International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated on March 8 in countries around the world, was originally chosen to commemorate a strike by women textile workers that took place on that day in New York in 1857. These women were protesting extremely poor working conditions and deplorably low wages. This strike was forcibly and violently ended by the police.
Fifty years later, on March 8, 1908, 15,000 women in New York City marched to demand better working conditions, including a ten hour day, better pay, the abolition of child labor, and voting rights. In May of that same year, the Socialist Party of America chose the last Sunday of February as National Women’s Day. Sunday was chosen as the day of celebration so that women would not lose a day of pay.
The first ever IWD was held on February 28, 1909. It continued to be held on this day until 1913.
In 1910, a German socialist leader named Clara Zetkin proposed at the International Socialist Conference in Copenhagen that IWD be celebrated in March to commemorate the 1857 strike by the women textile workers in New York. The motion was unanimously approved, and the following year, on March 19, more than one million women in Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, and Germany used the day to rally for women’s suffrage and improved working conditions.
Six days later, more than 140 women, mostly young immigrants, died in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. The factory owners had maintained dangerous working conditions, including the practice of locking the women in the factory throughout the workday. When fire broke out, the women could not escape. Many jumped out of windows to their deaths. This tragedy sent shock waves around the world, and motivated great numbers of people to fight for future legislation to improve working conditions for all workers.
In the following years, communist and socialist countries commemorated IWD every year, in either February or March. With the growth of the feminist movement during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the day began to attract more attention in countries such as the US.
During IWD in 1975, Cuba announced a campaign against firmly entrenched macho male attitudes and practices. A new marriage code, which made housework the responsibility of men as well as women, was part of this campaign.
In 1977, UNESCO proclaimed March 8 as International Women’s Day. The UN also recognized IWD, along with many countries that had not previously known about its existence.
Today, IWD is seen as a time to reflect on past achievements, to assert women’s political and social rights, or simply to celebrate women’s lives. Lena Lewis, a US socialist, declared in 1910 that this day should anticipate the struggles to come, as well as hope for a time when “we may eventually and forever stamp out the last vestige of male egotism and his desire to dominate over women.”