Nancy Woloch: The roots of International Women’s Day

WolochInternational Women’s Day has roots on the left. The idea for such a day arose among socialist women in the US and Europe early in the 20th century. A New York City women’s socialist meeting of 1909 endorsed the plan. So did the International Socialist Women’s Conference that met in Copenhagen in August 1910 as part of the larger Internationalist Socialist Congress. The hundred delegates from seventeen nations who attended the women’s conference shaped a demanding agenda. In what manner would socialist women support woman suffrage? Might they join forces with “bourgeois” feminists to accept restricted forms of enfranchisement, as urged by British delegates? Or did the socialist campaign for woman suffrage involve “the political emancipation of the female sex for the proletarian class-struggle,” as claimed by German delegates? The Germans won that point. In other areas, the women delegates found more unity. Denouncing militarism, they spoke for peace. They urged international labor standards for women workers, such the 8-hour day, limits on child labor, and paid support for pregnant workers and new mothers. Finally, they endorsed a day of activism around the globe to promote women’s emancipation, a counterpart to the May Day marches of socialists. “[W]omen of all nationalities have to organize a special Woman’s Day, which in first line has to promote woman suffrage propaganda,” wrote German socialist Clara Zetkin and her comrades. “This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman question according to the socialist conception of social things.” As of 1913, socialist women chose March 8th as the date for International Women’s Day.  

Women activists of the 1960s in Chicago revived the socialist strategy to promote women’s emancipation. Adopted by the United Nations in 1975, International Women’s Day now sponsors less politicized and more broadly inclusive goals; proponents celebrate facets of women’s achievement and champion action to achieve gender equity. Over the decades, on March 8 of each year, events around the globe underscore common themes such as equal rights, women and peace, and opposition to violence against women. In the recent words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the celebration of International Women’s Day seeks “to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, and promote gender equity and women’s empowerment.”

Workplace rights are key issues for advocates of International Women’s Day, just as they were for defenders of labor standards a century ago. The growth of labor standards—such as maximum-hour laws and minimum wage laws—is the subject of my book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. With global roots and global impact, labor standards remain vital for women workers today. Women constitute almost half the workforce of the world and half of migrant workers, often the least protected of employees. Current concerns include the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid family leave, workplace safety, and opposition to sexual harassment. Labor organizers worldwide focus on job segregation, the gender wage gap, and the need for policies to integrate work and family. Celebrants of International Women’s Day share such goals and seek to uphold labor standards around the globe.

 

Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s.

Sources
Report of the socialist party delegation and proceedings of the International socialist congress at Copenhagen, 1910 (Chicago: H.G. Adair, 1910), pp. 19-23.
Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 163-171.
Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).