Roots of International Women's Day

Revolutionary Worker #1094, March 11, 2001, posted at

Their spirit ricochets through time from the days when immigrant women marched out of the factories in America and shocked everybody with their resolve.

International Women's Day, March 8, is a holiday celebrated by the oppressed around the world. It is a holiday that came out of the struggle of women. In particular, the struggle of immigrant garment workers in New York's Lower East Side provided the inspiration for the demand that there be a special day to celebrate the struggle of women. From the beginning, International Women's Day has been linked with the communist revolution.

Around the turn of the century thousands of women worked in the garment district in New York. Most of these women were immigrants from Russia, Italy and Poland. They worked up to 15 hours a day and were paid by the piece. They were charged for needles, thread, electricity, and even the crude boxes they had to sit on because there were no chairs. They were issued harsh fines--for being late, for damaged work, for taking too much time in the toilet. Children also worked long hours, huddled in the corners of the shops, snipping threads from finished garments. One garment worker recalled, "We wore cheap clothes, lived in cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing to expect the next day to be better.''

In 1908 women began to stage walkouts and strikes at various sewing factories. Sometimes a company would settle a strike by meeting some of the demands of the male strikers but included clauses in the settlement that said "no part of this agreement shall refer or apply to females.'' In spite of many arrests and heavy fines, in spite of brutal beatings by police and hired thugs, the women, many of them teenagers, continued the walkouts. Middle and upper class women inspired by the strikers came out to the pickets to give their support and were arrested too. And when newspapers covered these unusual arrests, the public began to find out about the brutal conditions and slave wages of the women strikers.

After months of small shop actions the women decided to escalate the struggle by calling for a tradewide general strike. And in defiance of the heads of the union, on November 22, 1909, the "Uprising of Twenty Thousand'' began.

One garment worker from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company described the event: "Thousands upon thousands left the factories from every side, all of them walking down toward Union Square. It was November, the cold winter was just around the corner, we had no fur coats to keep warm, and yet there was the spirit that led us on and on until we got to some hall to keep warm and out of the wind and out of the cold for at least the time being. I can see the young people, mostly women, walking down and not caring what might happen. The spirit, I think, the spirit of a conqueror led them on. They didn't know what was in store for them, didn't really think of the hunger, cold, loneliness, and what could happen to them. They just didn't care on that particular day; that was THEIR day.''

The strike lasted for months and ignited strikes in other areas. Though the strike itself was only partially successful in terms of changing work conditions, the "uprising" did change some important things. It challenged the image of what uneducated immigrant women could do, and it filled the East Side and many women and immigrants and oppressed people more broadly with pride and a sense of strength.

In 1910 the anniversary of these demonstrations, March 8, was declared International Women's Day by an international conference of socialists and communists. V.I. Lenin, the great leader of the Bolshevik Party and the Russian Revolution, was among those who voted at this conference to establish this tradition. Since then it has been celebrated worldwide by class conscious workers and those fighting for the liberation of women and the emancipation of all of humanity.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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