International Women's Day: Where Did It Begin?
Latinas & Latinos for Social Change
The first Women's Day was organized in the United States the last Sunday in February 1908. Organized by socialist women, large demonstrations took place calling for the right of women to vote and for political and economic rights. In 1909, on the same date, 2,000 people attended a Women's Day rally in Manhattan. In 1910, socialists and feminists throughout the US took up the celebration of this day of mobilization.
The Second Conference of Socialist Women celebrated in Copenhagen, Denmark, on August 27, 1910 established March 8 as International Women's Day (IWD). This conference was attended by more than 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, and working women's clubs. The US representatives attended the Conference with the intention of proposing an international day for women. The proposal was formally presented by Clara Zetkin, Kathy Duncker (members of the German Socialist Party) and comrades stating: "In conjunction with political, union and class organizations of the proletariat in each country, the socialist women of the world will celebrate each year a Women's Day. Its main objective will be to obtain the right to vote for women. This demand must be raised within the global issues of women according to socialist precepts. Women's Day must have an international character and must be carefully prepared."
Noticeably, while socialist organizations strongly advocated for an international brotherhood of the workers of the world, the notion of women organizing politically as women was the subject of great controversy within a movement controlled by men.
How was it that March 8 was chosen? While the precise historical background cannot be easily found, two events are traditionally attributed as inspiration for the designation of March 8 as International Women's Day. Both of these events took place in New York. The first was a march of female textile workers in 1857. Thousands of women marched over the wealthy boroughs of New York in protest against their miserable working conditions. The second event took place in 1908. That year 40,000 seamstresses of large textile factories went on strike demanding their rights to join unions, better wages, a shorter work day, vocational training, and against child labor. During the strike, 129 women workers died burned during a fire at the Cotton Textile Factory in Washington Square. The owners had locked them up to force them to remain at work. Supposedly, both of these events took place on or around March 8.
"In Europe, the first International Women's Day was held on March 19, 1911 in Germany, Austria, and Denmark. This date was chosen by German women because, on that date in 1848 the Prussian king, faced with an armed uprising, had promised may reforms, including an unfulfilled one of votes for women. A million leaflets calling for action on the right to vote were distributed throughout Germany before IWD in 1911. The Russian revolutionary and feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, in Germany at the time, helped to organize the day, and wrote that: 'It exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organized everywhere, in the small town 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.'" (A History of IWD, Joyce Stevens, Australia. www.isis.aust.com/iwd/stevens)
As we can see, there were two branches of women's struggle: one focused on their oppression as industrial workers and the other concerned with the acquisition of political rights, such as the right to vote. Socialist women attempted to reconcile both of these objectives, while another sector concentrated mostly on the right-to-vote campaign, disassociating themselves with class struggle.
The history of when and how IWD was taken up by African, Asian and Latin American women is still to be written. I do know that Latin American women have transformed this day into a day of struggle against capitalist dictatorships. Chilean women, for example, took to the streets to celebrate IWD and confront military rule (1973-1989). When political parties whose leaderships were dominated mostly by men negotiated a return to a militarily controlled capitalist democracy, these women raised a different banner that said: "Democracy in the country and at home!"
For sure, this day should be established as a holiday everywhere, for women to remember their heroic struggles, to assess their current situation and to plan ahead for a liberation that is still unfulfilled.
Latinas and Latinos for Social Change is an organization dedicated to organizing Latinos to change society together with all forces struggling for the same cause. We recognize the existence of women’s oppression and support their fight for freedom. As a matter of fact, we believe that women’s liberation is a responsibility of both women and men. In this frame, we uphold the historic importance of International Women’s Day.