As much as it is tempting to point out the one person who “invented” Women’s Day, history shows that this initiative has many founding mothers. What is globally known today as International Women’s Day began as an extension of the early 20th-century socialist movement, did an international round, was expanded into a month, became official by the UN, and in the 21st century added multiple interpretations – as debates of gender marginalization, hundreds of community celebrations, and consumerist catalyst of sales.
Through its eleven decades of evolution, International Women’s Day has acted as a celebration of female achievements and a call to action for further gender equality.
Photo credit – Mascha Tace @ Shutterstock
From a women’s march to women’s day: Unionists beginning
It is believed that the first seed of international women’s day was planted in 1908 in New York City when 15,000 female garment workers went out marching to protest against their working conditions. The following year, in honor of the march, the Socialist Party of America first observed National Woman’s Day (NWD). A central figure behind this historic decision was the labor organizer Theresa Serber Malkiel, a Russian Jewish immigrant and a writer who published the novel “The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker.”
The first Woman’s Day was on February 28, 1909, Sunday, so female workers could participate. The celebration included 2,000 people gathering outside Manhattan’s Murray Hill Lyceum, with speeches on women’s rights.
On the wings of the early 20th-century international socialist movement, the idea traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to the 1910 International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkin from Germany proposed establishing an International Women’s Day to be celebrated on the same day every year in every country. 100 delegates from 17 countries approved the suggestion unanimously.
The first International Women’s Day was observed on March 19, 1911, in four countries: Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland.
The next leap forward was in Russia when women’s rights met pacifism. Women gathered in 1913 and 1914 to protest against World War I. The movement was amplified in 1917 when 40,000 Russian women and men held big demonstrations and a strike with the call for “bread and peace.” In response, they were granted voting rights by the Russian Empire – before their fellow Western suffragists. The day of that historic strike has marked March 8 as International Women’s Day.
Years later, due to the rising political tensions of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, International Women’s Day was celebrated modestly in the west, careful of communist associations. Hence only six decades later, in 1975, did the United Nations officially declare the observance of International Women’s Day. Since 1996 the UN has declared an annual theme for the day. The first International Women’s Day theme was “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future.”
A day turns into a week, then into a month
While Women’s Day sailed back and forward across the ocean, another development took place to give birth to the US National Women’s History Month. It started with a small Californian story of one teacher. Molly Murphy MacGregor was 26 years old in 1972 when her students asked about the Women’s movement. It made her do some research and realize that women’s history was absent from the history books. It inspired her to join the Education Task Force of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, where she initiated the “Women’s History Week” which was held in 1978, around March 8th.
The first “Women’s History Week” was very successful – with presentations in schools, an essay contest, and a parade in Santa Rosa, all celebrating women. The following year, MacGregor shared the Sonoma experience with The Women’s History Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. There, she met historian Gerda Lerner, who was known for introducing the world’s first women’s history college course. Lerner was inspired to promote the cause on a national level.
Only a year later, the lobbying efforts of many saw the idea come to life. In February 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued the first Presidential Proclamation declaring the first National Women’s History Week. “I ask my fellow Americans to recognize this heritage with appropriate activities during National Women’s History Week, March 2-8, 1980. I urge libraries, schools, and community organizations to focus their observances on the leaders who struggled for equality.”
To maintain the momentum, new lobbying efforts were needed every year, including thousands of educational and women’s rights activists and organizations led by the National Women’s History Alliance. Another notable active figure was Representative Barbara Mikulski, who co-sponsored a Congressional Resolution for National Women’s History Week in 1981.
By 1986 the week extended into a month, and 14 states facilitated activities about women’s history. In 1987 Congress declared March as National Women’s History Month.
In addition, since 1971, August 26th has become the official Women’s Equality Day in the US, honoring the 19th Amendment ratification to the US Consitiution granting women the right to vote.
Women from different nationalities at a reception celebrating International Women’s Day in WDC, March 1945. Photo credit – photographer Lakey, J. Sherrel @ Library of Congress collection.
How it is being celebrated today
The current celebrations of International Women’s Day and US National Women’s History Month include various events – held in schools, communities, organizations, and shopping malls. There are special gatherings, concerts, political demonstrations, business conferences, writing competitions, parades, publications, crafts markets, and parties. Some are small-scale local happenings, while others are official national initiatives and even international network activities connecting women globally.
Some various happenings are linked by the International Women’s Day website, which also declares a national theme. In 2019 International Women’s Day theme is #BalanceforBetter.
There are also International Women’s Day colors: purple and green borrowed from the UK suffrage movement, white from the US suffragists, and yellow representing “the new dawn.”
While it is widely acknowledged, many critical voices point out the problematic features of Women’s Day. One such criticism points to its consumerist nature, which like Valentine’s Day, was co-opted by capitalism and big corporations to encourage people to spend money on unnecessary shopping.
Another group to resist the celebrations is some men who protest, mostly in social media comments, about having a day that celebrates women and not men. That line of criticism highlights that November 19th – the male equivalent – is less famous and not as widely celebrated.
The main objection to International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month comes from feminist thinkers, who point out the fact that those observances unintentionally marginalize women. Those critics claim that women should not be acknowledged only once a year as a sign of being the less dominant sex since women are the majority of the workforce and academic lecture halls since 2010.
Black History Month has also been opposed on similar grounds. The argument is that such means of progressing equality have the side-effect of separating women (or Blacks) from the general society. “The honor it bestows marks, yet also perpetuates their marginalization.”
New reasons to stay
Both International Women’s Day and US Women’s History Month were initially developed as grass-roots initiatives and adopted into the official systems thanks to the efforts of many individuals, organizations, and the thousands who participated in the initial initiatives.
Despite the criticism, and even because of it, those occasions provide a platform to express solidarity among women in various means and disciplines. Recently it was noted that the 2017 Women’s March and the #MeToo campaign give new meaning to International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month.
Those remain relevant means to honor the past, criticize the present, and continue promote an equal future.
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