International Women’s Day: a day, according to the UN, to “reflect on progress made”, to “celebrate acts by ordinary women”. Few would say that it fails to do this. Last year Google marked it with a doodle, and there were events from streets marches to window displ of Selfridges, who marked it with a short film showing famous female designers and presenters.
Yet all this fails to reflect exactly what the day means. Amid pastel Gifs and shop windows full of well-off women, barely a whisper could be heard about those who brought the day into being. Perhaps it’s not surprising: next to them, modern feminists look a little wet. They forged International Women’s Day (IWD) in the midst of fire, bloody strikes, starving workers and revolution.
Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin were the first to come up with the idea. Inspired by growing numbers of female activists, in 1910 they proposed to the second Socialist International the organisation of a day worldwide dedicated to promoting women’s rights.
Against a backdrop of ambivalence from male unions, women had been organising for decades. Cap-makers, match girls and laundresses had all picketed at the turn of the 20th century, and as Zetkin and Zietz made their proposal, the “Uprising of the 20,000” was drawing worldwide attention. A bloody strike by New York’s garment workers, it was led by Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant who rallied tens of thousands of women to the picket lines even after thugs hired by her employers broke her ribs.
The first IWD took place on 19 March 1911. Over a million women across Europe took to the streets calling for equal rights. Jubilation at the day’s success was short-lived: less than a week later fire ripped through the sweatshop where Clara Lemlich worked, killing 146 workers who had been locked inside by their employers. Lemlich lost a cousin to the flames, collapsing in hysterics when she was unable to find her body. The tragedy – still one of the worst industrial disasters in US history – brought universal condemnation, focusing future IWD campaigning fiercely on worker’s rights.