Relearning about International Women’s Day

Note: International Women’s Day is held every year on March 8, particularly in countries where there has been a strong Socialist presence. This year, the event will take place on a Friday. Even if it isn’t a strong tradition in your area of the world, it isn’t a bad day to express one’s appreciation to the women in your life.

When you first bring a life into the world, you want to imbue it with everything that you find important, the values that perhaps you never could live up to, but still look up to, the lessons of humanity that you believe are important to pass on to the next generation. It doesn’t really matter if you are teaching this to a boy or a girl, particularly in this day and age where expectations have shifted such that little ones can and should be encouraged to pursue whatever it is that they set their minds to do.

My beautiful wife (truly my better half) and I were blessed on March 3, 2009, with the arrival of our first-born, a daughter whom we named Albina, both after my grandfather on my mother’s side (Alva Jackson) and my grandmother on my father’s side (Alvina Alexander). Both were powerful figures of their generation – my grandfather was the only police officer to die in the line of duty in the Tri-Cities of Washington State, and my grandmother led an eventful life that eventually saw her relocate from New Mexico to Washington State in an era where providing for a family was not easy for a widowed mother. We chose the Polish version of the name in honor of her mother’s ancestry.

Albina Angel with her first International Women's Day Present at 10 days old (March 2009). Photo by Ben Angel.

Albina Angel with her first International Women’s Day present, given when she was 5 days old (March 2009). Photo by Ben Angel.

At the time of her birth, I took to writing everything that happened in a journal, which I kept up until I left to find work in South America in 2010. Albina left the hospital on March 6, taking her first big trip by car on snowy roads from Lida (site of the nearest better hospital, near the home of my wife’s cousin) to Ostrovets. And on March 8, Albina received her first International Women’s Day gift, a toy phone that has since vanished somewhere in a box in the attic.

At the time, I wrote in my journal about the origins of International Women’s Day, as I understood them. I was pretty happy with the results, even though the wording probably will require her to reach a secondary school level of reading in English to enjoy it. This was what I wrote:

The year was 1857. Europe and America had spent the last century advancing from lands with farms on them to empires where factories and machines made things. And the new factories and machines made things so much faster and so much easier, outpacing the best clothes maker, often with greater accuracy and more uniformity. The machines were wonderful in every way, except that they were often unsafe. Spinning wheels crushed fingers, steam hissed and scalded anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time, and fires could break out, killing everyone inside a factory (particularly if the owners locked the factory entrances so the workers could not sneak out before the end of their shift). Also, since the work was so much easier than it used to be, factory owners thought that it would be okay to pay their workers less and less, since anyone could come in and do the task with little training.

The place was New York City, in the northeastern United States. In 1857, the United States was a land already greatly divided between a land of factories in the north, and a land of farms in the south. The farmers of the south used slaves, people who were born to perform at the will and pleasure of other people, with little if any compensation other than daily food and primitive shelter. Slaves were mostly of black skin color, as many were taken over the course of centuries from Africa.

In the 19th century north, slavery was not used, at least in name. The factories of the northeast (not all, but some) could often simulate slavery, with horribly long workdays and management demanding superhuman effort to make a certain amount of whatever it was the factory was making. Women and children often found that they were working for hardly enough to pay for food, much less shelter. And in horribly dangerous conditions, they would work.

So it was on Sunday, March 8, 1857, that women garment and textile workers walked off the job and marched in the garment district of New York City. They called for greater humanity on the part of the factory owners they worked for, asking them to stop killing and injuring them for money. The factory owners did not respond with any shame. They sent in the police to break up the protest, arresting the leaders and beating those that could not run fast enough from them.

Over the next two years, the women of New York City organized against the evil factory workers that had driven the women to protest and then sent the policemen after them. They created a labor union, the first of its kind, which threatened those factory owners who treated their workers poorly with a shutdown of their factories by the workers themselves. They declared themselves organized two years after the original protests.

Not long after the labor unions came into existence, the United States went to war, with itself. The southern states, which had demanded guarantees of its right to use slaves, and demanded the ability of their citizens to use slaves in newly-formed states rising in the western United States, declared that they were independent. Over four years, the men of New York City and other cities in the United States went off to fight, leaving women behind to carry on the work in factories and other places of work. As a result, labor unions became entrenched in New York City and elsewhere, mostly because of women who stood up for their rights and well-being.

