In 1910 Clara Zetkin, a German Marxist, proposed that the second Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen organise an International Working Women’s Day.
15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
In the US, women garment workers went on strike for better pay and working conditions. Following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day was observed across the US on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate on the last Sunday of February until 1913.
Inspired by the militancy of women in US textile mills, and recognising the need for the Socialist International to reach out to the most oppressed sections of society, Clara Zetkin (a Marxist in the Social Democratic Party of Germany – SPD), proposed that the second Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen organise an International Working Women’s Day. This was to highlight the particular oppression of women and honour their struggle for equal rights. Over 100 women from 17 countries unanimously agreed the proposal, under the call: “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism”. (Alexandra Kollontai, A Militant Celebration, 1920)
International Women’s Day (IWD) was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination. Kollontai captured the militant mood: “Germany and Austria on Working Women’s Day was one seething, trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere – in the small towns and even in the villages halls were packed so full that they had to ask male workers to give up their places for the women. This was certainly the first show of militancy by the working woman. Men stayed at home with their children for a change, and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators’ banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in parliament”.
On 25 March, the tragic ‘triangle fire’ in New York took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disaster drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the US which became a focus of subsequent IWD events.
Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February with illegal meetings. They expanded their campaign in 1914, many facing imprisonment and exile as the demand for the vote in Russia was seen as an open call for the overthrow of the tsar and his regime.
The Socialist International disintegrated as most parties lined up behind their own countries’ ruling class on the outbreak of the first world war. Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg used IWD as a focus for anti-war rallies in 1914 and 1915, in spite of efforts at sabotage by their former ‘comrades’ in the SPD.
On International Women’s Day 1917, Russian women began a strike ‘for bread and peace’ in response to the death of over two million Russian soldiers in the first world war, and to demand an end to food shortages. They faced armed troops but persuaded them not to fire on the demonstrations and to join their struggle. The tsar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government was formed. The women’s strike started on 23 February on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, 8 March on the Gregorian calendar. (After the Bolshevik revolution, the Soviet Union adopted the Gregorian calendar): “The 1917 Working Women’s Day has become memorable in history. On this day, the Russian women raised the torch of proletarian revolution and set the world on fire. The February revolution marks its beginning from this day”. (Kollontai)