Origins of International Women's Day Discussion (March 1996)

Origins of International Women's Day Discussion Thread

Query:               From: Dorothy O. Helly       12 Feb 1996

I would appreciate learning of sources to tell me about the origins of International Women's Day (March 7).

[Editor's Note] Anyone disagree or have further insight for the following? Kriste Lindenmeyer

Angela Howard Zophy writes in her _Handbook of American Women's History_(Garland,1990), p.187:

International Women's Day(March 8) was initially inspired by a New York City demonstration on March 8th, 1857, of women garment and textile workers who were protesting low wages, the twelve-hour workday, and uncompensated increased workloads. Although their march was brutally broken up by the police, they repeated their call for improved working conditions and equal pay for all working women as they formed their own union in March 1860. A subsequent demonstration of thousands of women workers in the "needle trades" on March 8, 1908, called for child-labor protection legislation and women's suffrage in addition to their long-standing demands. Two years later, Clara Zetkin, a German labor leader, proposed an International Women's Day be established on March 8 to commemorate the historical struggle to improve women's lives. International Women's Day, observed in socialist countries during the following sixty years, began to be celebrated in the United States in 1967 by various women's groups, and as a result of the consciousness-raising of the women's liberation movement, International Women's Day commemorative events occurred in most major American cities after 1970.

In 1977 the schools in Sonoma County, California, designated March as Women's History Month as a means of raising awareness of women's history and encouraging its integration into the public and post-secondary curriculum. The development of the National Women's History Project in Santa Rosa, California in 1980 provided a national clearinghouse for information on International Women's Day as the focal point for the celebration of Women's History Month. Since 1981 Congress has annually passed a National Women's History Week proclamation for the week surrounding March 8th.

From:            Petra Pommerenke      12 Feb 1996

Something I wanted to add about the origins of International Women's Day:

Clara Zetkin and the group of german delegates at the "International Socialist Women's Conference" in Copenhagen (august,1910) were the applicants to establish the International Women's Day as an agitation day for women's suffrage. The conference accepted with unanimity. Zetkin pointed out in her newspaper "Die Gleichheit" ("Equality"), that she was inspired by the example of the American socialist women. In 1911 Zetkin quoted a letter from Meta L. Stern, New York, in her newspaper: Stearn congratulated and said she was very happy that the American International Women's Day, now in the third year, has become an International Day. I'm sorry, but most of the sources I know are in german...

From: Marilyn J. Boxer 13 Feb 1996

On the origin of International Women's Day, see Temma Kaplan's "On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day," in Feminist Studies 11, no. 1(Spring 1985), pp.163-171. She characterizes as myth its alleged origin in an 1857 event in New York City. If someone has found documentation since her commentary, I hope we'll learn about it on H-NET.

[Editor's Note] I had also heard that the 1857 origin was a myth, but it continues to be cited by historians. Any discussion? KL

From:             Maria Elena Raymond        20 Feb 1996

Here's more food for March, 1975 The San Francisco Women's History Group published a photo-essay pamphlet entitled "What Have Women Done?" The cover photo is a group of women marching in a street in New York. The inside description of the photo reads: "Several weeks after thousands of young garment workers won a hard-fought strike, many of them joined a demonstration on New York's Lower East Side. Joined by women active in the suffrage movement, immigrant working women raised demands for better living and working conditions, and end to child labor, and the right to vote. The date was March 8, 1909. Two years later, March 8th was declared "International Women's Day" at an international socialist conference held in Europe. Since then, workers all over the world have joined together on March 8th to celebrate the role of women in the class struggle and to intensify the struggle for the liberation of women. Five years ago(note: which would have been 1970) in San Francisco, International Women's Day was revived in the U.S. Today, the militant tradition of this working class holiday is being carried on in marches and programs from coast to coast."

In a chapter called "Women! Organize!" there is mention of a strike by militant shoe workers in Lynn,Mass in 1869 and out of that came the first nat'l organization of working women: The Daughters of St. Crispin. In the 1880s women and men began an effective demand for 8 hr. work days. Thousands of women allegedly joined Eight-Hour Leagues. On May 1, 1886(now celebrated world-wide as International *workers* Day, or May Day) 350,000 workers across this country put down their tools and left the factories. Many workers won 8-hour days because of this strike.

Obviously there's some discrepancies about when the day was founded and who precipitated the event. I found nothing in this small book about an 1857 strike in New York City.

From:          Karen Offen             <>            28 Feb 1996

National Women's History Day, then Month, was pioneered by Molly McGregor and the gang at National Women's History Project, headquartered in Santa Rosa, Ca. The Rep. (now Senator) Barbara Boxer help run interference for the designation by Congress. For further information contact the Project at 7738 Bell Road, Windsor,CA 95492-8518 Phone: 707-838-6000; Fax: 707-838-0478.

From:          National Women's History Project 
         28 Feb 1996

The National Women's History Project is not an outgrowth of any similarly named organization in San Francisco. I wonder if the San Francisco reference is to the Women's Heritage Museum effort, whose organizers have just won a space at The Presidio and are now in the throes of fundraising? Contact: 415-433-3026.

The National Women's History Project(NWHP), with offices an hour north of San Francisco, is now celebrating its 15th years promoting multicultural women's history awareness. One clear achievement: the observance of National Women's History month each year! This year's theme: "See History in a New Way," is putting attention on the themes and personalities that appear when women's stories are incorporated in the telling of history.

Another NWHP achievement: their 48 page mail-order Women's History Catalog of posters, videos, biographies, teaching aids and marvelous miscellany. Through it, women's history materials are available to people wherever they live or work. The catalog is free. Contact: Website online March 1st:

From:          Kriste Lindenmeyer           <>
       08 Mar  1996

Maria Raymond's posting shows how difficult it is to determine myth from reality. Bob Cherny's report on International Women's Day in Moscow shows how one nation celebrates "feminism."

Bob is teaching this semester at Moscow State U. KL

From:                Maria Elena Raymond     08 Mar 1996

Today I found an article in the Sacramento Bee written by Karen Nussbaum, director of the women's bureau of the US Dept. of Labor. She says there was a march in the streets of New York in 1857, and that march moved Clara Zetkin in Germany to propose March 8th as Int'l Women's Day.

So if the 1857 march is a myth, she's buying into it. Maybe she has some source we've not found(??).

From: Bob Cherny

07 Mar 1996

Today is International Women's Day, a *major* holiday here. The university and the archives are both closed, as are most institutions. The archives (which is written up in this week's _Economist), by the way), was mostly closed yesterday in preparation for being closed today. On Tuesday, while I was in the archives, a large green banner celebrating the day appeared over the street on which the archive is located, toward the end where it dead-ends on a major thoroughfare near the Kremlin. It is not, however, necessarily a celebration of feminism. A male is expected to give presents to all women he knows, and the local stores have expanded their cut flower sections by double or more. Yesterday the chocolates section(perhaps the largest section in the store anyway) was nearly empty and the staff was desperately trying to keep the shelves stocked.

Happy International Women's Day!