On this International Women’s Day – devoted to bringing equity to women around the world- it is fitting to remember the origins of the holiday in the struggle of working women for better pay and working conditions and the early Socialist movement that supported their struggle.
In 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York City for an improvement in their working conditions. The following year, the Socialist Party called for the march to be commemorated in the first National Women’s Day. Theresa Malkiel of the Women’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America called for a day commemorating the struggles of women. Writing in The Socialist Woman, she asserted that “Woman’s true liberation will be brought about by herself.” In 1909, the first National Woman’s Day was celebrated in the U.S.
This idea resonated with other socialist women. In 1910, Clara Zetkin of the Social Democratic Party of Germany called for an international day of women’s action. The following year, over 1 million people marched around the world to call attention to the conditions of laboring girls and women.
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City– in which 146 workers were killed, most of them young women- gave added weight to a call to improving the working conditions of girls and women.
The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike and the call for “Bread for all, and roses, too” echoed the call of socialists the world over for both equitable working conditions and attention to the larger living conditions for workers. The strike remains one of the most inspiring in American history, due in no small part to the role of women and girls.
In the years preceding WWI, women around the world marched for peace and against war. In 1917, Russian women – horrified by the destruction of the war- struck for “Bread and Peace.” After Russian women gained the right to vote, International Women’s Day became a national holiday in the Soviet Union. In the following decades, the holiday was largely celebrated in socialist and communist countries.
The emerging women’s movement of the 1960’s resurrected the holiday in the U.S. as a day devoted to the struggle for women’s equality and better pay and working conditions.
By 1975, the United Nations celebrated International Women’s Year and recognized March 8 as International Women’s Day. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member nations to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace. It is this date that is now often cited as the origin of the holiday, in an attempt to obscure its radical origins.
Today the holiday is marked the world over, in some countries with marches and demonstrations, and in others with flowers and gifts.
The MeToo Movement has given added impetus to public demonstrations and marches on behalf of the empowerment of women and girls and for gender equality.
Thus, more than a century after the first International Woman’s Day, it is worth noting and remembering the American and socialist origins of this day. In 2020, women all over the world still lack the means of full self- actualization. They face such challenges as unequal pay, unequal access to education, unequal political rights, unequal access to medical care, and unequal access to the means of full civic engagement. We still want bread, and roses too!