Today, International Women’s Day is observed on 8 March in most countries of the world. Governments often choose this day to make various official pronouncements, and the United Nations too recognizes and celebrates this day. But how did International Women’s Day originate?
As we turn the pages of history, we find that women workers of the world made the history of Women’s Day themselves – under the banner of communist parties. Like May Day, IWD too began to commemorate the struggles of the working class.
International Women’s Day is an official holiday in 29 countries – mostly countries with a history of socialist revolution, including China, Cuba, Vietnam, states in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Some African countries also observe a holiday on 8 March.
Come, let us get a glimpse of those struggling women, whose legacy we inherit today!
On 8 March 1857, women garment and textile workers in New York City held a mass protest and in March two years later the same women won the right to unionize. Their struggle was against brutal working conditions, low wages, and a 12-hour working day.
On March 8, 1908, women workers under the banner of socialists organized a demonstration of 15,000 in New York, demanding pay raises, shorter hours, women’s right to vote, and an end to child labor.
In response to a call by the Socialist Party of America (a US communist group), the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on 28 February. The day was observed with huge demonstrations to demand labour laws (including the 8-hour working day) and the right to vote for women.
In 1909 women garment workers in the US staged a general strike. 20-30,000 shirtwaist makers struck work in the bitter winter cold for 13 weeks, demanding better pay and working conditions. The Women's Trade Union League provided bail money for arrested strikers and large sums for strike funds.
In 1910, at the Second International Conference of Working Women at Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin (a leader of the German Social Democratic Party – as the communist party was called in those days) proposed the idea of an International Women's Day, on the lines of the Women’s Day observed in 1909 in the US. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women's Day – to press for rights for working women, including labour laws for women, the right to vote, and peace. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist and communist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, agreed to Zetkin's suggestion and that is how International Women's Day came into being.
The date chosen for International Women’s Day was 19 March – to commemorate the day of the 1848 revolution in Prussia when a powerful people’s uprising forced the Prussian king to promise the right to vote for women – a promise that he betrayed later.
This is how Russian communist leader Alexandra Kollontai described the first International Women’s Day:
“The first International Women's Day took place in 1911. Its success succeeded all expectation. Germany and Austria on Working Women's Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized 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.
This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at 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.”
Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen in 1911, International Women's Day (IWD) was honoured 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, to hold public office and end discrimination.
Plans for the first International Women's Day demonstration were spread by word of mouth and in the press. During the week before International Women's Day two journals appeared: ‘The Vote for Women’ in Germany and ‘Women's Day’ in Austria. Various articles were devoted to International Women's Day: 'Women and Parliament', 'The Working Women and Municipal Affairs', 'What Has the Housewife got to do with Politics?', etc. The articles thoroughly analyzed the question of the equality of women in the government and in society. All articles emphasized the same point that it was absolutely necessary to make parliament more democratic by extending the franchise to women.
Less than a week after that first IWD celebration, on 25 March, the terrible tragedy of the 'Triangle Fire' took place at a garment factory in New York City, which highlighted the miserable condition of working women. The fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory claimed the lives of 146 workers, most of them women. Locked exits and poor safety measures were responsible for the deaths. This incident became an international scandal, and led to a new wave of labour protests. These protests led to the formation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the first primarily female unions, which became one of the largest unions in the US.
On the eve of World War I campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first International Women's Day. In 1913 following discussions, International Women's Day was transferred to 8 March – which has ever since been the global date for International Women's Day. On 8 March 1914, women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war.
This is how Alexandra Kollontai described IWD actions in Russia of 1913-1914:
“The Russia working woman first took part in “Working Women's Day” in 1913. This was a time of reaction when Tsarism held the workers and peasants in its vice-like grip. There could be no thought of celebrating “Working Women's Day” by open demonstrations. But the organized working women were able to mark their international day. Both the legal newspapers of the working class – the Bolshevik Pravda and the Menshevik Looch – carried articles about the International Women's Day: 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.” This was an illegal meeting but the hall was absolutely 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. Our comrades put a lot of effort into the preparation of “Women Workers Day.” 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.”
On 8 March 1917 (23 February according to the old calendar then followed in Russia), Russian women began a strike for “Bread and Peace”, protesting against the war that had claimed the death over 2 million Russian soldiers and against severe food shortage. Women textile workers in Petersburg began the strike, and called on other factories to support them. Four days of the strike forced the Tsar to abdicate. The Russian monarchy was overthrown and the provisional Government then formed granted women the right to vote.
Women’s Day has been a day of protest and resistance down the years all over the world.
On IWD in 1979, in the midst of the revolution that ousted the US-backed Shah, and just after the right-wing Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, 100,000 women and male supporters rallied at Tehran University. From early hours of the morning meetings were held in girl's high schools and in Tehran University. In protest against Khomeini’s decree making the veil compulsory for women in Iran, hundreds of thousands of women marched through Teheran on 8 March. These included women wearing western clothes as well as some wearing the veil – but all protesting against the compulsory imposition of the veil. Protests were organized in other cities, too. Women demanded equal rights, including the right to dress as they wished. Some of the slogans of the demonstrators were: 'Freedom is in our culture; to stay at home is our shame' 'Liberty and equality are our undeniable rights' ' We will fight against compulsory veil; down with dictatorship'. 'In the dawn of freedom, we already lack freedom' 'Women's Day of Emancipation is neither Western, nor Eastern, it is international'. In several incidents women demonstrators were physically attacked on the streets. Revolutionary Guards fired in the air to disperse women demonstrators, estimated by the press at 15,000, from the streets around the Prime Minister's office. The protests continued for several days, defying the religious fundamentalists who attacked the women protestors.