International Women’s Day is recognized as a global holiday to celebrate women’s social, political and economic progress. The coronavirus pandemic has limited in-person community events, leading to a massive hashtag campaign highlighting women of all backgrounds. Although this beautiful worldwide celebration of women’s achievement is necessary, it can easily evade some of the issues women of color still face today as they battle for racial justice, equal pay, affordable child care, reproductive rights and food security.
Women of color have long used IWD to promote radical and revolutionary ideas that were widely contested in mainstream feminist circles. Particularly during the 1970s, women of color used the day to raise awareness of their particular struggles and demand the eradication of racism, gender oppression and economic exploitation. IWD celebrations staged by the Third World Women’s Alliance, a radical women of color collective, offer contemporary community organizers an example of successful coalition-building, feminist political education projects and international solidarity practices.
IWD has origins in the socialist labor and women’s suffrage movements of the early 20th century. The Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day on Feb. 28, 1909, to honor the women who participated in the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York City. These women, mostly European immigrants, marched through New York’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square, demanding better wages, voting rights and improved working conditions. The demonstration sparked national protests over the following months, even leading the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to join the strike.
Inspired by these American labor activists, German delegate Clara Zetkin and others proposed an “international” women’s day in 1910 at the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen. The female delegates in attendance at the conference agreed to use IWD celebrations to promote equal rights for women and advocate for suffrage. Following the conference, IWD celebrations took place throughout Europe in countries such as Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
For decades, people commemorated IWD as a communist holiday. In 1974, however, women in the Third World Women’s Alliance reframed it once more specifically as an opportunity to honor the struggles of working-class women of color and their contributions to society. So they began planning their first of many IWD celebrations.
Black women in New York founded the TWWA in 1968, and the group expanded to the West Coast with chapters in California and Washington. Its membership also broadened to include Asian, Latina, Middle Eastern and Indigenous women.