After more than 100 years, International Women’s Day draws millions to commemorate the advancements made in human rights and to discuss the challenges women continue to face in politics, education, employment, and other areas of daily life.
However, International Women’s Day originally commemorated the working rights protests led by female garment workers. Many seem to forget the holiday’s ties to the working rights movement in the United States and the Socialist Party.
The origins of the holiday can be traced back to March 8, 1857, when garment workers in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages, according to the United Nations. The police attacked the protesters and dispersed them, but the movement continued and led to the creation of the first women’s labor union.
Fast forward to March 8, 1908: 15,000 women marched in New York City for shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights, and an end to child labor. The slogan “Bread and Roses” emerged, with bread symbolizing economic security and roses for better living standards.
Many of those who protested for working rights were young immigrants from Europe, who came to the US seeking better opportunities, says Carol Rosenblatt of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
“Workers in this country also died in their efforts to advance workers’ rights, but they weren’t fearful in the same way that they were in some of the countries that they came from,” says Ms. Rosenblatt, executive director of the coalition. “They had a much different expectation than when they got here. They were exploited.”
That May 1908, the Socialist Party of America declared that the last Sunday in February would be National Women’s Day. The first National Women’s Day was celebrated on Feb. 28, 1909, in the US.
International Women’s Day (then International Working Women’s Day) was introduced during the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Denmark. Clara Zetkin, a German socialist, suggested a holiday honoring the strike of garment workers in the US. The proposal received unanimous approval from the 100 women from 17 countries.
The proposal did not give a fixed date of observance, but in the first years International Women’s Day was observed on different days in March. In 1911, Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland supported the holiday on March 19, with more than a million men and women rallying.
Shortly after, however, women gathered in light of a tragedy. The Triangle Waist Company building in New York City caught fire in March 25, killing 146 young immigrant workers.
The incident, which drew attention to the inhuman working conditions for industrial workers, prompted the Women’s Trade Union League and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union to stage demonstrations. One protest, a silent funeral march, drew more than 100,000 people.
The incident led to the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission, which included Frances Perkins, who would become the first female secretary of labor, and labor union activists.
The commission's findings led to several laws in New York that mandated safety standards, minimum wage, unemployment assistance, and support for workers when they grow old. These laws paved the way for President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.
“It brought to light the way in which people were working and the horrific situations that people were enduring,” Rosenblatt says. “That was just one of many fires.”
While there have been advancements, Rosenblatt says, women continue to fight against poor working conditions and lower wages around the world.
“There are fires in Bangladesh today in factories that are owned by American companies,” she says. “It has not gone resolved.”