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Women's Day Largely Forgotten In West, Where It Got Its Start

A 1932 Soviet poster marking Women's Day
A 1932 Soviet poster marking Women's Day
By Daisy Sindelar
Make no mistake, commemorations of the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day on March 8 will be truly international in nature, with celebrations planned in more than 100 countries worldwide.

But despite the holiday's high-profile anniversary, Women's Day is virtually unheard of in the West, even in the countries where the holiday has its origins.

The first International Women's Day was observed on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, where more than 1 million people attended rallies calling for women to be given the right to work, vote, and hold public office.

Across the Atlantic, the United States had gotten an even earlier start. In 1909, in accordance with a declaration by the then-popular Socialist Party of America, the first U.S. Women's Day was held.

Rosalind Rosenberg, a professor of history at New York's Barnard College, says the holiday was created as the country's workers, including large numbers of women, were losing patience with poor labor conditions.

Early American women's activist Rose Schneiderman speaks at a union rally around 1910.
"I would date it back to 1908 and the strike of some 15,000 women in the garment industry on the Lower East Side who were suffering low pay and terrible working conditions, and who walked off the job and protested," Rosenberg says.

Among their complaints was the fact that employers refused to recognize workers' unions.

"Unionization is such an enormous issue in the United States today," Rosenberg says. "It's poignant to think about this 100th anniversary in that context."

Out Of Favor


As a U.S. holiday, Women's Day was short-lived, lasting just four years, until the start of World War I, when Socialist opposition to the war caused the commemoration to fall out of favor. And Washington recognized the European-founded International Women's Day -- which had since moved to March 8 -- only after it was formally established by the United Nations in 1975.

In the interim, March 8 had become an enduring holiday in much of the Soviet bloc. But if it had first been used as a rallying cry for a woman's right to work in Russia and elsewhere, it had since softened into a kind of socialist Valentine's Day, with flowers and gifts replacing fresh calls for women's rights.

Rosenberg says it was the holiday's early ties to socialism and the Russian Revolution that made it deeply unpopular in the United States.

"It was the Socialist Party of America that originally designated Women's Day in this country, and with World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, socialists became pariahs to a large extent in the United States," she says. "The party persisted, but it didn't have the kind of popular support that it had had before World War I in the United States."

Awareness Growing

But there are signs of a resurrection, even in the United States.

This year, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2011 to be Women's History Month and called on Americans to mark International Women's Day by reflecting on "the extraordinary accomplishments of women" in shaping U.S. history.

And dozens of U.S.-based organizations focusing on women's issues are planning special events. One is Women for Women International, which sponsors women in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan.

Women for Women is spearheading a special project called "Join Me On The Bridge," with women gathering on bridges in 48 countries around the globe to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Women's Day and call attention to the continued plight of many of the world's women.

Kate Nustedt, the U.K. director for Women for Women, admits that Western knowledge about March 8 remains low. But even so, she says many women in the countries where Women's Day got its start are becoming more interested in fighting for the rights of women elsewhere.

"In countries like America, in Denmark, or in the U.K., where I live, there has in many respects been huge progress for women," Nustedt says. "It's inconceivable that we wouldn't be able to vote or be able to own our own homes or to leave the house when we choose. But in many parts of the world, there are women who face even worse challenges than those that faced the suffragettes over 100 years ago."

'Modern Suffragettes'

One country of particular interest for Women for Women is Afghanistan, where women continue to face severe oppression. Despite the introduction of new laws establishing equal rights and outlawing violence against women, few Afghan women have the ability to work, attend school, seek medical help, or court protection, or choose whom or when they will marry.

Women on a bus in Kabul, where modern and traditional values coexist uneasily.
In this way, Nustedt says, the Afghan women fighting for change are very much the modern-day equivalent of the women in the United States and Europe who were fighting for their rights 100 years ago.

"The women who are standing on bridges in Kabul on International Women's Day are modern-day suffragettes," she says. "They're putting their lives at risk as did those women who were standing on the streets in London and America 100 years ago to demand their voting rights. It's very, very similar."

