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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 9, March 2, 2024

International Women’s Day: Origins, History and Present | Anil Rajimwale

Friday 1 March 2024, by Anil Rajimwale


On March 8 this year again, the world once again celebrates is going to celebrate the International Women’s Day. Let us have a look at its background, history and present, briefly. It is all the more necessary the financial oligarchy and the MNCs are misusing and distorting its history for their super-profit motives. They even use the word ‘revolution’ sans its revolutionary history, erasing the names of Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and other trail-blazers. It is sad to find the pis-propaganda is not being countered. They younger generation in particular neither knows the history nor is in a position to oppose distortion by giant corporations.

Certain misconceptions about March 8

We need to know the background of the international women’s day properly because there are certain misconceptions about it. The Women’s Day did not emerge suddenly but was the product of a long history of women’s and general struggle in Europe and the US consequent upon the industrial revolution. They must not be ignored.

Besides, contrary to common impression, March 8 was NOT fixed by the Copenhagen Congress (1910) of Second International or any other body as Women’s International Day. The date arose as a result of certain events in the US workers’ movement and mainly Russian events of 1917, as we shall see. In fact, February used to be the month of observance of Women’s day. Certain historical events shifted it to March, and then to the particular date of March 8.

Let it be clear that Clara Zetkin DID NOT propose the date as March 8.


It was mainly with the Industrial Revolution that the question of women’s rightful place in society along with men came to the fore. Women joined the industrial force in mills and factories as equal of men; therefore they should have the same rights and privileges: that was the outlook. With the emergence of offices and universities, the consciousness spread further.

Vast literature including by women authors of the Victorian and other times, such as Bronte sisters and others have described the aspirations and struggles of women. Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and many other classical writers have described the struggles of the emerging working class.

It was during the French Revolution that women demanded suffrage for the first time, calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" and marching to Versailles. With the spread of textile mills, women came to the forefront of the workforce and even formed independent unions, the first ones in England and US.

Of the 6 million labour force in the US 1850, half a million were women, in textiles, as tailors, domestics etc. Women went on strike for the first time in 1825 led by the United Tailoresses of New York for higher wages. The first strike of mill women took place in the US in Dover, New Hampshire, with banners and flags. In Exeter, New Hampshire, all the women went on strike (‘turned out’). There was widespread opposition to the ‘Lowell system’, in which the girls worked and lived in the same place in the dormitories in the worst prison-like conditions.

The Lowell girls protested and organized themselves. They even started their own newspapers. A wage cut in 1834 forced them to go on strike. They organized a Factory Girls’ Association and 1500 went on strike in 1836.

The examples kept growing in all the industrializing countries.

The industrial revolution, while creating new forms of exploitation, made women more independent economically, enabling them to be articulate. Mary Wollstonecraft in the 1790s and Anna Wheeler etc 19th century fought to raise women.

From 1815 to 1835 the first independent trade union actions among women were born. 1500 female card-setters went on strike in West Riding, England. Female Reform Societies and Female Labor Reform Societies came into being. In Owenite and Carlyle circles in the 18th-19th centuries, women workers became active and even went to jail.

The first recorded organised action by working women anywhere in the world took place in New York on March 8, 1857. Hundreds of women in garment and textile factories struck to protest low wages, long working hours, inadequate pay, inhumane working conditions and absence of right to vote. 

By the way, young women textile workers in Calcutta also resisted in 1840s-50s.

The First Congress of International Workers’ Association adopted a resolution on women’s professional work, challenging the notion that a woman’s place is in home.

Workers’ movement in USA

We have already mentioned some of the instances of women workers struggles. Much before the events of May 1886 (Chicago), women in USA along with children and families came out to join workers’ festivities in the 1830s-80s, taking part in processions, strikes and meetings, wearing red bands and raising red flag, which was born much before the May Day of 1886. Generally the workers in the US observed workers’ day during September, preferably on the first Monday.

Women workers were in forefront of the first industrial strikes in US demanding 8-hour day since 1884 itself. They were active within and outside the AFL-CIO, IWW and other national and international trade unions. In USA women began forming independent unions since 1870. In 1881 they got affiliated to the Order of Knights of Labour.

Women began joining the trade unions on a large scale. The Knights of Labor had 50 thousand woen members in 1886in 192 women’s assemblies. Leonara Barry, born in Ireland and immigrant to the US, worked in a hosiery mill to support her family including three children. She joined the Knights and was appointed ‘general investigator in it. She educated the working women, visiting 100 towns and cities in 1888.

In 1884 women textile and hatmakers went on strike. 2500 women workers in Yonkers walked out for being victimized for joining the Knights.

Participating in huge numbers, women again were in the forefront of first industrial country-wide strike in US, demanding 8-hour work-day in May 1886. They actively participated in McCormick Harvester Works meeting of May 3 and the Hay Market meeting in Chicago on May 4, leading to the birth of May Day all over the world.

