Day 8: Origins of International Woman’s Day

International Woman's Day

Since I decided to start this project, I have been vigorously debating who I would profile on March 8th. Obviously the woman who became the face of International Women’s Day would have to be pretty damn extraordinary. After some serious debate, I realized that on this wonderful day, no single woman could do. I briefly considered doing multiple profiles but that both seemed incredibly daunting and brought me back to the problem of having to choose certain individuals. Finally, I figured out how I could celebrate women’s history without profiling any woman in particular:

Day 8: Origins of International Woman’s Day

When asked to describe the point of International Women’s Day, the incomparable Gloria Steinem said “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.” I am inclined to agree with Ms. Steinem in this case (as I hope I have demonstrated through my profiles so far this month) but I think it is of the utmost importance to remember that International Women’s Day DID start with a particular group of women, a group that is pushed to the margins of history for more than just their gender: working class women.

The timeline of what would eventually become International Women’s Day generally starts in 1908, when a group of about 15,000 women took to the streets of New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and the vote. The next year, the Socialist Party of America declared that a National Woman’s Day would be celebrated across the country on 28 February in remembrance of of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

In 1910, at the second International Conference of Working Women, German Socialist Luise Zietz and German Marxist Clara Zetkin proposed that there should be a single day each year where women across the world would be celebrated and encouraged to press their respective governments for their rights. The idea was taken up with enthusiasm, and International Woman’s Day (singular at the time) was born.

International Women’s Day was first celebrated on 8 March in 1914, most likely because it was a Sunday. Notably, on 8 March 1914, there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage that culminated in the arrest of Sylvia Pankhurst. International Women’s Day has been celebrated on 8 March since.

This is, of course, a very condensed, brief history, but the broader point that I am trying to make is that International Women’s Day has intensely political origins. Do not get me wrong, I am all for women coming together and spending a day a celebrating all their sisters. It warms my heart that the UN puts so much effort into coming up with annual themes that celebrate the beautiful, diverse women that populate our planet. However, I firmly believe that to erase the working class origins of International Women’s Day is ahistorical and problematic.

Class is a very tricky thing for women’s historians. You’re already tackling the issue of gender– for so much of history women’s voices were considered so unimportant that, even when they did produce records of their existence, it was usually only through sheer luck that those records were kept for future historians to find. For poor women, these problems are even more intense. Lack of access to education meant lower literacy rates, the need to work long, grueling hours meant that they didn’t have time to produce the kind of sources elite women left behind, and the double oppression of their gender and their social status meant that few people were interested in writing about them or preserving their legacy. In my opinion, this means that it is urgent that we amplify these women’s voices when we get the chance. International Women’s Day is something that they left behind. Don’t let history take that away from them.

Timeline of International Women’s Day because I left quite a bit out: