International Women’s Day (IWD) is the story of ordinary women as
makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women
to participate in society on an equal footing with men. The idea of
having an international women’s day was first put forward at the turn
of the 20th century amid rapid world industrialization and capitalist
economic expansion that led to protests over working conditions.
IWD is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and
to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who
have played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s rights.
IWD, March 8, is a holiday celebrated by the oppressed around the
world. It is a holiday that came out of the struggle of women. In
particular, the struggle of immigrant garment workers in New York’s
Lower East Side provided the inspiration for the demand that there
be a special day to celebrate the struggle of women.
Women Workers’ pioneering struggles in US
Around the turn of the century thousands of women worked in the garment
district in New York. Most of these women were immigrants from Russia,
Italy and Poland. They worked up to 15 hours a day and were paid by
rate per piece. They were charged for needles, thread, electricity,
and even the crude boxes they had to sit on because there were no
chairs. They were issued harsh fines—for being late, for damaged work,
for taking too much time in the toilet. Children also worked for long
hours, huddled in the corners of the shops, snipping threads from
finished garments. One garment worker recalled, “We wore cheap clothes,
lived in cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There was nothing to look
forward to, nothing to expect the next day to be better.’’
The labour struggle in the US traditionally concentrated on men. A
little examination shows that women carried their weight and their
share from the beginning, both supporting the men’s organizing and
quite soon, after realizing that women’s needs were ignored in the
existing unions, forming women’s caucuses or all women’s unions. The
first all women strikes took place in the 1820’s in the New England
The most famous of the early strikes took place at the Lowell cotton
mills in Massachusetts. Here young women worked eighty-one hours a
week for three dollars, one and a quarter of which went for room and
board at the Lowell company boarding houses. The factories originally
opened at 7 AM, but for men, noticing that women were less “energetic”
if they ate before working, changed the opening hour to 5 AM, with
a breakfast break at 7 AM,. (for one-half hour). In 1834, after several
wage cuts, the Lowell women walked out, only to return several days
later at the reduced rates. They were courageous but the company had
the power; a poor record or a disciplinary action could lead to blacklisting.
In 1836 they walked out again, singing through the streets of the
Oh, isn’t it a pity such a pretty girl as I
Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die.
Again they returned to work within a few days. In l844 serious organizing
led to the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association. Their prime demand
was the ten hour a day. The leadership and activity of this union
is credited with initiating some of the earliest reforms in the conditions
of the textile industries.
In the period of intense labor activity following the Civil War, when
widowhood and general hard times forced thousands of women into the
labor force, thus causing panic and hostility on the part of men,
women found themselves excluded from most of the national trade unions.
So they formed their own, including the Daughters of St. Crispin,
a union of women shoemakers. During this era unions were formed by
woman cigarmakers, umbrella sewers, and printers, aswell as tailoresses
Women from clothing and textile factories staged a protest on March
8, 1857 in New York City. The garment workers marched and picketed,
demanding improved working conditions, ten hour a a day, and equal
rights for women. They were protesting what they saw as very poor
working conditions and low wages. The protesters were attacked. Their
ranks were broken up and dispersed by the police. These women established
their first labor union in the same month two years later. More protests
followed on March 8 in subsequent years.
Fiftyone years later, on March 8, 1908, their sisters in the needle
trades in New York marched again, honuoring the 1857 march, demanding
the vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labor. The police were
present on this occasion too.
In 1908 women began to stage walkouts and strikes at various sewing
factories. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding
shorter workinghours, better pay and voting rights. Sometimes the
company would settle a strike by meeting some of the demands of the
male strikers but included clauses in the settlement that said “no
part of this agreement shall refer to or apply to females.’’ In spite
of many arrests and heavy fines, brutal beatings by police and hired
thugs, the women, many of them teenagers, continued the walkouts.
Middle and upper class women inspired by the strikers came out to
the pickets to give their support and they too were arrested. And
when newspapers covered these unusual arrests, the public began to
find out about the brutal conditions and slave wages of the women
The clothing workers formed some of the most famous unions in U.S.
history, notably the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, founded
around 1900. The garment trade shops in the big cities, such as New
York, were deplorable. Fire hazards were rife, light was scant, the
sound of machinery deafening, the environment polluted. Women were
fined virtually for anything - talking, laughing, singing, machine
oil stains on the fabric, stitches too large or too small. Overtime
was constant and required, but no special pays for overtime work.
