Exploring resources curated to reflect the struggle of “creating a more humane world for all women to live in”
Celebrated annually on March 8, International Women’s Day calls on supporters across the globe to unify, reflect, advocate and take action for gender equality. The first International Woman’s Day (as it was first known) sprung out of labor movements of the early 20th century, with observances eventually spreading around the U.S., Europe, and into Russia, China, and Cuba. The United Nations began honoring the day in 1975. Now International Women’s Day is set aside to honor the cultural, social and political contributions of women as an official holiday in many countries around the world, and to continue the fight for gender equality.
The early 20th century vibrated with a revolutionary energy. At the same time as the suffrage movement was fighting for women’s right to vote, working women were organizing around the world, seeking to promote equality for women, and to protest dismal conditions for laborers.
The International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union staged two successful mass strikes in New York City – first, the Uprising of 20,000 in 1909; followed by The Great Revolt in 1910. The 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, led by the Industrial Workers of the World, largely involved unskilled immigrant and women laborers. This strike is credited for popularizing the slogan “Bread and Roses!” (inspired by a poem by James Oppenheim), a symbol of living wages, as well as dignity and improved working conditions.
Profound insights into this intersection of women’s and labor movements can be explored through primary source documents – many unavailable elsewhere – expertly curated in two History Vault modules: Struggle for Women’s Studies and Workers and Labor Unions. The Women’s Studies module collection “National Woman’s Party Papers, Part 1: 1913-1974” in particular includes a variety of printed materials, such as pamphlets, statistical data and organizational records that specifically detail issues related to women in labor; while “The Strike Files of the U.S. Department of Justice, Part 1” contains documents related to the federal investigation of the Lawrence strike.
Early in this labor movement, the first National Woman’s Day, organized by the Socialist Party of America, took place February 1909 in New York to commemorate protests by women workers. The following summer, an International Women’s Conference preceded a meeting of the Socialist Second International convention in Copenhagen. Out of these meetings, Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and proponent of working women’s rights, penned a resolution in support of “equal political rights to all adults, without difference of sex,” with the assertion that such a right was “[I]n the interest of the emancipation of the workers.”
Resources covering Zetkin’s efforts with socialist and women’s groups and the Second International, including this resolution, are found in Alexander Street’s thoughtfully edited Women in Social Movements, International collection. Including primary source documents, as well as writings by – and about – Zetkin and her efforts, these materials illuminate a unique perspective on the dynamic shifts in social consciousness during this era.
Also from these meetings, and inspired by protest activity in the U.S., the notion for International Woman’s Day emerged, of which Zetkin became the champion. For Zetkin, who distanced herself from the suffrage movement as a bourgeois cause, equality for working women could only be achieved through elimination of the class system. But an International Woman’s Day could be an opportunity for all women to unite against oppression.
The next year, on March 9, 1911, International Woman’s Day was marked for the first time with millions of people marching and protesting throughout Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. While not quite an organized global effort – some countries, including the U.S., continued to observe International Woman’s Day in February – all participants were unified in their demands to end sexual discrimination in workplaces and to give women the right to vote, as well as hold office.
Over the next decades, this energy continued to gather momentum. Participants from all over the globe organized protests advocating women’s rights. A search in ProQuest’s Historical Newspapers turns up headlines heralding International Woman’s (or Women’s) Day events around the world:
“Women Demanding Full Equality in Government: International Women’s Day Is Celebrated in Nanking” (The China Press; March 9, 1931);
“Russian Women Celebrate Equality Rights: Equalized Role with Men in All Spheres of Society – Soviet Women Citizens Mark International Women’s Day” (Pittsburgh Courier; April 3, 1937);
“A Glasgow Demonstration: International Women’s Day” (The Scotsman; March 12, 1928).
In many countries, International Women’s Day was adopted as a national holiday, and it became an occasion to celebrate the social, cultural and political achievements of women.
Decades later, the perception of women was evolving. More and more, women were viewed as equal partners to men; however the structure of societies around the world still struggled to adapt accordingly. Discrimination against women persisted. As a global organization committed to human rights, the United Nations designed 1975 International Women’s Year, dedicated to promoting opportunities for women to participate as equal partners.
During this year, the U.N. formally adopted March 8 as International Women’s Day for all member nations, and organized the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City.
National governments were called upon by the conference to orchestrate plans and priorities to eliminate gender discrimination. Primary source documents including correspondence, action plan drafts, and government documents curated in History Vault Women’s Studies, American Politics and Society from Kennedy to Watergate and Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century modules detail the efforts of the president’s commission, state and local governments, and a diversity of women’s groups working together to devise an agenda.
In particular, The Women’s Action Alliance (WAA) collection in the Women’s Studies module contains an abundance of invaluable documents detailing the planning and development of the United States’ participation in this massive global event. Organizers sought input from all women’s associations, many with conflicting missions and priorities. Ongoing negotiations, conversations, meetings and debates among these groups where charged with the challenge to put aside differences to focus on common ground. What actions and conditions were necessary for all women to thrive?
Around the world, some women called for radical changes, as Elizabeth Reid, a prominent academic and public service activist who lead the conference’s Australian delegation, acknowledged in a statement. “The fact that this year is International Women’s Year reflects a growing awareness of the problems and the privileges which women have in our societies today” she wrote. “…It is this very structure, both of the work place and of society which is in need of challenge.”
However, on the most basic level, women were in agreement that they simply sought conditions that would level the playing field for them to engage as equal members of society. Reid elaborated:
Equal pay, child care, equal education opportunities, maternity leave, equal job opportunities, training opportunities, and promotion opportunities and legal equality are not in themselves radical revolutionary demands. They are not political acts which will lead inevitably to the restructuring of our society; they will merely help women gain a bigger slice of the existing economic resources…
Demands such as shelters, health centres, abortion on request, contraceptive counselling, rape crisis centres, and so on, arise out of a desire to lessen the distress and suffering of many women. It is essential that these needs be recognized and that such centres be provided. But neither are these demands revolutionary, neither will these activities help change the nature of society…
However these latter changes are essential to creating a more humane world for all women to live in.
This year on March 8 – 42 years after the first World Conference on Women – efforts to achieve these changes continue. All over the world, supporters of women’s equality are organizing and participating in events around the campaign theme #BeBoldForChange, charged with a call “to help forge a better working world – a more inclusive, gender equal world.”
Sign up for our ACRL webinar on March 28, 2017: How Does the Past Inform Today? Key Primary Source Collections for Research in Social Movements.
Learn more and sign up for free trials of these and additional resources to enhance research during Women’s History Month.