Issue 239 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published March 2000 Copyright © Socialist Review
Hundreds of working women flooded into Rutger Square in the heart of Manhattan's Lower East Side on Sunday 8 March 1908. In the future this day would be commemorated as International Women's Day. They were mainly from the sweatshops of the booming garment industry in New York, and they were demonstrating for union rights and the right to vote. The needle trade factories in which they worked had been described as 'the vilest and foulest industrial sores of New York'. Bosses charged the women for needles and thread, even for the chairs on which they sat. Their homes were crowded tenement buildings in which whole families would share one room.
The Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) was pledged to fight such conditions, and the year that followed this early socialist-led demonstration saw an explosion in union membership throughout the industry. This culminated most famously with a 13 week strike in 1909--remembered as the 'Rising of the 20,000'. Clara Lemlich was to become one of the strike leaders--at 19 she had already been arrested 17 times. On the eve of the strike, at a packed and angry meeting in Cooper Union, she demanded to be heard, having had enough of the platform of leaders preaching caution. The workers in the audience recognised her. She had already been on strike for 11 weeks and had just come out of hospital after being brutally beaten up on the picket line.
Lemlich spoke in Yiddish, the native tongue of the majority of shirtwaist workers: 'I have listened to all the speakers and have no further patience for talk. I am the one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on general strike!' The audience of 3,000 workers rose to its feet cheering. Handkerchiefs and hats were thrown into the air. The vote to strike was unanimous. By 10 o'clock the following morning 15,000 women had stopped work. This was a first for most of them. Some sat by their machines still in their coats, determined not to work but unsure as to what to do until someone who could use a telephone contacted the WTUL. Union offices were set up throughout the district, with organisers who could speak the different languages of the strikers. Meetings were organised day and night.
Many of the strikers were teenagers, some as young as ten. Thinly clad and often weakened by hunger, they stood on picket lines in the mud and snow during a freezing winter. They endured savage beatings and mass arrests at the hands of the police. A number of wealthy New York women supported the strike for a time, famously sharing their sumptuous cars with working women in a motorcade calling for women's suffrage. But this unity of women was short lived as the rich women became increasingly unhappy with the influence of socialists and the determination of the strikers not to accept compromise.
The shirtwaisters' magnificent fight did win better conditions, although not union recognition, and it marked a turning point in US working class history, inspiring workers for generations. As Clara Lemlich said, 'They used to say you couldn't even organise women. They wouldn't come to union meetings. They were "temporary workers". Well, we showed them!'
It is the courage and aspirations of such women that we celebrate on International Women's Day (IWD). For it was in honour of the New York demonstration that 8 March was proposed as the date for International Women's Day at a conference for socialist women in Copenhagen in 1910. German Revolutionary socialist Clara Zetkin made the proposal. She wanted the day to be celebrated like May Day, by working women and socialists all over the world. The declaration went, 'In agreement with the class conscious, political and trade union organisations of the proletariat of their respective countries, the socialist women of all countries will hold each year a women's day, whose foremost purpose it must be to aid the attainment of women's suffrage.'
So the first IWD was celebrated in 1911. Meetings and demonstrations of 30,000 and more took place throughout Germany and Austria. Every year until the outbreak of the First World War, 8 March saw women out in the streets in all the major cities in Europe.
But the most important IWD of the 20th century was celebrated in Russia in 1917--the demonstrations which took place that day were the spark that ignited the Russian Revolution. The 1917 revolution put women's rights at the centre of its concerns. In the words of Trotsky, one of its leaders, the revolution 'made a heroic effort to destroy the so called family hearth--the archaic, stuffy, and stagnant institution in which the women of the toiling classes perform galley labour from childhood to death.'
Tragically, Stalinism crushed that revolution and the potential for women's liberation that came with it. But the demands and aspirations of the struggles of the beginning of the last century live on in this one.
Carmelita Alonzo was, like Clara Lemlich, a seamstress in a garment factory. During the day the room in which she worked was stifling hot and during the long night shifts the rooms filled with condensation. The women regularly fell ill. Carmelita asked for time off to recover from pneumonia but was refused. She worked on and died on 8 March--International Women's Day. This was in the Philippines--in 1997.
Much has changed since IWD was first declared, but too much has not. Women workers everywhere still have a world to win.