With the support of the National Women’s Trade Union League, founded
in 1903 - a combination of working women and middle-class, often professional
women who supported the working women’s struggle - the shirtwaist
makers launched a series of strikes against Leiserson and Company
and Triangle Waist Company, two of the most notorious shops in New
After months of small shop actions, the women decided to escalate
the struggle by calling for a tradewide general strike. And in defiance
of the heads of the union, on November 22, 1909, the “Uprising of
the Twenty Thousand’’ began. It culminated in the first long-term
general strike by women, putting to death the tiresome arguments that
they were unable to organize and carry out a long and strenous struggle.
One garment worker from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company described
the event: “Thousands upon thousands left the factories from everyside,
all of them walking down toward Union Square. It was November, the
cold winter was just around the corner, we had no fur coats to keep
us warm, and yet there was the spirit that led us on and on until
we got some hall to keep us warm and out of the coldwind for at least
the time being. I can see the young people, mostly women, walking
down and not caring what might happen. The spirit, I think, the spirit
of a conqueror led them on. They didn’t know what was in store for
them, didn’t really think of the hunger, cold, loneliness, and what
could happen to them. They just didn’t care on that particular day;
that was THEIR day.’’
For thirteen weeks in the bitter cold winter, women between 16 and
25 years of age picketed daily, and were clubbed by police and carried
off in “Black Maria” police vans. The courts were biased in favour
of the sweatshop owners; one magistrate charged a striker, “You are
on strike against God and Nature, whose prime law is that man shall
earn his bread in the sweat of his brow. You are on strike against
God.” This elicited a cablegram from George Bernard Shaw, who with
other Europeans was following the course of U.S. labour history. He
wrote: “Delightful. Medieval America always in intimate personal confidence
of the Almighty.”
The Women’s Trade Union League provided bail money for arrested strikers
and large sums for strike funds.
The strike was ultimately broken, as settlements were made shop by
shop, but the talent and endurance of the women made it impossible
for people to go on claiming that labour organizing was for men only.
The strike lasted for months and ignited strikes in other areas. Though
the strike itself was only partially successful in terms of changing
work conditions, the “uprising” did change some important things.
It challenged the image of what uneducated immigrant women could do,
and it filled the East Side and many women and immigrants and oppressed
people more broadly with pride and a sense of strength.
One year after the strike was broken the infamous Triangle fire occurred
on 25th March 1911. Trapping women on the upper floors (the fire doors
had been bolted from the outside to prevent escape by the workers)
the fire took l46 lives, most of the women between the ages of 13
and 25, most of them recent emigrants to the U.S. Most of them were
Italian and Jewish immigrants. A lack of safety measures was blamed
for the high death toll. This event had a significant impact on labour
legislation in the United States, and the working conditions leading
up to the disaster were invoked during subsequent observances of International
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.”
The story of American working women is often tokenly recognized by
referring to great heroines of the movement Mother Jones, Ella Reeve
Bloor, Kate Mullaney, Sojurner Truth, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
These were remarkable women and so were their stories. But it should
not be forgotten that these were individual women, and that the bulk
of the organizing, struggling, as well as succeeding and failing,
was done by ordinary women whom we will never know. These were women
who realized the tactical necessity of standing and working together
lest they be destroyed individually, women who put to shame the ridiculous
theories of “woman’s place’,” women who in the famous Lawrence textile
strike carried picket signs reading “We want Bread and Roses, too”,
symbolizing their demands for not only a living wage but a decent
and human life, and so inspired James Oppenheim’s song “Bread and
Beginning of Women’s Day in US
The official holiday had its modest beginnings in 1908. That year
in the U.S., the Socialist Party appointed a Women’s National Committee
to Campaign for the Suffrage. After the meeting, this Committee recommended
that the Socialist Party set aside a day every year to campaign to
women’s right to vote, a big step for socialists and welcomed by women
working for suffrage.
