International Women’s Day Turns 100
Syracuse Cultural Workers celebrates 100
years of IWD with a new poster by Oakland based
artist Favianna Rodriguez. Image:
ArtRage Gallery will exhibit 100 YEARS OF WOMEN ROCKIN’ THE WORLD:Celebrating International Women’s Day 1911–2011.
The exhibition includes the work of 35 women artists from around the country and will be accompanied by six weeks of programming, including music, film, poetry and theatre. Visit artragegallery.org for details.
International Women’s Day (IWD) celebrates its 100th anniversary this year on March 8. Although the US does not recognize IWD as an official holiday, it is the reason March has been declared Women’s History Month. Centered on the history of the US suffrage movement of the early 1900s, Women’s History Month celebrates the contributions made by women throughout history. IWD has its roots in the same time period, but key to the history of IWD, and often ignored by Women’s History Month events, is its connection to the Socialist Party and the labor movement.
The Roots of the Holiday
In 1909, two years before the first official IWD, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman’s Day on February 28. Women socialists organized mass demonstrations and meetings across the country to demand political rights for working women. These events inspired Clara Zetkin (Leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) to propose an International Working Women’s Day during the 1910 International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen.“The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.”(www.internationalwomensday.com)
March 19 was chosen as the official date but was later changed to March 8. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies around the globe campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, and hold public office, and an end to discrimination.
DonnaFinn, an organizer of Dorchester, MA IWD events since 1978, writes in her 1997 thesis, Celebrating Loud-Mouthed Women, “The credit for inaugurating IWD belongs to the women of the Old Left in the US and Europe—women with the courage to demand a place in revolutionary movements. This occurred at the intersection of the labor, suffrage, and socialist movements.”
The Fight for Women Workers’ Rights in the US
By the early 1900s, the fight for fair-labor laws was not a new struggle, but two key events occurred in 1911 and 1912 that galvanized women working. Just a week after the first IWD, on March 25, 1911,146 garment workers, most of them women, burned or jumped to their deaths in the New York City Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. When the fire erupted, workers could not escape the burning building because the managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits to keep the workers from leaving early or taking breaks. More than 100,000 people participated in the funeral march for the victims, and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union saw rapid growth in membership. Their organizing led to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and the formation of the New York State Factory Investigating Committee.
In January of 1912, a Lawrence, Massachusetts textile mill decided to lower wages when a new law shortening the workweek went into effect. In response, a strike spread rapidly throughout the town, growing within a week to more than 20,000 workers at nearly every mill. The action was dubbed the Bread and Roses strike after the 1911 poem and song of the same title, and it was led by the Industrial Workers of the World and primarily organized by women workers. After more than two brutal months, the strike was successful. This victory challenged the assumptions of conservative trade unions who had claimed that ethnically diverse, immigrant women workers could not be organized.
IWD is now a national holiday in 15 counties, primarily in Eastern Europe and Asia. In some instances it has become similar to Mother’s Day in the US, as it is a day on which men give flowers and gifts to mothers, wives, girlfriends, and other women in their lives. IWD is also celebrated increasingly in Africa and Latin America.
IWD continued to be celebrated in the US and Europe throughout the ‘20s and ‘30s and was connected to antiwar and anti-fascism movements. Finn writes, “IWD faded into oblivion in the US until another generation of socialist and/or radical feminists resurrected it in the 1960s.” Since then, women activists and feminists in the US have continued to use the holiday to address ongoing inequalities women face.