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Working In These Times

Monday, Mar 8, 2010, 8:58 am

The Socialist Roots of International Women’s Day

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

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Clara Zetkin, the German socialist who first proposed International Women's Day.  

Today, as the world marks International Women's Day, it's clear that the occasion enjoys an aura of mainstream respectability. IWD is an official holiday in 15 countries.

But the radical roots of the IWD have been largely forgotten. Nothing sums up the corporate co-option of the day better than this blog post by Kristin Young of the consumer blog Luxist trumpeting various IWD-themed promotions sponsored by Diane von Furstenberg boutiques:

What's better than shopping and doing some good along the way?

International Woman's Day has always had close ties to the fashion industry. Started in 1909, IWD came to commemorate the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in which 146 garment workers, all women, either died from the fire or jumped to their death...

Close ties to the fashion industry, indeed.

International Women's Day was born during a time of great social upheaval, as women and workers began to organize and assert their rights, often in concert. In 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York to demand shorter hours, better working conditions, and the right to vote.

The famous slogan "Bread and Roses" made its debut at this protest. It was a poetic answer to a basic question: What are we fighting for? Bread represents survial and roses represent quality of life and human dignity. The slogan has been associated with the overlap between women's rights and workers' rights ever since.

In 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared National Woman's Day, to be celebrated on February 28.

The idea of an international working women's day was first proposed by Clara Zetkin of the 'Women's Office' of the German Social Democratic Party. Zetkin put forward the idea at the second International Conference of Working Women in 1910.

This historic conference drew over 100 women from 17 countries. The participants represented unions, socialist parties, and working women's clubs. Also in attendence were the first three female members of the Finnish parliament. The event was held at the Folkets Hus (the House of the People) in Copenhagen, which was owned by Danish trade unionists.

Zetkin's proposal was adopted unanimously. The first International Women's Day was observed the following year, on March 28. (Which explains why this year marks the 99th anniversary, not the 101st anniversary of the international day.) More than one million people attended IWD in 1911 to demand basic rights for women including the right to work, job training, equal pay, suffrage, and the right to hold elected office.

A few days later, 146 women were killed when a fire swept through the aforementioned Triangle Factory in New York City. The fire galvanized labor and the women's movement. Several subsequent IWD events honored the Triangle Fire dead and pushed to end sweatshop labor—a fight that continues to this day in the U.S. and abroad.

In 1917, women workers at the Putilov armaments factory in St. Petersburg, Russia, timed their strike to coincide with International Women's Day. This was an especially provocative gesture because these workers were making weapons for the First World War. The strike touched off several days of "peace and bread protests" as hungry, war-weary women joined the strikers to demand food and an end to the war, which had already killed 2 million Russians.

After four days of unrest, the Czar was forced to abdicate. Shortly thereafter, the provisional government gave women the right to vote. Thus, women touched off the Russian Revolution of 1917.

(The discrepancies between the Gregorian and the Julian calendars explain the ever-shifting date of the observance of IWD. The aramament factory strike started on February 23, according to the Julian calendar which was then in use in Russia, this corresponds to March 8 on our Gregorian calendar.)

In some circles, International Women's Day has devolved into a mixture of power pink advertising and feel-good platitudes. It doesn't have to be that way. Let's get back in touch with the a radical roots of International Women's Day: Set aside some time to read up on women's issues or call your elected officials about an issue you care about.

Pretty much anything would be better than buying a Diane von Furstenberg "Proud to Be a Woman" tote bag. The photographic record shows that Clara Zetkin liked to accessorize, but she didn't confuse consumerism with political action.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (, a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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