The socialist roots of International Women’s Day

International groups and corporations mark women’s rights on a day whose roots lie in early 20th century US socialism

Rights groups worldwide celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) on Sunday, as they commemorate women’s achievements and call for equality. But for an event championed by international nongovernmental organizations and major global corporations, it may surprise some that IWD was born out of the U.S. socialist movement in the early 20th century.

In 1909 the Socialist Party of America organized a New York City march commemorating a garment workers’ strike the previous year. The party called it National Women’s Day, and women organized by the group demonstrated for better pay and working conditions as well as the right to vote, according to the International Women’s Day website.

The Socialist Party continued to hold Women’s Day celebrations on the last Sunday of February for the next few years, and newspapers from the era mentioned International Women’s Day on Feb. 27, 1910 — when thousands of women organized by the socialist movement gathered at Carnegie Hall, according to World March of Women, an international grass-roots campaign.

European women, meanwhile, were championing similar ideals. At the second annual meeting of the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910, Clara Zetkin, a prominent Marxist activist from Germany’s Social Democratic Party, proposed the idea of holding an international day for women. She thought that women should press for their demands for equality and suffrage on a single day of celebration. The conference agreed.

IWD, consequently, was celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19, 1911. Women in these countries demanded the right to vote, to hold public office and the right to work, according to the United Nations.

Russian women began celebrating IWD in 1913, after which the day was officially changed to March 8, and more European women began rallying against World War I on the IWD celebrations that followed.

In 1917 Russian women went on strike for bread and peace in protest of the deaths of more than 2 million Russian soldiers in the war, according to the U.N. They demanded the end of czarism and Russian food shortages. After the Russian Revolution, the day was declared a holiday in the Soviet Union. From there, it was primarily celebrated in communist countries such as China.

But on the heels of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, and as leaders such as Gloria Steinem fought sex discrimination in the 1960s and ’70s, the United Nations declared 1975 as International Women’s Year. In 1977 the U.N. officially marked IWD by inviting member countries to celebrate women’s rights and world peace on March 8.

Today, IWD has corporate sponsors and a designated theme, with this year’s being “Make it happen,” complete with social media hashtag #MakeItHappen.

But as the website points out, millennial women have lived in a time in which there are so many advances for women that they may think the battles fought by their second-wave feminist sisters have already been won.

“The unfortunate fact,” it reads, “is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women's education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men.”

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