The Radical Reason Why March 8 is International Women’s Day

Reason why March 8 is International Women’s Day due to women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, end discrimination

The impetus for establishing a radical reason why March 8 is International Women’s Day can be traced back to New York City in February 1908, when thousands of women who were garment workers went on strike and marched through the city to protest against their working conditions. Like today, these women were in less organized workplaces [than their male counterparts], were in the lower echelons of the garment industry, and were working at low wages and experiencing sexual harassment.

In honor of the anniversary of those strikes, which were ongoing for more than a year, National Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in the U.S. on Feb. 28, 1909, spearheaded by the Socialist Party of America.

Led by German campaigner and socialist Clara Zetkin, the idea to turn the day into a reason why March 8 is international women’s day movement advocating universal suffrage was established at the International Conference of Working Women in 1910. Zetkin was renowned as a passionate orator and advocate for working women’s rights, and her efforts were crucial to the day’s recognition throughout much of Europe in the early 1910s.

Although International Women’s Day had started with action from the women’s labor movement in the U.S., it took on a truly revolutionary form in Russia in 1917.

Just as Zetkin’s idea was spreading through Europe, Russia (where International Women’s Day was established in 1913) was facing unrest for other reasons too. It was against the backdrop of a country exhausted by war, widespread food shortages, and escalating popular protest that the nation’s 1917 International Women’s Day demonstration was held on Feb. 23 of that year — the equivalent of a reason why March 8 is international women’s day in the Russian calendar, indicating the significance of the date of the commemorations today.

Though it wasn’t Russia’s first International Women’s Day, historian and activist Rochelle Ruthchild of Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies points to the differences between earlier protests and this demonstration, which took place in the then-capital Petrograd and involved thousands. Women were mostly the ones on the breadline and were the core protesters. Male revolutionaries like [Leon] Trotsky were upset at them, as these disobedient and misbehaving women were going out on this as a reason why March 8 is International Women’s Day, when they were meant to wait until May, referring to the annual worker’s protests on May 1.

Despite the initial directives from revolutionary leaders, the protests that began on March 8 grew to daily mass strikes of workers from all sectors demanding bread, better rights, and the end to autocracy. A week later, the Tsar abdicated, signaling the downfall of the Russian Empire and paving the way for socialism and the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922.

Suffrage and International Women’s Day:

Russian women demanded and gained the right to vote in 1917 as a direct consequence of the March protests and after more than 40,000 women and men again took to the streets demanding universal suffrage. This made Russia the first major power to enact suffrage legislation for women, a year earlier than Britain and three years earlier than the United States. Suffragettes in the U.K. and their counterparts in the U.S. both looked to Russia as an example and held what they saw as the country’s progress and liberation of women up as a mirror to their governments, warning that they were lagging.

Women’s movements, be it suffrage or labor rights, have always had an international connection. British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst visiting Russia in June 1917 and the creation of the reason why March 8 is International Women’s day, League for Peace and Freedom during World War I are examples of these early 20th-century global links.

However, the celebration of International Women’s Day itself did not hold as much weight in the U.S. through the 20th century as it did in other countries, largely due to its political associations with the Soviet Union and socialism amid increasing Cold War tensions. The fact that an official U.N. day observance was only established in 1975 underlines this point and may go some way to explaining why the day still isn’t as widely recognized in the U.S. today as it is elsewhere, though it is no coincidence that March is the nation’s Women’s History Month.

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