Boott Mill Complex museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell was the city where occured the most well-known of women worker's strikes in the United States.  Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

Boott Mill Complex museum in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell was the city where occured the most well-known of women worker’s strikes in the United States. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, for my writing at least, it turns out that there never was a labor protest of women on March 8, 1857, in New York City’s garment district. Certainly other protests of women workers did take place (most notably in Lowell, Massachusetts, in the 1830s), but not on that specific date. I probably would not have been aware of this if it weren’t for a 1985 article by Temma Kaplan, Rutgers Professor of History. She reviewed a paper written in 1982 by Liliane Kandel, Director of the Research Center for Feminist Studies at Paris Diderot University, and Françoise Picq, Assistant Professor at the Paris Dauphine University, on the origins of International Women’s Day. The two Parisian academic writers found that the 1857 origin story was actually invented in 1955 by European feminists, who, by separating International Women’s Day from Communism, sought to improve Western perceptions of the cause of women’s rights. Although this myth was created to serve social progress, the falsehood actually obscured the real story of why International Women’s Day came into being, and threatened to diminish the cause it hoped to strengthen.

Clara Eissner, alias Zetkin (1893 Zurich Congress of the Second International), and her partner Osip Zetkin (1881 in Leipzig, before removal from Germany). Photos via Wikimedia Commons.

Clara Eissner, alias Zetkin (1893 Zurich Congress of the Second International), and her partner Osip Zetkin (1881 in Leipzig, before removal from Germany). Photos via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Kaplan’s work, the real hero in the story of how International Women’s Day came into being was a would-be educator named Clara Zetkin. Born Clara Eissner in what is today Königshain-Wiederau in eastern Germany, her family brought her to Leipzig in 1872 so that, at age 15, she could obtain a better education to help her pursue a teaching career in Otto von Bismarck’s Germany. As with many children of devout Protestant parents in that era, her educational years inspired a rebellious spirit that found its expression in politics. At age 19, she followed her friends through women’s and workers’ movements into the rising Socialist Workers’ Party. When Bismarck cracked down on socialist activities outside of local diets and the Reichstag, Clara found her position precarious. Her close friend, future lover and father of her children, Osip Zetkin, was arrested in Leipzig in 1880 as a “troublesome foreigner.” After this Ukrainian-born activist was removed from Germany, Clara followed him, first to Zurich, and then to Paris, where the two exiles lived in unmarried bliss, arriving just in time to witness the Great Bourse Crash of 1882. Exhilarated by what they thought was the impending fall of Capitalism, the couple produced two children, Maxim, and Kostja, while contributing to the creation of the Second Socialist International.

Osip died of tuberculosis in the January just before the 1889 Bastille Day congress in Paris, a gathering in which Clara, who took on her partner’s last name despite never marrying, became ever determined to take part. Kaplan suggested in her writing that Clara’s role going into the Second International’s 1889 congress appeared to her less than favorable to the cause of universal suffrage (saying that Zetnik viewed it as little more than a distraction to the more important creation of economic freedom), but her speech there seemed to indicate significant support for such women’s issues. She returned to Germany more than a year later, about six months after Kaiser Wilhelm II dismissed Bismarck, finding work first as a newspaper translator in Stuttgart, and then as the editor of the Social Democratic Party women’s publication called “Die Gleichheit,” or Equality, where she led women’s causes within the political organization.

Germany passed a Worker’s Protection Act in 1891 that included provisions for the protection of women and children. However, social issues then languished under the weight of Leo von Caprivi’s “New Course,” a foreign policy-oriented national agenda that continued in one form or another through the remainder of Kaiser Wilhelm’s reign. Clara was left unwatched and untouched in this atmosphere of benign negligence to continue to formulate the party’s position on women’s rights. Her work, with respect to International Women’s Day, culminated in August 1907, when she was placed in the role of International Secretary at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. During this congress, suffrage issues, which had been a secondary consideration to the Left (women were anticipated to be more conservative in political thought than men by Socialists, according to Kaplan), became much more important, and this would indeed be the first possible time that there could have been any discussion of an International Women’s Day.  A month before the congress, Clara had turned 50.

The first group actually to move on the International Women’s Day idea, though, was Branch 3 of the New York City Social Democratic Party Women’s Society, who on March 8, 1908, met and decided that they would implement an International Woman’s Day on the last Sunday of February of each following year. On Feb. 23, 1909, some 2,000 supporters gathered at the Murray Hill Lyceum on 34th and Third in Manhattan and listened to Leonora O’Reilly speak in favor of women’s suffrage. At the same time, a meeting at the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum featured Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who insisted that although “it is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood,” this concept of home “should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms, or a city, or a state.”

