The Best 5-Minute Summary: Why We Celebrate International Women’s Day

Posted by Medha Singh in History, Women Empowerment
March 8, 2018

Think of the year 1909. Bulgaria became an independent country, and Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto appeared and was successfully circulating amidst the high-art circles of Europe, much to Hitler’s approval. It even saw its publication in France that very year, presaging the rise of Fascism in Italy and neighbouring parts of Western Europe.

Explorers from the United States (US) discovered the North Pole, Wassily Kandinsky formed Kunstlerverein in Munich and the Young Left was founded in Norway. Serbia was mobilising against the Austro-Hungarian geopolity, and Germany sent Russia a diplomatic note requesting recognition of the Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and cessation of its support to Serbia in the controversy. Closer home to the Women’s Movement within the US, the National Conference on the Negro held its first meeting in the United Charities Building, New York (an earlier form of the NAACP).

That year was perhaps the busiest one in the first decade of the 20th century in terms of politics – a simmering fire, spreading well on its way to World War I. Despite all of this, what manages to stick so brilliantly and clearly for us today are the events that ensued on February 28 – the day the first National Women’s Day was observed in the US.

It was organised by the Socialist Party of America in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against harsh, even fatal working conditions. This was accompanied later by the garment workers’ strike, also known as the New York shirtwaist strike, against companies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist company against unfair working conditions – unsanitary spaces, long hours away from children, miserable treatment from factory owners and abysmal pay. On some occasions, the women were locked behind steel doors so that they could be prevented from stepping outside and taking breaks, even if they were pregnant.

A significant rally that took place the next year was led by Clara Lemlich, and it garnered a following of 20,000 women, mostly of Jewish origin. It was the largest women’s demonstration anywhere in the world at that time, and was supported by The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the National Women’s Trade Union League of America (NWTUL). The strike began later that year, in November 1909. Even though their wages were improved, the factory caught fire in 1911, simply bolstering the point that these women were trying to make.

On February 28, 1909, however, all the women were acknowledged and celebrated for their achievements, both individual and collective – notwithstanding their nationality, ethnicity, caste, creed, gender, race and class – by the Socialist Party of America upon the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel, though several feminist scholars have sought to contest this popular story of origins.

A year later, Copenhagen decided to follow suit – and 1910 saw the Women’s Movement venerated, and the International Working Women’s Day gained global legitimacy. This demonstration drew huge favour for the cause towards the prime acquisition of universal suffrage. A 100 women from 17 different countries gave unanimous accord to this day. The conference included the three pioneering women to hold seats in the Finnish Parliament. So far, however, no date was decided upon for celebration as such.

Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland followed suit and observed Women’s Day on March 19, and a co-ed group of over an estimated million people attended the gathering, clamouring for four key things:

1. The right to work.

2. The right to vocational training.

3. The right to vote and hold public office.

4. An end to job discrimination (in that, they would not simply be given jobs ‘meant for women’, but would join the labour force with full dignity).

Between the years 1913 and 1917, things got complicated, given the horrors of war. This day, then, became a key instrument of protest among the pacifists, who helped this movement acquire a new dimension in their anti-war effort against World War I, and earned it the status of a peace movement. In 1917, women in Russia held the first ever Women’s Day ‘on the last Sunday of February’. In Europe as well, it was held either about the same time or on March 8 annually. The demonstrations were held as a show of solidarity with the global movement. Each leg made up a powerful beast.

Towards the end of the war, exactly four days after the commemoration in Russia, the Tsar abjured the throne, and the erstwhile government granted women the right to vote. Women then began a protest for and towards ‘Bread and Peace’, yet again, on the ‘last Sunday of February’, which actually fell on March 8, if we go by the Gregorian calendar,

Denmark had granted universal suffrage a little earlier – in 1915. British women who had property, and over 30, won the right to vote in 1918. Netherlands gave women the right to vote in 1919, and the US passed the 19th Amendment which allowed their women to vote, later than everybody else, in 1920.

Want to know one awesome thing about Indian women? Women here have had the right to vote in our country since its inception in 1948.

The United Nations in the year 1975 (also known as the International Women’s Year) officially declared March 8 to be the International Women’s Day, with a theme and governing agenda consisting of goals for women to achieve each year. This year’s theme for the International Women’s Day, is “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”.

In Context

What this means for Indian girls and women is that the movement acquires an awesome new dimension and brings to light (given its working class roots) the conditions and struggles of English-speaking, middle and upper middle class, and elite women and the working class women here. These include your housemaids, beauticians, paanwaalis who sell you cigarettes, lady janitors, vegetable sellers (and farmers!) – and yes, even bar dancers and sex workers, whose labour is recognised (for it is exploited by the hetero-capitalist-patriarchy as is the fate of most forms of women’s labour).

We’re all acknowledged on this day, as our entire economy rests on the backbone of our labour and the care offered by us. Our first responsibility is to give thanks, and join hands in solidarity with those less fortunate than us, in the hope for a better future. A new world is created, at first, by having the courage to imagine it!