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‘The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist, nor to any one organization, but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights,’ – so says feminist campaigner and political activist, Gloria Steinem.
Many believe, however, that the struggle’s ideological narrative in the English-speaking world began with one single publication – Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Published in 1792, with the French Revolution’s Women’s March on Versailles as a back-drop, it responded to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, published the previous year. Instead of adornments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft argued that women deserved the same fundamental rights as men, that given the same educational opportunities they could equally contribute to society. Her book initiated intense debate and was popular among the enlightened, until the Victorians endorsed the old ideal that women remain in the private sphere. Queen Victoria, herself, disparaged feminist ideology, scoffing at what she called the ‘mad wicked folly of Woman’s Rights.’
The rapid spurt in industrialization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had profound societal consequences in the Western World. Victorian values were upscuttled as women poured into the mushrooming factory workplace. International Women’s Day grew first and foremost out of the militant actions of these women and their struggles for better working conditions, wages and the vote.
The Birth of International Women’s Day
Early in 1857, women working in the textile industry in New York City staged a walk-out. They demanded a fair wage for a twelve-hour day spent in the hazardous conditions of the sweatshops and an end to the sexual harassment they endured daily. When the march spilled from the poor districts where they lived and worked into the wealthier areas of the city, the police sought to force them back. In the mêlée, many were clubbed and crushed, their leaders arrested. Little changed as their demands fell on deaf ears.
Fifty years later, thousands of women working in the garment industries in the City, downed their bobbins and took to the streets to honour the courageous women of ‘57. Reiterating the demands for increased wages, a ten-hour day and a safe workplace, their Hunger March called for an end to child labour and the right to vote. The women’s fearlessness, determination and dignity in the face of repeated police assaults was celebrated at the first ever International Women’s Day held in New York City on the last Sunday of February, 1909.
With the rallying cry of ‘Better to starve fighting than to starve working’, their numbers swelled and swelled.
The following year, at the Internationalist Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, one hundred women representing seventeen countries unanimously supported Luise Zietz’s proposal to establish an International Women’s Day, as a strategy to promote women’s rights and suffrage. They didn’t, however, agree on a date for its observance. But in 1911, more than one million women in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland chose to honour the day on March 19th. They rallied for women’s entitlement to vocational training, to the vote and to hold public office. Again, they called for better working conditions and an end to discrimination in the workplace.
Bread and Roses
Less than a week later, a tragedy occurred that focussed the world’s attention on the awful circumstance of women working in the sweatshops. On March 25th, a fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City 1 trapped one hundred and forty-five women and girls on the upper floors. Management had locked the exits and fire-escapes to prevent even a moment’s escape outside. Those who didn’t perish of smoke inhalation, died leaping from the window-ledges. In the days following, workers of every hue thronged the streets to attend the funerals. Regarded as one of the deadliest industrial disasters in American history, it impacted hugely on Labour legislation that provided for a shorter day, proper work-breaks and improved safety. It helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Union and became an argument for workers everywhere to organize. The tragedy inspired James Oppenheim’s epic poem Bread and Roses.
Leon Trotsky wrote, ‘We did not imagine this Women’s Day would inaugurate the revolution…’
Weavers at the Evert Mill in Lawrence, Massachusetts, opened their pay-packet on January 11th, 1912, to discover a reduction in their already meagre wage. The women brought the thundering din of looms to a silence and walked out into the winter snow. News of their action surged through the neighbouring mills and with the rallying cry of ‘Better to starve fighting than to starve working’, their numbers swelled and swelled. Under the careful and politically astute guidance of the twenty-one year old Industrial Workers of the World activist, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn 2, the women braved the arctic condition of the bitter winter and stayed out for nine weeks. The strike initiated the moving picket – the strikers walking in continuous parade to avoid violent clashes with the authorities.3 Marching to Oppenheim’s poem, the women sang:
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.
Winning the sympathy of President Taft and the public, the company had no option but to grant most of the women’s demands. The Lawrence strike became known as the Bread and Roses Strike and Oppenheim’s poem would for ever be associated with Women’s struggles, ultimately becoming the anthem for International Women’s Day.
Russian women held their first International Women’s Day on February 23rd, 1913. This date on the Julian Calendar, (then in use in Russia), translated into March 8th on the Gregorian Calendar, used elsewhere in Europe. Following discussion, March 8th was adopted and has remained the date for global celebration through the decades.
In the war years, women across Europe held rallies on International Women’s Day to advocate peace and sisterly solidarity. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in London on March 8th, 1914, before she could address the huge gathering of women that had marched from Bow and were waiting for her in Trafalgar Square. Women in Russia again chose to strike for Bread and Peace on International Women’s Day, 1917 – sparking the most important event in a socialist historical calendar. Leon Trotsky wrote, ‘We did not imagine this Women’s Day would inaugurate the revolution…’4 Four days into the strike the Czar was forced to abdicate and the new provisional government granted women the right to vote. To honour the women’s contribution to the revolution, Lenin made International Women’s Day an official holiday in the Soviet Union.
Connected as it was with leftist issues the day waned in popularity outside of Socialist and Communist countries through the 20th century. The rise of feminism in the 1960s/70s. however, revived an interest in International Women’s Day, bringing it to a bigger world, albeit away from its original associations.
The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8th during International Women’s Year in 1975. Two years later, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming that a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace be observed by all member states.
The biggest women’s march in history took place in January of this year. Women across the world marched in protest at misogyny. The organizers of the Women’s March on Washington, are now calling on women to march and strike Lysistrata-style on International Women’s Day, to show what ‘A Day Without a Woman’ would be like.5 In a step-away from what they describe as ‘lean-in feminism,’ they want a grassroots anti-capitalist feminism that benefits working women and their families. So, there’s the link – the tradition stretching down – the wheel ever turning – the women marching, marching.
- The building is now designated as a historical landmark.
- The Rebel Girl in Joe Hill’s song, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was first-generation Irish-American, a great admirer of James Connolly and Jim Larkin.
- The tactics used in this strike were copied in many labour disputes, including the 1913, Dublin Lock-Out.
- The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1930)
- In Ireland, women will March4Repeal of the eight amendment to the constitution.