The Origin of International Women’s Day
This post was originally published in the March 2022 issue of The Synergist.
This month we observe International Women’s Day, a global holiday celebrating the achievements of women. The origins of International Women’s Day are related to workplace safety issues and the founding of the occupational safety profession. Although March 8 was the date adopted for International Women’s Day by the United Nations in 1977, the first National Women’s Day was held on Feb. 28, 1909. This immediate predecessor to the modern holiday was organized by Theresa Malkiel, a labor activist, suffragette, and educator who served as head of the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America.
The Ukrainian-born Malkiel immigrated to New York City with her family in 1891. While still a teenager, she started work in the garment industry and became the first woman to rise from factory worker to Socialist Party leadership. In this position, she championed safe working conditions for women and immigrant workers, particularly those in the garment industry.
The Garment Workers’ Protests
Originally, National Women’s Day was intended to recognize the women workers, many of them immigrants, who were protesting the working conditions in the garment industry. Employees at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory endured 14-hour workdays while allowed only a single break. Unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the factory included urine-covered floors, as workers were not permitted to leave their workstations outside of breaktimes; poor ventilation; locked doors and exits; and piles of flammable fabric on the floors. In June 1909, a fire prevention specialist sent a letter regarding safety concerns at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to the factory’s owners, who ignored it.
At the first National Women’s Day, which Malkiel organized in support and recognition of the garment workers’ protests, speakers called for women’s right to vote as a necessary step to improving conditions for working women. One speaker mocked a “polite man” who would give up his seat to a woman in a streetcar “but [would] not make a law that will provide a seat for a woman who works for ten hours a day in a factory.”
In September 1909, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers went on strike. Word quickly spread to other garment factories, where conditions were no better. On Nov. 24, 1909, the largest single work stoppage in the United States up to that time began when 20,000 garment workers walked off their jobs, seeking better wages, standardized workdays, improved working conditions, and union representation. As factory owners agreed to demands, workers began returning to shop floors. At Triangle Shirtwaist, a union was not allowed to be formed, but workers returned on Feb. 23, 1910, for increased wages and better hours.
The Influence of Women Labor Reformers
Also in 1910, at an international conference in Denmark, Clara Zetkin, a member of the German Socialist Party, proposed the establishment of International Women’s Day to commemorate the garment workers’ strike in the U.S. On March 19, 1911, more than one million people across Europe took part in rallies for the first International Women’s Day.
Days later, on March 25, a fire broke out on the eighth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory building. While every executive got out alive, 146 workers—123 women and 23 men—died that day; many were trapped behind locked doors or forced to jump.
Following the tragedy, New York City formed a Committee of Public Safety, headed by future U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. The committee focused on identifying specific workplace safety issues. Sixty new labor laws would eventually be passed in New York between 1911 and 1913. The American Society of Safety Professionals was founded in 1911 in response to the fire.
In 1913, the Russian women’s movement observed International Women’s Day on March 8, and the rest of the world would eventually celebrate the holiday on that date. However, it is because of women pioneers who fought for safer, healthier workplaces that International Women’s Day exists today.
Alexander Street: “Document 8: Excerpt from ‘Suffragists and Socialists Demand Votes for Women,’ New York Call, 1 March 1909, p.1.”
Barbara’s Bookstore Blog: “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the Origins of International Women’s Day.”
Clarion Safety Blog: “The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Its Lasting Impacts on Workplace Safety and Health” (March 25, 2021).
CNN: “What Exactly is International Women’s Day?” (March 8, 2020).
Global Nonviolent Action Database: “Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Women Strike, Win Better Wages and Hours, New York, 1909.”
Smithsonian Magazine: “The Historical Struggle to Rid Socialism of Sexism” (July 12, 2018).
Vice: “The Woman Behind International Women’s Day Was a Refugee and a Socialist” (March 7, 2018).
Jewish people's contributions to our labor movement
Theresa Malkiel may have been born in what is now western Ukraine, but she was Jewish, and she and her family emigrated to escape the persecution of Jewish people that blighted that part of the world. Our US labor movement was founded by many Jewish women and men, and the Jewish community played a leading role in other movements for social justice in the 20th century. Given that anti-Semitism continues to rear its very ugly head in rightwing politics, it's as important now as ever to highlight the role of Jewish people in our country's (and humanity's) history.By Elena Mora on March 8, 2022 5:29pm