A glimpse into the history of International Women’s Day
(Compiled from various sources by Nallamma)

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 tailoring trades.
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 town:
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 and laundresses.
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 strikers.
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 York.
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 Women’s Day.
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 Roses”
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 committee.
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.



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