The First Women’s Day was observed across the United States on 28
February in 1909 and large demonstrations took place calling for the
vote and the political and economic rights of women. (in those days
only men had the right to vote). In 1909, two thousand women attended
a Women’s Day rally in Manhattan. Women continued to celebrate it
on the last Sunday of that month through 1913.
In 1910 Women’s Day was taken up by socialists and feminists throughout
the US. In May 1910, at the national Congress of the Socialist Party,
the Women’s National Commission recommended that the Last Sunday in
February be recognized as International Women’s Day. Later that year
delegates went to the second International Conference of Socialist
Women in Copenhagen with the intention of proposing that Women’s Day
become an international event.
Declaration of IWD and early celebrations of the event
Inspired by the actions of US women workers and their socialist sisters,
Clara Zetkin, the legendary German Communist leader and an international
figure had already framed a proposal to put to the Second International
Conference of Working Women that women throughout the world should
focus on a particular day each year to press for their demands. The
conference meeting in Copenhagen in 1910 established a Women’s Day,
international in character, to honour the movement for women’s rights
and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women. It would
commemorate the US demonstrations and honour working women the world
over. Among other relevant historic events, it commemorates the Triangle
Factory Fire (New York, 1911), were over 146 women lost their lives.
From the beginning, IWD has been linked with the communist revolution.
International Women’s Day was the fruit of the efforts of women in
the Second International. Zetkin and others emphasized the international
scope of their vision, calling on “the Socialist women of all countries
[to] hold each year a Women’s Day,” and declaring that “The Women’s
Day must have an international character.” The conference decided
that every year, in every country, they should celebrate on the same
day a “Women’s Day” under the slogan “The vote for women will unite
our strength in the struggle for socialism”. It was decided to have
a Woman’s Day in every country as a form of struggle in getting working
women to vote. This day was to be a day of international solidarity
in the fight for common objectives and a day for reviewing the organized
strength of working women under the banner of socialism.
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 and International Women’s Day was the result. (It was again
passed unanimously a few days later in the general International Socialist
Congress.Com V.I. Lenin, the great leader of the Bolshevik Party and
the Russian Revolution, was among those who voted at this conference
to establish this tradition). Since then it has been celebrated worldwide
by class conscious workers and those fighting for the liberation of
women and the emancipation of all humanity.
That conference also reasserted the importance of women’s right to
vote, dissociated itself from voting systems based on property rights
and called for universal suffrage - the right to vote for all adult
women and men. The voice of dissent on this decision came from the
English group led by Mrs. Despard of the Women’s Freedom League, a
group actively engaged in the suffragette movement.
No fixed date was selected for the observance of IWD in the conference.
Consequently, until 1913, IWD was celebrated on different days throughout
the world. In the U.S., IWD continued to be celebrated in February.
Internationally, the day provided an opportunity to highlight the
movements for woman suffrage and peace.
IWD was marked for the first time on 19 March, 1911 in Austria, Denmark,
Germany, Switzerland and other European countries, where more than
one million women and men attended rallies. Socialists held strikes
and marches on the same day. In addition to the right to vote and
to hold public office, they demanded the right to work, to vocational
training and to an end to gender discrimination on jobs.
Clara Zetkin organized the first IWD on March 19 in 1911 in Germany.
A million leaflets calling for action on the right to vote were distributed
throughout Germany before IWD in 1911.
In 1913 International Women’s Day was transferred to the 8th of March.
This day has remained the working women’s day of militancy”.
The Bolshevik Pravda and the Menshevik Looch — carried articles about
the IWD. They carried special articles, portraits of some of those
taking part in the working women’s movement and greetings from comrades
such as Bebel and Zetkin.
In those bleak years meetings were forbidden. But in Petrograd, at
the Kalashaikovsky Exchange, those women workers who belonged to the
Party organized a public forum on “The Woman Question.” Delegate fee
was five kopecks. This was an illegal meeting but the hall was totally
packed. Members of the Party spoke. But this animated “closed” meeting
had hardly finished when the police, alarmed at such proceedings,
intervened and arrested many of the speakers.
