How Unfair Labor Sparked International Women's Day

Cristen Conger

International Women's Day began with a labor protest.
International Women's Day began with a labor protest.
© CORBIS

International Women's Day has come and gone, but its annual message ought to be reiterated every day. No, I'm not talking about feminism per say, although I'm all about gender equality. Many folks might assume that March 8 (International Women's Day) traces back to our foremothers' fight for equal votes, but its history actually stems from the Socialist Party and early 20th-century labor movements. When it began, working conditions in Industrial Revolution-era factories often weren't kind toward employees, putting them in direct danger of workplace hazards, demanding excessive hours and compensating them with minimal pay. Many immigrant women who had come to the United States in search of better qualities of life, the symbolic "American Dream," realized that the only way to force their employers to right the workplace wrongs they were committing in their sweatshops was to organize.

Over at The Christian Science Monitor, Steph Solis writes, "the origins of the holiday can be traced back to March 8, 1857, when garment workers in New York City staged a protest against inhumane working conditions and low wages." The police broke up the protest, which set the stage for the first women's labor union. Then, in 1908, 15,000 female workers marched through the streets of New York City for better working conditions and the right to vote for politicians who would support them, and the following year the Socialist Party of America marked Feb. 28 as National Women's Day to commemorate the march. In Europe, similar stirrings were happening as well through The Socialist Party International, and on March 19, 1911, Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland celebrated International Women's Day for the first time.

And while the message of these early Women's Day marches centered around women's rights and universal suffrage, a tragedy that took place days after the first international observance highlighted the attendant need for labor reforms. On March 25, 1911, a fire started on the ninth floor of the Triangle Waist Company building in New York, swiftly killing 146 employees, many of whom were low-wage immigrant women. Passersby witnessed workers plunge out of windows since the factory wasn't equipped with emergency exits, and even after firefighters arrived, their ladders didn't stretch above the sixth floor. Following the disaster, the Women's Trade Union League and the International Garment Workers Union staged protests attracting thousands, which helped bring about an overhaul of labor laws in New York. One woman instrumental in legislating minimum wage laws, unemployment assistance and pension plans -- Francis Perkins -- was later appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Labor Secretary, making Perkins the first female cabinet member in U.S. history.

In 1913, socialist organizers officially designated International Women's Day to take place on March 8, and the demonstrations expanded their global presence each year. As a result, it's also a national holiday akin to Mother's Day in more than 25 countries. And since International Women's Day sprang from labor movement, it seems fitting to note that today, New Zealand ranks as the best place to work for women, "based on the labor-force participation rate, the wage gap, the proportion of women in senior jobs and child care cost compared to wages, among other factors." The United States doesn't even crack the top 10, claiming the 12th spot.