Telephones, typewriters, office and women

New means of communications in the second half of 19th century and beginning of 20th brought new consciousness in the women workforce. They were qualitatively new type. The composition of the workforce changed. Telephones and typewriters increased the number of women workers. By the end of 19th century, new inventions brought more women out of the family: they were the typewriters and telephones. Women’s status rose with new means of production and communications. Typewriters and telephones created modern offices and high-rise buildings, which saw larger number of women joining the offices. They proved to be their new weapons, their horizon widened, playing an important role in suffragette movements.

Elyce Rotella, the economic historian, said that the typewriters were crucial to the rise of women workforce in the 20th century. Commercial typewriters were introduced in 1874. Till then offices were men’s domain, but women replaced them with the advent of the typewriters. In 1870 there were only 2.5% women in the clerical workforce; in 1930 they were more than 30%.

Women telephone operators played an important role in the democratic and socialsit movements, as also during the Russian revolution.

Women and Socialist International (1889-1914)

Frederic Engels initiated the foundation of the Socialist International, also known as Second International, in 1889. It spread Marxism widely, and armed women ideologically. Engels died in 1895, but left behind a galaxy of Marxist and social democratic leaders, such as Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Nadezda Krupskaya, Plekhanov, Inessa Armand, Kautsky, Platten, and of course Lenin. Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin exposed imperialism.

Sylvia Pankhurst was active in Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), working for voting rights and equality, being jailed several times.

Clara Zetkin, a leading figure of the German SDP (Social Democratic Party), delivered her first speech on women’s problems to the Founding Congress of Second International in Paris on July 19, 1889, advocating right to work, protection of mothers and children, women’s participation in national and international events.

A women’s conference in The Hague, Netherlands against war, marked the starting point of the anti-war movement.

First ’Women’s Day’ was organised by American women socialists in New York on February 28, 1907, demanding political rights. It was in February, not March, that women’s days were celebrated. Thousands of women struck work in Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York on economic and political demands. In 1908, socialist women in United States convinced their party to designate the last Sunday in February as a day of actions for "woman suffrage".

In 1896, 30 socialist women delegates at London congress of International held their first ever conference.

Suffragette movement: Women’s suffrage

The claims of democracy were weakened in the western countries by the fact that were very reluctant and slow to give adult universal suffrage to women, taking many decades, even a century. The ‘Suffragette Movement’ began in the West in the first half of the 19th century itself. The first Suffragette Committee in England was formed in 1865 in Manchester. In 1867, a petition demanding women’s suffrage was presented to the Parliament in 1867. Suffragette movement was widespread in the US in 19th century.

But women were given voting rights in the US and England only after the First World War, and that too after in stages. In contrast, both men and women got voting rights on the same day, 26 January 1950.

The Stuttgart congress of International (1907) hotly debated the women’s suffrage. Clara Zetkin of German Social Democratic Party took initiative, and the congress overwhelmingly adopted the Resolution making it the duty of all Socialist parties to work for universal women’s suffrage. It was at this congress that Madam Cama raised India’s Tricolor as symbol of freedom. She was supported by Lenin.

‘Triangle’ tragedy

A big tragedy happened in the US At Triangle Shirtwaist Company, New York in 1909. Clara Lemlich, in her teens, earlier badly beaten at a picket, at a meeting moved a resolution for strike. The meeting went wild and voted to strike, with 20 thousands pouring out. Few days later, on March 25, 1911 a fire from rag bin swept through 8th to 10th floors of a building, where half of New York’s 5 lakh workers spent nearly 12 hours a day. Ladders could reach only 7th floor. Doors opening only inside instead of outside were locked to keep watch. Thus trapped, 146 women workers were charred to death. One lakh marched streets.

Women’s Day was firmly established. International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union became powerful.

Beginnings of “International Women’s Day”, 1910: some misconceptions

First international women’s conference was held in Stuttgart in 1907. It established International Socialist Women’s Bureau, led by Clara Zetkin. She said: “Our goal is not only a free woman; it is a free mankind.” The first three women elected to the Finnish parliament greeted Zetkin’s suggestion.

About 100 delegates from 17 countries took part in Second International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in August 1910. Zetkin suggested observing a particular day as Women’s Day (NOT MARCH 8). Contrary to general impression, she DID NOT suggest March 8. It was decided to hold demonstrations for women’s suffrage in all countries on March 19 (not March 8), 1911. It was observed on varying dates, generally in March, in the subsequent years.

Earlier, a "National Women’s Day” (NWD) was organized by Socialist Party of America in New York on February 28, 1909. Women continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913.

This inspired German delegates at the 1910 Conference to propose "a special Women’s Day" be organized annually. No date was fixed. The following year saw the first demonstrations and commemorations of International Women’s Day across Europe.

The decision to observe the women’s day in 1910, and began to be observed from 1911.

Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen in Denmark in 1910, International Women’s Day was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March the next year. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies for women’s rights to work, vote and hold public office. 1911 also saw women’s ‘Bread and Roses’ campaign.

Clara Zetkin or anybody else DID NOT propose March 8 as International Women’s Day.

