What Were the Origins of International Women's Day, 1886-1920?


Garment workers selling the New York Call during the
1909-10 New York City shirtwaist makers' strike.
(International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union Archives, Cornell University)
Documents selected and interpreted by
Kathryn Kish Sklar and Lauren Kryzak
State University of New York at Binghamton
December 2000

       International Women's Day is now celebrated on March 8 annually throughout the world. The historical origins of International Women's Day show us how wage-earning women were emerging as a political force in the early years of the twentieth century. Beginning in the United States as a day to honor the political rights of working women, "Woman's Day" celebrations were immediately successful in the United States and in Europe. Because this holiday continues to articulate women's issues in new ways, it deserves to be celebrated even more emphatically today, both within the United States and around the world.

       Partly due to the lack of authoritative historical information, myths have grown up to explain the origins of International Women's Day (IWD). Historian Temma Kaplan has examined these myths, one of which holds that International Women's Day began in 1907 as a memorial to an 1857 protest of women garment workers in New York City against "low wages, the twelve-hour workday, and increasing work loads, [that] was dispersed by the police, rather brutally."[1] Kaplan found no evidence to support this account of the Day's origins.

        This project investigates the origin of International Women's Day by comparing its emergence in the United States and Germany. Four streams of historical change account for the emergence of "National Woman's Day" in the United States in 1909 and "International Women's Day" in Germany and Austria in 1911:

  • the organized response of working people to the industrial workplace, which included the celebration of May Day as a day to promote the eight-hour day for working men -- in the United States in 1886, and in Europe in 1890;
  • the response of socialist women in the U.S. and Germany to middle-class woman suffrage movements and to the question of forging coalitions with middle-class women;
  • the strength of cross-class coalitions to support working women in the U.S.;
  • the strength of socialism among working women in Germany.
  •        By tracing the trajectory of these changes in the United States and Germany we can understand why the political cultures of these two countries gave rise to different forms of Women's Day celebrations.

    May Day Demonstrations

           International Women's Day was modeled on other days that celebrated working people during the height of industrialization and the height of socialist mobilization in response to industrialization. May Day, a traditional folk holiday that celebrated the arrival of spring, was first celebrated as a day to honor wage-earning people by demonstrations in cities throughout the United States in 1886. Organized by a coalition of trade unions and socialists, the event occurred at the height of the movement supporting an eight-hour workday, a leading goal of the labor movement that was second only to the right to maintain trade unions, and a cause that had mobilized impressive street demonstrations in the U.S. since the early 1880s.[2] (See Documents 1 & 2)

           Supporters of the eight-hour movement knew about the colossal profits that industrialists were reaping from the greater productivity of industrialization, which gave rise to enormous wealth concentrated in the hands of a relative few. (Historians call this period of American history between 1880 and 1900 "the Gilded Age" and journalists at the time referred to leading capitalists as "robber barons.")[3] Supporters of the eight-hour movement believed that working people should also benefit from the greater productivity of industrialization -- by working fewer hours for the same daily wage for which they now worked ten hours or longer.

           Drawing on the success of May Day celebrations in the United States, the First Congress of the (socialist) Second International in Paris in 1889 recognized May Day as an international workers' holiday. The next year demonstrations were widespread in Europe as well as in the United States.[4] (See Document 3)

           Although women workers suffered from longer hours and lower wages than most men, early May Day demonstrations did not welcome their participation. Potentially violent confrontations with the police and the gendered organization of trade unions kept women away. (See Documents 1, 2 & 3)

    Socialist Women Respond to the Challenge of Middle-Class Woman Suffrage Movements, 1885-1908

           Approximately twenty years after the creation of the May Day holiday, women socialist leaders in the United States and Germany created "Woman's Day" to promote the enactment of women's suffrage. International Women's Day emerged in a context in which the growth of middle-class women's suffrage movements made it necessary for socialist groups to develop their own approach to women's suffrage.[5] Women's suffrage was achieved in Germany in 1919, through a new democratic constitution after World War I, and in the United States in 1920 through the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. A decade before this success, socialist groups in both countries created Woman's Day to promote working-womens' right to vote.

           Yet differences in the political cultures of the two countries meant that Woman's Day in the United States and Germany took a different shape. In the United States Woman's Day was shaped by the strength of cross-class coalitions in the suffrage movement and the women's trade union movement. In Germany it was shaped by the strength of socialism as a political movement.

