March 8 marks the 99th anniversary of International Women’s Day. The date honors the economic, political and social achievements of working-class women worldwide.
The first International Women’s Day was celebrated in the United States on Feb. 28, 1909, following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. The SPA women considered the day an integral part of the struggle to bring to light women’s global fight for equal rights.
During the rapid industrial growth of the past two centuries, workers across the nation protested poor working conditions and exploitation. At the forefront of every battle were working women.
On March 8, 1857, women workers from clothing and textile factories in New York City organized a demonstration in demand of a shorter workweek, and later established their first labor union.
Exactly 51 years later, 15,000 women marched through New York City’s Lower East Side condemning child labor and demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights for women.
In 1910, the Socialist International organized the first international women’s conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired by the commemoration of working women on International Women’s Day, the German socialist Clara Zetkin petitioned for the day to be recognized as an annual national holiday.
The following year, Denmark observed its first International Women’s Day on March 19 with massive strikes and protests in Copenhagen. Over a million women and men in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland and other European countries campaigned for women’s rights and to put an end to women’s oppression.
Russian revolutionary AlexandraKollontai, who helped organize the March 19 event, described the march as “one seething, trembling sea of women.”
Less than one week later, a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City took the lives of 146 women on March 25. Most of the women were immigrants and as young as 12 years old. They worked 60- to 72-hour workweeks at a rate of $1.50 per week—a pittance even by the standards of that time.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory had already made headlines two years earlier, when the massive strike known as the Uprising of 20,000 began with a spontaneous walkout at the factory. Though tragic, the 1911 fire led to increased scrutiny into the working conditions of factory workers in the industry and to legislation requiring improved safety standards.
Furthermore, the fire helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Worker’s Union. Remembrance of the event became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events.
Women and the Russian Revolution
On the last Sunday in February 1913, on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day. By 1914, women on both sides of the war were holding peace rallies to campaign against the war and express women’s solidarity.
On Feb. 23, 1917*, Russian women in St. Petersburg, including Zetkin and Kollontai, took part in a strike for “bread and peace.” The strike was a response to the death of over two million Russian soldiers in the war.
The International Women’s Day strike in Petrograd merged with the ongoing strike of another half a million Russian workers, which had spread through the city between Feb. 24 and Feb. 28. The strikes were the spark to the February Revolution, which forced Czar Nicholas II from power. The provisional government that stepped into place soon granted women the right to vote.
The International Women’s Day demonstrations proved to be the first stages of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Alexandra Kollontai, a minister in the first Soviet government, persuaded Lenin to make March 8 an official communist holiday following the October Revolution.
Although established as a holiday, International Women’s Day continued to be a working day in the USSR until May 1965. That year, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet decreed International Women’s Day a non-working holiday “in commemoration of outstanding merits of the Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Motherland during the Great Patriotic War, their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also making the big contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples and struggles for peace.”
Today, International Women’s Day is marked by hundreds of events worldwide to inspire women and to celebrate their struggles and achievements. International Women’s Day remains an official holiday in fourteen countries.
Initiated by the U.S. socialist movement, International Women’s Day was commemorated in the United States until 1913. It then dwindled but was revived without its socialist associations during the women’s movement of the 1960s.
In 1975, the United Nations finally recognized International Women’s Day. That year was also declared International Women’s Year.
The U.S. government designated March as “Women’s History Month,” but conscious people across the nation should not be fooled by such public relations schemes. Official rhetoric fails to address women’s issues within the United States, as well as the obstacles that lay ahead in eradicating women’s oppression.
As communists, members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation know well how deeply rooted patriarchy is within the capitalist system. Through struggle, women have achieved access to education, the right to work, the right to vote, freedom of choice, the right to birth control and the right to divorce. However, under capitalism these rights are constantly challenged and can be taken away at any moment.
Women earn just 70 cents to each dollar that men make doing the same job. We are underrepresented in business and politics. Many hold full-time jobs and are still expected to be the primary care providers at home. Economic dependency and physical, verbal, emotional and sexual violence against women are rampant.
All these injustices are multiplied by the effects of war.
In 2003, Bush declared war on Iraq, urging the need to bring “democracy” to the region and equal rights to Iraqi women. Prior to the war, women in Iraq were guaranteed the right to vote; the right to run for political office; the right to equal pay, benefits and maternity leave; and the right to higher education. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Army, one in three female soldiers are reported to have been raped by a male comrade.
International Women’s Day is a reminder of both what has been accomplished in the quest for women’s rights and all that is yet to be achieved.
* The dates in this section follow the Julian calendar still in use in Russia prior to the 1917 October Revolution. The Julian calendar was 13 days behind the modern Gregorian calendar used in most countries today.