International women’s day was first celebrated on 19 March 1911. Over a million men and women marked the day with a series of rallies in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. They demanded the right to vote and hold public office, the right to work and an end to job discrimination.
The idea to have an International Day originally came from Clara Zetkin, a German socialist.
She wanted to celebrate the efforts of American women garment workers who had staged protests against inhuman working conditions half a century before, on 8 March 1857. Although dispersed by the police, the women did not give in.
Two years later, again in March, they formed their first labour union.
Then on 8 March 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay, the right to vote and an end to child labour. Their symbols were bread and roses to symbolise economic security and a better quality of life.
How it all started
In May that year, the American Socialist Party designated the last Sunday in February as National Women’s Day. This was celebrated for the first time in the US on 28 February 1909.
It was the following year – 1910 – that the idea to have a Women’s Day was agreed at an international conference of socialist women. It was approved unanimously by the delegates, who included the first three women to be elected to the Finnish parliament.
They agreed that the day should honour the movement for women’s rights, including the right to vote. No date was fixed, but the idea took hold and the following year International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time on 19 March.
Fighting to improve working conditions
Less than a week later – on 25 March – there was a terrible fire in a New York workplace. Over 140 workers – mainly young Italian and Jewish women employed at the Triangle Shirtwaist company – were killed because of a complete lack of safety measures.
The Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union led a series of protests, culminating in a silent funeral march of over 100,000 people. The fire did, however, have a major impact on subsequent labour legislation.
Role of women in the peace movement
But apart from fighting for better working conditions and the right to vote around this time, women were also active in the peace movement.Russian women went on strike on the last Sunday in February 1917 for ‘bread and peace’.
Four days later, the Czar of Russia was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That was on 23 February according to the Julian calendar used in Russia, but 8 March elsewhere.
The TUC celebrates International Women's Day every year, both at TUC Women’s Conference and at Congress House. This year it is hosting a huge celebration, with a night of comedy, music, poetry, politics, campaigning and a showcase of the TUC international development work that is empowering women to improve their rights in developing countries.
For more information, go to: http://www.tuc.org.uk/international/tuc-17473-f0.cfm