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg on their way to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) congress in Magdeburg. From Reclams Universum - Moderne Illustrierte Wochenschrift, Vol. 30, No. 22, page 83, February 1914, via Wikimedia Commons

Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg on their way to the 1910 Social Democratic Party of Germany (SDP) congress in Magdeburg. From Reclams Universum – Moderne Illustrierte Wochenschrift, Vol. 30, No. 22, page 83, February 1914, via Wikimedia Commons

The success of this event created inertia that spread to Europe, particularly following the Copenhagen Congress of the Second International held in August 1910. Luise Zeitz spearheaded the idea, which Clara Zetkin seconded, and as a result, on March 18, 1911, the proclaimed 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, women gathered on the Ringstrasse in Vienna carrying red banners that commemorated the martyrs of that failed experiment in communal self-government that rose toward the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The Austrians took the lead in the International toward support for women’s suffrage as Europe raced onward toward the Great War.

Only a few years later, in war-time Russia, the tenuous hold kept by the Romanovs over the country, one that was nearly ripped from them in 1905, again strained to the point of breaking, as defeat was followed by defeat against the superior regimentation of the German Army. St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd to make the Russian capital sound “less Germanic,” faced intolerable price crises, with rents doubling, and prices of rye bread, an important Russian staple, jumping six-fold by 1916.

Alexandra Kollontai's photo, sent to American journalist Louise Bryant, her friend and comrade, in September 1918. From "Six Red Months in Russia" by Louise Bryant, via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexandra Kollontai’s photo, sent to American journalist Louise Bryant, her friend and comrade, in September 1918. From “Six Red Months in Russia” by Louise Bryant, via Wikimedia Commons.

Alexandra Kollontai, a women’s worker’s advocate of Ukrainian ancestry that had fled prosecution abroad for anti-war activities, had worked closely with Zetkin since at least the Copenhagen Congress, and called from exile abroad for an American-like International Woman’s Day protest to hit the city on the last Sunday of the coming February. On Feb. 23, 1917, Gregorian calendar reckoning, women working in the massive Vyborg textile factories heard the call and led particularly aggressive demonstrations from their factories and breadlines that spread quickly to Petrograd.  This date translated to March 8 on the Julian calendar.

The demonstration effectively marked the end of Romanov rule in Russia. As General Sergei Khabalov of the Petrograd Military District described it, “When they said, ‘Give us bread!’ we could give them bread and that would be the end of it. But when they said, ‘Down with the autocracy!’ we could no longer appease them with bread alone.” The end result was Tsar Nikolay II resigning, his family removing from St. Petersburg under house arrest to the nearby Alexander Palace (just before exile to Siberia), and the rise of the short-lived Kadet government under Kerensky. The following November (by the Julian calendar), the Bolsheviks took Petrograd at the start of the Russian Revolution.

As a result of Kollontai’s inadvertent success in bringing down the Tsar’s regime, March 8, became ever afterward International Women’s Day in the Soviet bloc countries. Women’s rights found itself permanently a central issue in Socialist politics, opening the door to further advances toward economic equality between the genders.

As Kaplan seemed to suggest in her article (which took a citation in a Wikipedia article to bring it to light), it should be made clear that International Women’s Day is not to commemorate any legendary deaths of martyred women in the factories of New York in the mid-19th century. Instead, the holiday should be used to celebrate, and perhaps even measure, the ever increasing role of women in the progress of modern society. And that positive attitude is worlds more powerful.

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2 Responses to Relearning about International Women’s Day

  1. Carla Schuller says:

    This is positively depressing–dark and sad beginnings for such an ambitious sounding day. I’m not buying into it. I see Women’s Day as EVERY DAY. No trace in tandem of an International Men’s Day…..why?…..because every day is Men’s Day!

    • benmangel says:

      Actually, the corresponding day for men in the former Soviet countries is Soviet Army Day, on Feb. 23. It originally was just for veterans of the Soviet Army (hence the name), but because we were allies in World War II, American veterans have been likewise honored, I’ve found. These days, I think even “potential veterans” are celebrated – I cringe at the thought, but Baby Ben got a card from his sister on that day (engineer! engineer! he should be going to university after he graduates, not the army!).

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