women’s Day worldwide.

Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen, in 1911 International Women’s Day (IWD) was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination.

However less than a week later on 25 March, the tragic fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist (The same company women rallied against in the “Uprising of the 20,000” in 1909) in New York City took the lives of 146 working women and girls, most of them  between the ages of 13 and 25 and most of them Italian and Jewish recent immigrants. The employers were tried; one was fined $20. A settlement was made to the families of the dead women for $75 per death. Rose Schneiderman, a Garment Workers organizer, berated the community for supporting the law and institutions that made such tragedies possible. “I know from my own experience that it is up to the working people to save themselves,” she proclaimed. “The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

This disastrous event drew significant attention to working conditions and labor legislation in the United States that became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events and protests. 1911 also saw women’s ‘Bread and Roses‘ campaign.

International Women’s Day became a mechanism for protesting World War I. As part of the peace movement, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year 1914, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with other activists.

Against the backdrop of the war, women in Russia again chose to protest for ‘Bread and Peace’ in St. Petersburg on the last Sunday in February 1917 (The 23rd, which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar), in response to the death over 2 million Russian soldiers in war. Opposed by political leaders, the women continued to strike until four days later, when they triggered the workers’ revolution responsible for bringing down the Russian Empire by forcing the Czar to abdicate, and the provisional Government to grant women the right to vote.

The Soviet Union officially recognized IWD in 1921; it was the first government to enact laws codifying women’s rights. Since then, socialist countries and liberation movements have commemorated IWD. Revolutionaries, progressive forces and women workers have marked it with creative, militant actions—demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins—aimed at imperialist war, globalization, poverty, exploitation, racism and all forms of oppression and inequality.

9th August Union Buildings © Baileys Archives

In Pretoria, South Africa, women marched on August 9th, 1956, against the repressive pass laws under the apartheid system after a request for an audience with the Prime Minister had been refused. Between 10,000 and 20,000 women delegates  flocked to the Union Buildings in a determined yet orderly manner. They filled the entire amphitheater in the bow of the graceful Herbert Baker building, the FSAW claimed that it was the biggest demonstration held yet. Later on, on the other side of the world, socialist Cuba—where women’s rights are codified into law— instituted the Family Code, led by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which was established in 1960 and has helped women there make great strides.

In 1970 several things happened. The revolutionary “Uruguayan Tupamaros” celebrated March 8 by freeing 13 women prisoners from Uruguay’s jails. Also, on the U.S., the Women’s Caucus of Youth Against War and Fascism revived the militant, class-conscious and struggle traditions of IWD in the U.S. by rallying at New York’s Union Square. They marched to the Women’s House of Detention to protest racism, poverty and political repression, and to express solidarity with the oppressed women inside, including Joan Bird, a member of the Panther 21. The following year in 1971, Philippine women protested against the Marcos dictatorship and, since 2001, have militantly defied the U.S.-backed Macapagal-Arroyo regime.

During 1975, also known as the International Women’s Year, the United Nations established and began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March.  And two years later The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution proclaiming a Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace on 1977 to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

Since the International Women’s Day was officially declared, women have honored the true meaning of this “holiday” by continuing to fight this ongoing battle to achieve equal rights:

  • 1995  The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic road map signed by 189 governments, focused on 12 critical areas of concern, and envisioned a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices, such as participating in politics, getting an education, having an income, and living in societies free from violence and discrimination.
  • In Poland, demonstrations have occurred on March 8 in every major city since 2000. A group called Porozumienie Kobiet 8 Marca (“The 8th of March Women’s Alliance”) organizes “Manifas” in which thousands of men and women call for government action on issues ranging from reproductive rights and domestic violence to economic equality.
  • Women everywhere in 2003 protested the U.S.-led war in Iraq and in solidarity with their Iraqi sisters. The next year, Palestinian women challenged Israel’s apartheid wall and continue to defy U.S.-backed Israeli aggression and occupation.
  • 2014 The 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58) – the annual gathering of States to address critical issues related to gender equality and women’s rights — focused on “Challenges and achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls”. UN entities and accredited NGOs from around the world took stock of progress and remaining challenges towards meeting the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs have played an important role in galvanizing attention on and resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

With more than 17 million women living in poverty  in the United States alone, over 600,000 women and girls trafficked internationally per year, and an estimated seven out of 10 women worldwide reporting they have experienced physical and sexual violence, why don’t more American women observe International Women’s Day? (Hallmark doesn’t even bother making cards dedicated to International Women’s Day or Women’s History Month.) I think that this is something we need to be aware of and keep in mind, otherwise this is important commemoration will just become another sad excuse to keep us women entertained and forget about our what true goal is.

Research Sources: Here, here, here, and here.

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