Russian revolution (1917), overthrow of Tsar and birth of ‘March 8’

In London there was a march to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914, in which Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on way to Trafalgar Square.

On the eve of World War I (1914), campaigning for peace, Russian women observed International Women’s Day on February 23 (March 8), the last Sunday in that month. Following discussions, agreement was converging on March 8 in international movement. WW I brought untold suffering to women and children. Combined with men workers and soldiers, the Soviets rose in revolt against the Tsar. Demands for his abdication grew louder.

On the last Sunday of February 1917, Russian women struck for "Bread and Peace" in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in the War. This triggered a general revolt, women continued to strike for several days along with men, the Soviets rose in uprising and forced the Tsar to abdicate and placed a Provisional Government, thus completing first phase of bourgeois democratic revolution. It was this government supported by the Soviets that granted women the right to vote.

The women’s strike had commenced on February 23 of the Julian calendar, then in use in Russia. This corresponded to March 8 of the Gregorian (international) calendar. That is how March 8 became the International Women’s Day.

India: Women’s Day

Freedom struggle was a crucial factor in imparting democratic rights including voting rights to the Indian women. Women workers and nationalist women leaders played a crucial role. GKU or Girni Kamgar Union, its leader Ushatai Dange and others are well-known, along with her group of women cadres. India produced a whole galaxy of women leaders in AIWC, NFIW, CPI, CSP, Congress and independents. Textile women workers of Bombay, Calcutta and elsewhere deeply influenced the working class movement.

It was the Communist women who first began celebrating International Women’s Day in India. Among the first to celebrate were Parel Mahila Sangh of Bombay, led by Vimal Ranadive, Kusum Ranadive and Annapoorna Bhandarkar. The Golden Rock Nadar Sangh (mothers’ organization) in Madras and Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti (MARS) in Bengal formed in 1943 also first celebrated the Day. These days were celebrated during 1943-45.

Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) was born in Paris on December 10, 1945. Vidya Kanungo and Ela Reid were present as Indian representatives. Later Renu Chakravartty played a prominent role, spreading the message of International Women’s Day in India. Besides, Vimla Dang, Vimla Farooqui, Sarala Sharma and numerous others spread the Day further.

Women’s resistance to Japanese bombings, 1943

Japan bombed India during Second World War, particularly in 1943. Mahila Atma Raksha Samiti was born mainly out of the resistance during World War II, when Japanese bombs fell upon Calcutta and other places. Women resisted the atrocities on them by the soldiers passing through India and by the advancing Japanese troops in the north-east. The international heroism of Soviet and other women was remembered in March, April and other months during the WW II. Stalingrad battle and victory in it encouraged Indian women to stand up. Ela Reid and Renu Chakravartty, as also others reported on international events and role of women.

NFIW (1954) and internationalism

The National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) was founded in 1954, as a representative organization of women. Of course there were other organizations too, which gradually recognized the Day. The International Women’s Day has spread out into the general women’s movement, and is accepted widely now. Even those opposed to any kind of revolutionary ideology accept and observe the day. It is now socially accepted.

Observance of March 8 has become a regular and universal feature. Indian women delegates took part in World Congress of Women in Copenhagen on June 5-12, 1953. Since then the message of March 8 went spread further in Indian women’s movement.

International Women’s decade (1975-85)

Tremendous work done by NFIW to spread literacy among women was recognized by UNESCO in 1973, when it received ‘Nadezhda Krupskaya Literacy Award’ from it for “almost twenty years of sustained promotion of literacy action”.

NFIW undertook to make 2 lakh adult women literate during International Women’s Decade of 1975-85, declared by the UN. Widespread literacy campaign was launched.

International Women’s Year, 1975

On the occasion of 30th anniversary of defeat of Hitler and birth of WIDF, the first UN Women’s conference was held in Mexico in 1975. It was attended by a 10-member Indian delegation including Parvati Krishnan MP and vice-president of NFIW. It decided to declare next decade as women’s decade. Tara Reddy and Pramila Loomba attended Copenhagen UN conference in 1980. NFIW sent a 7-member delegation to Nairobi conference to mark the end of the decade.

International Women’s Day today

Indian women and their organization, particularly the NFIW, continue to participate in national and international activities. Yet, it is essential to counter the efforts to distort history and present of International Women’s Day. Democracy and Indian Constitution are under attack. It is the only Constitution in world to give voting rights to men and women at the same time, on 26 January 1950. It must be defended.

Electronics, computer and information revolution have fashioned new generations of working women, who are far more empowered, yet are unaware of the ideology and history. They must not be allowed to become victims of the financial and multinational propaganda. They must be made aware of their responsibility to defend existing democratic rights and to expand them as part of democratic transformation of society.

The International Women’s Day has spread out into the general women’s movement, and is accepted widely now. Even those opposed to any kind of revolutionary ideology accept and observe the day. At the same time, many misconceptions have taken roots, which need to be cleared. Besides, the origins and history of the Day has been distorted. This needs to eb corrected.

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