In 1914, “Women Workers Day” in Russia was better organized. Both
the workers’ newspapers concerned themselves with the celebration.
Because of police intervention, they didn’t manage to organize a demonstration.
Those involved in the planning of “Women Workers Day” found themselves
in the Tsarist prisons, and many were later sent to the cold north.
For the slogan “for the working women’s vote” had naturally become
in Russia an open call for the overthrow of Tsarist autocracy”.
As the nascent annual event developed, it took on the cause of peace
as well as women’s rights. Furthermore, on the eve of World War I,
women across Europe held peace rallies on March 8, 1913. Elsewhere
in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held
rallies either to protest against the war or to express solidarity
with their sisters. In 1915, Zetkin organized a demonstration in Bern,
Switzerland, to urge the end of World War I. Women on both sides of
the war turned out.
Organizing IWD and women proletariat in Russia
More and more articles on the work that needed to be done among women
and on specific women’s problems began to be published in the party
press. Then, under pressure from Com Lenin, a special journal for
working class women was created: “The Woman Worker” (Rabotnitsa).
The members of the first editorial board were arrested by the repressive
Tsarist police, but nonetheless the first issue of the paper was published
in 1914. In the same year the Bolshevik Central Committee decided
to create a special committee to organise the meetings for IWD. Meetings
were held in the factories and public places to discuss issues concerning
women’s oppression, and to elect representatives from those who had
participated in the discussions and proposals, to work on the new
The propaganda work of the paper ‘Rabotnitsa’ was now becoming ever
more central to the work of the Bolsheviks. On its editorial board
were such stalwarts of women’s liberation as comrades Krupskaya, Innessa
Armand, Stahl, Kollontai, Eliazarova, Kudelli, Samoilova, and Nikolayeva
and other female workers of St Petersburg. These women were totally
dedicated to the revolutionary cause, they organised meetings, called
aggregates and generally focused the work, developing the revolution.
Each factory had its own representatives on the editorial board of
‘Rabotnitsa’ and there were weekly meetings, where all would participate
and review the reports received from the different areas. The paper
was also used as an instrument to raise the level of understanding
in both trade union and political structures, which were still lagging
behind the consciousness of the masses, towards a better understanding
of the role of women workers. In March 1917 the Bolsheviks created
a bureau to promote revolutionary work among women workers. The party
called for a Congress for all women workers, to discuss the best way
to involve and organise women in the revolutionary struggles then
taking place. In this period Lenin wrote many articles on the need
to find new strategies and specific organisational models to attract
women workers to socialism.
Demonstrations marking IWD in Russia proved to be the first stage
of the Russian Revolution. With 2 million Russian soldiers dead in
the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to
strike for “bread and peace”. This was led by women in St. Petersburg.
The government attempted to stop the demonstrations called to celebrate
International Women’s Day. This provoked clashes with workers, especially
in the Putilov factory in St Petersburg, which ended in a mass mobilisation
of workers. The women came out onto the streets and spoke to the soldiers,
who then refused to open fire against the demonstrators, turning their
bayonets against the Tsarist monarchy. During 1917 the general consensus
of opposition to the imperialist war increased, strengthening the
Bolsheviks, who had been courageously denouncing the imperialist war
since 1914. Coming on the rise of long struggle and many strikes,
IWD 1917 inspired thousands of Russian women to leave their homes
and factories to protest the terrible shortages of food, the high
prices, the world war, and the increased suffering they had bitterly
endured. The protest inspired the last push of a revolution. A general
strike spread through Petrograd. The IWD strike merged with riots
that had spread through the city between March 8-12. The rest is history.
The February Revolution, as it became known, forced the Czar Nicholas
II to abdicate four days later and the provisional Government granted
women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February
on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, but on 8 March on the
Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere. (Russia switched from the Julian
to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, which moved the dates of the February
revolution [Feb. 24–28, old style] to March.)
Following the October Revolution, the IWD was made into an official
holiday, and during the Soviet period it continued to celebrate “the
heroic woman worker”.
Chinese women began celebrating IWD in l924, paralleling a strong
women’s movement in the Chinese Communist party. After the revolution,
China made IWD an official holiday, as in the USSR.