The Forgotten Women of International Women’s Day

The Forgotten Women of International Women's Day

This week, we celebrated International Women’s Day, an awareness day recognised annually on March 8th. It is a day to celebrate the achievements, contributions and acceleration of women across social, cultural, economical and political fields. But it wasn’t always hashtags, special offers, and selfies. Whilst the recognised celebration is a beautiful one, International Women’s Day came as a result of collective calls to action for gender parity from all over the world, and we owe it to our society today to clue ourselves up on the women behind International Women’s Day!

The International Women’s Day story begins in the early 1900s, a time of industrial expansion and turbulence in the world that saw a colossal population boom and a rise of more radical ideologies. The earliest recorded Women’s Day observance was, at the time, called “National Women’s Day”, and was held on the 28th of February in 1909 in New York. This was organised by the Socialist Party of America at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. She was a young Jewish refugee who came to America fleeing the anti semitic violence in Russia who became an activist and suffragist. She was the first woman to rise through the ranks from factory work to leadership in the Socialist party. She formerly worked at a New York factory making shirtwaists which were an early 20th century fashion statement for fashionable ladies. The conditions in these factories for the workers who were largely female immigrants, were intolerable. 2,000 women marched on 34th Street in New York to demand shorter hours, better pay and voting rights, as well as to listen to socialist feminist speakers discussing the importance of universal suffrage. Following this, and in accordance with a declaration by the SPA, the first National Women’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on the 28th of February and continued to be celebrated on the last Sunday of February until 1913.

The second recognition of a Women’s Day happened in 1910 in Copenhagen, where the International Conference of Working Women was held. Clara Zetkin (the leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) presented the idea of an International Women’s Day. She pitched that every year, all over the world, there should be a celebration on the same day – a central Women’s Day – to press for the demands of women. The Conference of Working Women, including over 100 women from 17 different countries, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and International Women’s Day was the result.

Later, in 1911, International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time since Zetkin’s pitch was heard in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on the 19th of March. Over one million women and men attended rallies campaigning for women’s right to work, vote, be trained professionally, to hold office and end discrimination. Shortly after, on the 25th of March, the tragedy that was the Triangle Fire in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, the majority being Italian and Jewish immigrants. This drew attention to the working conditions women, especially women of minority backgrounds, were subjected to, and this became a focus of IWD events, like the 1911 Bread and Roses campaign.

World War I became a focus of the women’s movement, and on the eve of World War I, campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first IWD on the last Sunday in February 1913. IWD was later transferred to the 8th of March in this year, and this has remained the global date for the celebration ever since. Later, in 1914, women across Europe held rallies and campaigns against the war and to express women’s solidarity against it. In London, there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on the 8th of March 1914, and Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charring Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square. Later still, in 1917, Russian women began to strike for “bread and peace” as a response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in WWI. They were opposed by political leaders, but the women continued to strike until four days later when the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.

The recognition of International Women’s Day by the United Nations was a huge step, and this occured in 1975, and the General Assembly adopted a resolution to proclaim that a UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace was to be observed. The UN was also the catalyst for the adoption of an annual theme, which was innovated in 1996 when they announced a focus on “Celebrating the past, planning for the future”. Examples of consequent themes are as follows:

1997 – “Women at the Peace table”

1998 – “Women and Human Rights”

1999 – “World Free of Violence Against Women”

Unfortunately, by the new millenium, IWD activity globally had stagnated, and feminism was no longer a popular topic. Gender parity still had not been achieved, and from this point on, in 2001, the global hub was launched to energize the day at an important platform to celebrate women and continue calls to action for achieving gender parity. 2011 saw the 100 year anniversary of IWD, and in the United States, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2011 to be Women’s History Month; a call to action for Americans to mark IWD by reflecting on what he called: “the extraordinary accomplishments of women” in shaping the USA and its history. Since then, many iconic celebrities, brands and charities have run extensive campaigns and activity supporting IWD.

What we can see now is a hugely positive change in the way society views and adis women’s equality and gender parity; there is still a huge way to go, particularly where diversity and inclusivity are concerned, but IWD makes a great impact on supporting this. IWD recognises that where many people from older generations feel that the battles have been won, there is a deficit whereby women are still not paid equally to men, they are not present in equal numbers in business and politics and CEO roles, healthcare for women and vulnerable people is constantly under fire and cuts are real, safety for sex workers is still being fought for, LGBTQ+ rights are still in much need of support, and women in countries as close as Ireland are still fighting for abortion rights. There are many more fights to be fought, and that is why IWD exists. Not as a single day to celebrate what we have, but more so, an occasion to remind people of the work we still have left to do. What started as a protest needs to continue as such, and serves to remind us of the power we hold in our existence to make change. The International Women’s Day organisation urges us to “make a difference, think globally, and act locally”, and “make every day International Women’s Day”, so let’s ensure we are all doing our bit to ensure the future is bright, equal, safe and rewarding for ourselves, and for generations to come.


Further Reading:

Female Suffrage – If you’d like to read more about the women’s suffrage movement, and particularly, the involvement of Theresa Malkiel, you can read her book “Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker”, which is a fictionalised account of the strike dedicated to the “nameless heroines of the Shirtwaist Makers Strike”. It reveals ways in which these women would work incredibly hard in the factories, and go home to perform the majority (if not all) the reproductive labour associated with raising a family and keeping house.

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