           The decision to support "woman suffrage" (as the reform was called), occurred only after debates within socialist parties in the U.S. and Germany clarified a "socialist" perspective on woman suffrage. Socialists in both countries denounced "bourgeois" notions of suffrage as part of an agenda to advance middle-class political power. Leadership on that score came from Clara Zetkin, a leading German socialist, whose 1906 speech at a socialist women's conference stated the need for a socialist woman suffrage movement separate from the middle-class movement. Because "the bourgeois woman's movement" in Germany and elsewhere in Europe supported limited suffrage based on property, "proletarian women, consequently, must rely on their own strength and on that of their class for the conquest of their full political rights." (See Document 4) In Germany, where class divisions were deeply embedded in the nation's political culture, where property qualifications limited the voting rights of working-class men in municipal elections, and where between 1850 and 1908 women were prohibited by law from participating in political meetings, the woman suffrage movement was relatively small and socialist women shunned coalitions with middle-class women.[6]

           In the United States the socialist debate over the support of woman suffrage was less theoretical and more practical. The middle-class suffrage movement was rapidly gaining strength and was actively recruiting working-class women through such organizations as the Equal Suffrage League (founded in New York in 1902) and the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (founded in New York in 1907).[7] Perhaps because male suffrage was not limited by property qualifications in the U.S. as it was in Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe, the woman suffrage movement in the U.S. did not support limited suffrage strategies. Indeed, such strategies became identified with the opponents of woman suffrage. Even in the South where Jim Crow laws repressed the voting rights of Black men, after 1906 the National American Woman Suffrage Association failed to find support for a platform of limited suffrage.[8] In this context, lacking fundamental strategic distinctions between themselves and the larger suffrage movement, socialist groups created Woman's Day to attract to their own ranks some of the vibrancy being generated by that larger movement. In this way American socialists became leaders in the robust, cross-class coalitions that supported woman suffrage.

    National Woman's Day is Celebrated in the U.S. , 1909

           In 1908 the Socialist Party of the U.S. established a Woman's National Committee. One of the Committee's first acts was to declare that the last Sunday in February should be recognized as National Woman's Day. The first celebrations took place the following year, February 23, 1909. (See Document 9) In subsequent years National Woman's Day was widely celebrated by socialists, working women, and middle-class reformers. (See Documents 6-15).

           Speakers at Woman's Day events represented the cross-class coalitions that supported working women's rights. Leonora O'Reilly, a prominent speaker at the first Woman's Day in New York City, was a leader in the Women's Trade Union League, an organization that combined middle-class and working-class women to support unionization among wage-earning women. (See Document 8) Founded in 1903, and affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, the League offered gender-specific social and educational opportunities, and was not, strictly speaking, socialist.[9]

           Speakers at the event in New York in 1915 included middle-class reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman as well as socialist Theresa Malkiel. Some participants referred to themselves as "feminist," indicating that women's issues rather than class issues were their first priority. (See Documents 14 & 17)

    Cross-Class Support for Wage-Earning Women on Strike in New York, 1909

           Although some socialist women might have preferred to exclude middle-class allies from their celebrations of National Woman's Day and keep the holiday an exclusively socialist event, the strength of middle-class coalitions among wage-earning women blocked such a strategy. Those coalitions were especially visible in 1909 during a strike of women garment makers. While these coalitions were weakened by the end of the strike (see the Shirtwaist Strike project also on this website), support for the strike among middle- and upper-class New York women exemplified the cross-class political culture that sustained the American woman suffrage movement in 1909. (See Documents 18, 19, & 20)

    Socialist Party Support for Wage-Earning Women in Germany

           Clara Zetkin's 1906 essay built on fifteen years of effort by the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) to recruit working women to socialism. Since 1892 Zetkin had edited the SPD's magazine for working women, Die Gleichheit (Equality). As a party leader who had attended the First Congress of the Second International in Paris in 1889, where May Day was first proposed as an international workers' holiday, Zetkin's loyalties were first and foremost to socialism, and that loyalty prompted her and her comrades to shun alliances with middle-class women.[10] (See Document 4)

    Women's Day is Celebrated Internationally in Europe in 1911

           The success of National Woman's Day in the United States in 1910 probably influenced Clara Zetkin and other delegates in 1910 at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, who created a Women's Day, "to aid in the attainment of women's suffrage." The Second International was constructed between 1889 and 1919 by socialists bent on overcoming their national differences. International Women's Day was the fruit of the efforts of women in the Second International.[11] Zetkin and others emphasized the international scope of their vision, calling on "the Socialist women of all countries [to] hold each year a Women's Day," and declaring that "The Women's Day must have an international character." (See Document 21) The first "International Woman's Day" was held on the 19th of March, 1911, that day commemorating an 1848 uprising in Prussia. In 1913 International Women's Day was celebrated on March 8, the date on which it is still celebrated today.

           Alexandra Kollontai, a leader in the Russian Revolution of 1917, wrote the best early history of International Women's Day in 1920.[12] She explained that the success of "Working Women's Day" exceeded all expectations. "Meetings were organized everywhere -- in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask workers to give up their places for the women." One measure of the importance of International Women's Day to socialists affiliated with the Second International can be seen in the fact that protesting women who marched in St. Petersburg on Women's Day in 1917 precipitated a series of protests that launched the Russian Revolution.(See Document 22)

           With the revival of feminism in the 1970s, International Women's Day acquired a more feminist and less socialist character, appealing to women with a wide range of political views who support the Day because it celebrates women's contributions to their workplaces, their families and their communities.

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