Why International Women’s Day matters

Opening image on UN.org on March 8, 2022 International Women’s Day. Photo: un.org

International Women’s Day, which is now celebrated on March 8 around the globe, has for more than a century been a day to highlight the plight of women, especially mothers, in the workplace and fight for reforms. Over the years, women have used this day to help win concessions on issues such as a five-day, 40-hour workweek, child labor laws, safety codes and a minimum wage. But more recently in America, the day has become divorced from its labor history roots and morphed into an occasion to generically celebrate women and girls in our lives on social media, while the full promise of the women’s labor movement has not been fulfilled, notably around paid family leave, affordable child care and equitable pay. The demands made over a century ago remind us of the need for women to reclaim this history and power by walking out, literally and figuratively, on this International Women’s Day.

American Socialists declared the first National Woman’s Day (it would be renamed in the plural decades later), with a focus on workers’ rights and suffrage. The event took place in New York City in 1909 on the last Sunday of February – a day when working women could attend. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a noted feminist, socialist and author, gave a speech calling for women’s influence and freedom beyond their households: “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.”

The protest laid the groundwork for the largest strike by women workers that fall. At 9 a.m. on a cold morning in November 1909, thousands of garment workers walked out of their shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx and marched to their union headquarters at 151 Clinton Street. Their demands included a 52-hour workweek, higher pay and an end to workplace abuses, such as unsafe working conditions and what we later came to understand as sexual harassment. Women continued to strike, many with their children by their side, until their individual shops negotiated with workers.

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This “Uprising of the 20,000,” as the event became known, was mostly settled in days or weeks, with varying degrees of success. Labor leader Rose Schneiderman wrote that she pleaded with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers to strike, to no avail. A little over a year later, on March 25, 1911, unsafe conditions at the Triangle factory led to a massive fire and the death of 146 workers. But the Uprising of the 20,000 no doubt prevented other tragedies like this from happening and showed women as a powerful and steadfast force to be reckoned with when they protested in large numbers.

In 1910, German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed codifying International Woman’s Day at an International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen, with delegates from 17 countries unanimously agreeing. The next year, more than a million women took part in this holiday, flooding the streets across Europe and demanding political and worker rights.

Over the next decade, International Women’s Day became a day for protests against the burgeoning imperialist war in Europe, and in 1917, Russian women demanded “peace, land, and bread.” Such protests helped to spark the Russian Revolution and earned women the right to vote and run for office that same year.

Women farmers attend a protest against farm laws on the occasion of International Women’s Day at Bahadurgar near Haryana-Delhi border, India, March 8, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Throughout the 20th century, March 8 continued to inspire protests for women’s working and political rights around the globe. Under threat of arrest, torture, rape and death, women in Nazi-occupied Italy in 1944 and 1945 walked out of factories and homes en masse, demanding better wages, maternity leave, child care and an end to German requisitioning of Italian-made goods. Even Nazi fascists capitulated to the power of these women, offering shorter hours, hot soup and heating fuel so that the women would continue to work.

Women workers were also instrumental in the Allied war effort, and their organizational initiatives played a role in winning the war. Italian labor leaders such as Bianca Guidetti helped organize female factory workers to continue to support anti-fascist soldiers and fight for women’s rights over the last brutal year of World War II. In many northern Italian cities, these efforts culminated in women taking up arms and securing factories during the final bloody battles against Germany as the Allied forces advanced.

These organized demonstrations then gave women political power in the new Italian government. Following the war, they secured political representation, labor unions, child-care assistance and more equitable pay. On March 8, Italian women carried the yellow mimosa – an early spring bloom – to represent “solidarity with women throughout the world.” This flower became a reminder during the war of their obligation to fight for a better future, scholar Jomarie Alano wrote. Even today, many countries celebrate women and mothers on this day with flowers, but also annual protests for equal rights and better pay.

An estimated 200 people attended the March 25, 2019, celebration of International Women’s Day hosted by the Chicago chapter of the American Telugu Association. (Photo: court, 2019esy ATA Chicago)

Yet, despite this international popularity, International Women’s Day is only nominally celebrated in the United States. Why? Because of its association with “socialist” ideals, something seen as at odds with American individualism. This was particularly true in the decades after World War II when, because of the Cold War, a harmful divide emerged between feminist movements and women’s labor movements in America. The intersectional bonds of early feminists – women of all classes fighting for suffrage and worker protections side by side – loosened, and when a mainstream feminism re-emerged in the 1960s, it left many women of color and working-class women behind, although they later fought for inclusion.

Many feminists today are striving toward intersectionality to right these wrongs. But the pandemic has exposed that the United States has a long way to go in supporting workers who are women, particularly working mothers.

It is telling that the United States loves to celebrate mothers in May with flowers and brunch and with similarly apolitical nods, mostly on social media, on International Women’s Day. But it has largely ignored real policy shifts that the rest of the world has adopted and continues to advocate for on March 8 to support working mothers.

Recent challenges around mothering and working have highlighted how these issues are deeply interconnected, and International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to address issues such as insufficient child care, poor workplace protections, suppressed pay and a lack of voting protections. This March 8 should be an occasion to return to the true history of International Women’s Day in the United States, as it began in New York City in 1909, with female workers and mothers fighting for change in the streets.

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Suzanne Cope is the author of “Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement” and is a professor at NYU.

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