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The little-known radical history of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day is celebrated with everything from flowers to breakfast. But the holiday started with a 1907 labor strike.

International Women’s Day started as a protest organized by anti-capitalist American socialists and suffragists. “It was not … a woman’s fancy that drove them to it, but an eruption of a long-smoldering volcano, an overflow of suffering, abuse, and exhaustion.” - Theresa Malkiel, organizer of the 1907 National Woman’s Day.
The concept of a dedicated day for women was picked up at an International Socialist Women’s Conference, and on March 19, 1911, the first International Women’s Day was observed by more than a million people protesting at hundreds of sites across Europe.
They marched against sex discrimination in employment, including equal pay for equal work, and for the right to vote and hold public office.
On March 8, 1917, women in Russia went on strike for “Bread and Peace” — demanding an end to World War I, food shortages, and czarism — kicking off the communist revolution. Which might be why it took until the second feminist wave of the 1960s for the day to be popularized in the West.
Today, March 8 is a public holiday for women in 30 countries, celebrated all over the globe, yet the radical roots of International Women’s Day have largely been erased. In Australia, you might enjoy a corporate breakfast spread for IWD.
In China, you might go on a shopping spree for that special lady in your life. Or in Italy, women may be presented with a Mother’s Day-style bunch of mimosa blossom flowers (an idea originally promoted by communist politician Teresita).
But on IWD in 2017 & 2018, 5 million women in 50 countries from Pakistan to Poland went on strike for 24 hours, protesting against the gender pay gap, domestic violence, and sexual discrimination in the workplace.
More than a century after those first protests, women across the world still have much to fight for. The time for demanding radical social change isn’t over.

Eleri Harris (she/her) is a multi-award-winning cartoonist and editor living and working in Naarm/Melbourne, Australia. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @elerimai.

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