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

A 1932 Soviet poster marking Women's Day
A 1932 Soviet poster marking Women's Day

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.
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.
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."

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