Daisy Sindelar

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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anthony from: Ottawa
March 07, 2011 19:32
It's simple, any other holiday in the West would soon be hijacked by commercialism thus loosing all meaning and again holding men as hostages to spend or suffer the rathe of irked females who don't give a care about or even know about the suffragettes.

by: Sergey from: Chicago, USA
March 07, 2011 20:09
"In this way, Nustedt says, the Afghan women fighting for change are very much the modern-day equivalent of the women in the United States and Europe who were fighting for their rights 100 years ago. "

I think it's utter nonsense to compare what women face in the Muslim World (not just in Afghanistan) now and for centuries with what women were facing in the earlier 20th century in Europe and America. Women in Muslim world are NON-HUMANS (not just 2nd class humans) whose business is to be a property of their husbands who can do with them whatever they want. Women in America and Europe in earlier 20th century did not have many rights they have today, but they weren't treated as non-Humans either (for the most part)--that's for sure.

So let's not draw unwarranted analogies.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 27, 2011 18:22
Sergey forgot about his Russia, where women were beaten
Merslesly, Since "Varaga" invaded Russia, murdered population
And gang-raped and did beat them to death, till Revolution,
Even then, only necessety of industrialization and Stalin,
Parliament of Nations and Non-Russians fought it.

Look old Russian movie "Predsedatel'". Even today
Russians like to joke: "Chicken is no bird - Women
Is no Human" - I wouldn't involve here Muslim Faith,
The people that do it are illeterate - as was Russia.

The Russian agenda for deviding and conquering,
Overvelming all forums of our time? Doesn't help.
One rather should use the best in law of God
And improve human condition, than to gloat,
Justify Barbarizm and pin it on one's faith.

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix AZ
March 07, 2011 22:57
The muslim community has been humbling and belittling women for centuries. The institutional and societal discrimination that they have suffered would never be accepted in the US and many other Western countries. The hijab is a total laugh!
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
March 25, 2011 22:42
Never say "...never... ...in USA...", Bill Webb! It was even in USA law,
Instructions - what for husband shell beat his wife and how badly!
Many Muslim countries are still in state of rules as was once USA.
That has nothing to do with Muslim, Christian or Judaic Laws:
The premiss of Law of God is to incourage Humans what is
natural, healthy and dignifying for both man and woman.
For instance, male parts easy got infection in hot countries
with seldom personal bathing, thus Law advised to remove
the skin.
Jesus Christ removed necessety for such removal
in countries with milder climat and better water supply.
On another hand, women need all their parts to protect
them from infection, thus Law would prohibbit such
not natural and infectable change.
Why than many Muslims doing it, if it is against the Law?
Because they still as barbaric as was USA that legally
ordered husbands beat their wifes.
Mayby aging Muslim man can't consumate with an
under-age wife that easy?
If so, it would be much lesser sin to order for himself
vitamins and for her vaselin.

Laws of God are just and reasonable, barbaric traditions
violate Laws of God.

by: Aibek
March 08, 2011 16:39
I always thought Roza Luksemburg started Women's Day... but this article says nothing about here?

by: Stefan from: Berlin
March 09, 2011 09:25
I couldn't help smiling when I read the headline... I live in Berlin, Germany, and yesterday, Women's Day was all over the city. Red roses were handed out to women in metro stations, in front of shopping centres and so forth. I had always thought of it as a Soviet holiday, and so I was struck by the public presence of it... oh, and this wasn't East Berlin, by the way... so perhaps the author is describing more of a specific American phenomenon?
In Response

by: Susan Nordstrom from: Near New York City, USA
March 11, 2011 00:19
Happy Women's Day! Unfortunately, here in the USA, we do not officially celebrate Women's Day. I only heard of it after a Czech girlfreind commented how shocked she was to see that there was NO RECOGNITION of this world celebrated holiday. I hope that as the world continues to become liberated, the recognition of the important roles of women in society heightens as well. The liberties of American Women have been taken for granted, perhaps it is our time to unite in solidarity with our sisters around the globe, and re-ignite the flame that once helped burn the fire of women's rights her in the USA. Thank you for the opportunity to post. Susan

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