International Women’s Day: A Brief History

International Women's Day logoDuring the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, causes for gender equality were being raised by men and women throughout the world. In 1909, under the helm of the Socialist Party of America, the first National Women’s Day was celebrated in the United States on February 28th. In 1910, at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, influential German socialist politician Clara Zetkin proposed that a day be set aside in every country where women can organize and advocate for their demands for social equality. The following year, Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland celebrated International Women’s Day on March 19th, 1911. About 1 million men and women attended rallies in those countries and others to advocate for equal rights and pay.

Tragedy struck women workers that same year with the Triangle Fire in New York City, where over 140 immigrant workers died in a factory fire, most of them trapped inside the building because the managers had locked all the exits and stairwells during working hours. The incident become a rallying point to highlight deplorable factory conditions and advocate for better labor laws at future IWD celebrations. In Lawrence, MA, the women textile workers also went on a strike that would later be named  “Bread and Roses” after the signs some women held that read, “We want bread but we want roses too!”  Inspired by those female workers, James Oppenheim wrote the famous poem of the same name, which was later adapted into a song that suffragists and feminists everywhere took up as their theme.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient call for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

~”Bread & Roses”, based on the poem by James Oppenheim

Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day in February 1913 on the eve of World War I and spoke out against the fighting at their rallies. Moreover, they decided to move future celebrations to March 8th. During the holiday’s early years, activists also held anti-war protests as the fighting raged across Europe.

Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated throughout the world as an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.

The holiday has expanded both in scope and in range as well, to celebrate women’s accomplishments as well as to advocate for current causes. This year to honor the centennial of International Women’s Day, Reuters created a slideshow to highlight the positive changes for women that has occurred in recent years: Women Living in Extraordinary Times.

You can find much more information about this holiday at their official website.  Also, check out this short documentary  that was commissioned by UN Women Australia.

And to end with an alt history slant, the organization Women Moving Millions created a video based on a question US suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage asked back in 1880: “Why aren’t women of means funding our causes?” If women had, history could’ve changed greatly, and today people are working toward the goal that Gage had envisioned over a hundred years ago:

Women Moving Millions
Women’s Funding Network

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “International Women’s Day: A Brief History

  1. Pingback: International Women’s Day « Pippa Alice

  2. Pingback: Steampunk News » Happy Mardi Gras!

  3. Dr. Mridula Devi

    We the women, the wife, the mother do hereby solemnly affirm on the eve of women s day that we struggle, we conquer the world forever and never loose our temperament to do our work as think fit for us and enlighten our candle of knowledge for future generation

    • Laz

      You only conquer the wold if you leave and abandon the confined life of your kitchen, women must stand up and raise their hands and head to see beyond the horizon.