By the beginning of the twentieth century, the relatively-young capitalist system had thrown millions of women in industrially-developing countries into factories, domestic service and other work. Many occupations were gender segregated, and “women’s work” – such as textiles – was often in the most appalling sweatshops, with low pay, terrible safety standards, and long hours. But at least workers were together, rather than isolated in the home, so they were able to fight back. Women workers, both unionised and not, organised industrial disputes to win better conditions.
Although women had become part of public life as workers, they were still excluded from public life as citizens – they did not have the vote. Women’s suffrage movements grew across Britain, Europe, America and elsewhere. It was from this storm of protest and action that International Women’s Day was born.
On March 8th, women demonstrated in New York, demanding votes for women and an end to child labour and sweatshops. It was the 50th anniversary of a major protest by women garment workers against poor working conditions and low wages, also in New York City.
On the same day a year later, 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay, union rights and the vote, packing out Rutger Square in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Most were garment workers, sick of the conditions in the needle trade factories described as “the vilest and foulest industrial sores of New York”. The employers made the women pay for their needles, thread and even chairs!
Women shirtwaist makers staged a 13-week strike in 1909, known as the ‘Rising of the 20,000’. Their fight won better conditions, and gave confidence to American workers for several generations to come. As strike leader Clara Lemlich said, “They used to say you couldn’t even organise women. They wouldn’t come to union meetings. They were ‘temporary workers’. Well, we showed them!”
The Socialist Party of America declared 28th February 1909 the first National Woman’s Day (NWD), and socialist women held marches and meetings across the country to demand political rights for working women. 2,000 people attended a Women’s Day rally in Manhattan.
Clara Zetkin proposed to the International Congress of Socialist Women that “women the world over set aside a particular day each year to remember women and their struggles.” … “In agreement with the class conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the socialist women of all countries will hold each year a women’s day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage.” Over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed, deciding that on this day, socialists in all countries should hold big events, involving men and women in demanding improvements for working women.
International Women’s Day (IWD) was held on 19 March, with more than one million women and men attending IWD rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, demanding women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination the first time. A million leaflets calling for action on the right to vote were distributed throughout Germany in the run-up to the Day.
Russian revolutionary and feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, was in Germany at the time, and helped to organise the day. She wrote that it: “exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria … was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere…..in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for the women … Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.”
25 March 1911 – The Triangle Fire
Less than a week after that first International Women’s Day, over 140 workers died in the Triangle Fire in New York. Mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, they burned to death when the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory where they worked caught fire. They died because working conditions were terrible and safety measures lacking, because capitalists pocket the profit they make from women’s labour rather than spending it on civilised working conditions. Subsequent IWDs demanded workers’ legal rights and improved safety standards to avert further disasters like this one.
Organised by socialists, International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8 from 1913 to 1915 with women’s parades and demonstrations in many European cities.
Alexandra Kollontai explained why the early International Women’s Days focused on winning the vote for women: “in the last years before the war the rise in prices forced even the most peaceful housewife to take an interest in questions of politics and to protest loudly against the bourgeoisie’s economy of plunder. ‘Housewives uprisings’ became increasingly frequent, flaring up at different times in Austria, England, France and Germany. The working women understood that it wasn’t enough to break up the stalls at the market or threaten the odd merchant: They understood that such action doesn’t bring down the cost of living. You have to change the politics of the government. And to achieve this, the working class has to see that the franchise is widened.”
As war loomed, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. Women across Europe held peace rallies on 8 March 1913 and again in 1914.
On the last Sunday of February (23rd), Russian women began a strike for “bread and peace”, until four days later the Tsar was forced to abdicate. The provisional Government granted votes to women. 23rd February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia is 8th March on the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere.
The Bolshevik leaders had apparently asked the women workers not to strike, but “when workers were locked out of the Putilov armaments plant on March 7 the women of Petrograd began to storm the streets. The wives, daughters and mothers of soldiers, previously as downtrodden and oppressed as prostitutes, demanded an end to their humiliation and angrily denounced all the hungry suffering of the past three years. Gathering strength and passion as they swept through the city over the next few days in food riots, political strikes and demonstrations, these women launched the first revolution in 1917.” (Cathy Porter (1980), Alexandra Kollontai, 229)
In the west, International Women’s Day continued during the 1910s and 1920s, but then died away, only reviving with the new wave of feminism in the 1960s. Since socialist women founded International Women’s Day, it has been adopted by non-socialist feminists, governments and organisations which have little to do with women's rights. It is now more likely to be marked by an aromatherapy open day than by a march for women’s rights. We should return to the original purpose of the Day: to mobilise support for working-class women’s demands, and to celebrate the contribution that women make to the struggle for human liberation.