The Origins of International Women’s Day

Mary Davis

Within the last 10-15 years many thousands of women worldwide have begun to recognise and to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD). It is, however, unfortunate that that its origins are not more widely known given that its foundation almost 100 years ago and subsequent history is truly inspirational.

The motivation for IWD came from two sources: the struggle of working class women to form trade unions and the fight for women’s franchise. These two issues united European women with their sisters in the USA. In 1908 hundreds of women workers in the New York needle trades demonstrated in Rutgers Square in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to form their own union and to demand the right to vote. This historic demonstration took place on March 8th. It led, in the following year to the ‘uprising’ of 30,000 women shirtwaist makers which resulted in the first permanent trade unions for women workers in the USA.

Meanwhile news of the heroic fight of US women workers reached Europe – in particular it inspired European socialist women who had established, on the initiative of the German socialist feminist, Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), the International Socialist Women’s Conference. This latter body met for the first time in 1907 in Stuttgart alongside one of the periodic conferences of the Second International (1889-1914). Three years later in 1910 the Copenhagen Conference of the Second International Clara Zetkin proposed the following motion:

‘…..the Socialist women of all countries will hold each year a Women’s Day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women’s suffrage. This demand must be handled in conjunction with the entire women’s question according to Socialist precepts. The Women’s Day must have an international character and is to be prepared carefully.’

The motion was carried: March 8th was favoured, although at this stage no formal date was set. Nonetheless IWD was marked by rallies and demonstrations in the US and many European countries in the years leading to World War One, albeit on different days each year (e.g. March 18th in 1911 in Austria-Hungary, Germany Denmark and Switzerland and the last Sunday in February in the US.)

In 1917 in Russia, International Women’s Day acquired great significance – it was the flashpoint for the Russian Revolution. On March 8th (Western calendar) women workers in Petrograd held a mass strike and demonstration demanding Peace and Bread. The strike movement spread from factory to factory and effectively became an insurrection. In 1922, in honour of the women’s role on IWD in 1917, Lenin declared that March 8th should be designated officially as women’s day. Much later it was a national holiday in the Soviet Union and most of the former socialist countries. The cold war may explain why it was that a public holiday celebrated by communists, was largely ignored in the West, despite the fact that in 1975 (International Women’s Year), the United Nations recognised March 8th as International Women’s Day.

Today we acknowledge that IWD gives us an opportunity to draw attention to our own struggles for women’s rights, to link this with women’s struggles worldwide and to demonstrate international sisterly solidarity with working women everywhere. However, the socialist feminist origins of IWD should never be forgotten.