A Rich Tradition:
International Women's Day

By Kathy Durkin (*)
“A Salute to Women’s Resistance” is the perfect slogan for the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD), March 8th. Struggle is what this day signifies and what its traditions are all about. That and solidarity with women in struggle worldwide are at the heart of this special day.

Its origins were in the working-class and socialist movements in New York City and Europe, where the socialist movement was agitating for women’s rights, too.

On March 8, 1908, 15,000 women garment workers, including many immigrants, marched through New York City’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square to demand economic and political rights. They honored a similar march by their forebears in 1857 on that date.

Inspired by that march, women immigrant garment workers staged a three-month strike, the “Uprising of the 20,000,” from 1909-1910, against Triangle Shirtwaist and other sweatshops. Women as young as 16 years old faced down police in the dead of winter. Sadly, one year later, an estimated 146 immigrant workers, women and girls, perished in the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Subsequent IWD protests demanded workplace safety regulations and remembered those who lost their lives.

This was a rich period of social protest and working-class and socialist organizing. One-third of the 60,000 people who marched on May Day in 1910 in Union Square were women socialists and unionists.

Women in the European socialist movement were closely watching these developments in the U.S. while waging their own struggles. German socialist Clara Zetkin had agitated for several years for a special day to mark working women’s global solidarity.

Further inspired by the New York women garment workers’ struggles and the strong role of women socialists, Zetkin proposed designating International Women’s Day at an International Socialist Congress in Copenhagen in 1910. Women delegates from 17 countries unanimously concurred.

The following year, this declaration’s impact was shown when one million women poured into the streets throughout Europe on the first IWD to demand their rights. And in 1913 and 1914, European women rallied against the burgeoning imperialist war and in sisterly solidarity on that day.

In 1917, Russian women textile workers went on strike to mark IWD, demanding " peace, land and bread.” It sparked the struggle to topple the czar, which then led to the workers’ revolution. The Soviet Union officially recognized IWD in 1921; it was the first government to enact laws codifying women’s rights.

Since then, socialist countries and liberation movements have commemorated IWD. Revolutionaries, progressive forces and women workers have marked it with creative, militant actions—demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins—aimed at imperialist war, globalization, poverty, exploitation, racism and all forms of oppression and inequality.

Although the U.S. and other capitalist governments conceal IWD’s socialist, working-class and struggle origins, its real history and meaning have been demonstrated by women worldwide with displays of solidarity and fight-back.

The courageous struggle of the Vietnamese women against the U.S. war inspired women internationally. Starting in the 1960s, the African-American, Latin@, Chicano and Native liberation movements stirred women’s struggles here.

The Women’s Caucus of Youth Against War and Fascism revived the militant, class-conscious and struggle traditions of IWD in the U.S. in 1970 by rallying at New York’s Union Square. They marched to the Women’s House of Detention to protest racism, poverty and political repression, and to express solidarity with the oppressed women inside, including Joan Bird, members of the Panther 21.

Some global highlights of IWD are:

≤In a stunning action in 1970, the revolutionary Tupamaros freed women prisoners from Uruguay’s jails.

≤In 1971, Philippine women protested against the Marcos dictatorship and, since 2001, have militantly defied the U.S.-backed Macapagal-Arroyo regime.

≤In 1975, socialist Cuba—where women’s rights are codified into law— instituted the Family Code, led by the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), which was established in 1960 and which has helped women there make great strides.

≤Women everywhere in 2003 protested the U.S.-led war in Iraq and in solidarity with their Iraqi sisters. The next year, Palestinian women challenged Israel’s apartheid wall and continue to defy U.S.-backed Israeli aggression and occupation.

≤In 2006, the South African government launched a campaign to honor the 1956 women’s march in Pretoria against the repressive pass laws under the apartheid system. The ANC and COSATU have for years honored women participants in the liberation movement.

≤Women garment workers in Bangladesh marched for economic rights in 2006, as their sisters in Mumbai, India, supported Dalits, considered as social outcasts, and other oppressed women.

≤In 2007, women throughout Latin America, including Venezuela, protested U.S.-President Bush’s visit and demanded the U.S. end the Iraq war and military intervention and globalization in their countries.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of the historic march of women garment workers, it is very fitting that the New York demonstration begins in Union Square and ends at the Triangle Fire site. The socialist traditions of struggle and solidarity with working and oppressed women here and everywhere and special recognition of women immigrants’ role, are vital today.


(*) The writer’s grandmother, Sophie Stoller, an immigrant garment worker, marched in 1908, joined the “Uprising of the 20,000,” and worked for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, but was ill and didn’t work on the day of the fire.

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--> Also See the cartoon I made in 2007 for the International Women's Day

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