When Did Women First Go on Strike for Their Rights?

History Q & A

Mr. Smith is a history student at the University of Washington and is a member of the HNN staff.

One hundred and forty-five years ago this month women took matters into their own hands for the first time, seeking equality and better conditions. The date was March 8, 1857, and several hundred women laboring in New York City's sweatshops took to the streets, striking against low wages, dangerous conditions, and the 12-hour workday in textile and garment factories.

This strike -- the first by women exclusively for the purpose of women's rights -- was broken up by police, who attacked the protesters, but this didn't break their spirit. Two years later they formed a labor union.

Fifty years after this, on March 8, 1908, more than 15,000 women in New York marched under banners demanding equal pay, the right to vote, child care during the work day, and better working conditions, adopting the slogan"Bread and Roses": bread for economic stability, and roses for a better way of life.

In 1910, Clara Zetkin, at an international conference held by socialist organizations from around the world in Copenhagen, proposed that March 8 be declared International Women's Day in recognition of the strikes of 1857 and 1908. Over 100 women from 17 countries greeted the idea with unanimous approval.

Another celebration of International Women's Day was organized on March 19, 1911 by Alexandra Kollontai to commemorate the promise made by the king of Prussia on March 19, 1848 to introduce women's suffrage. (The promise was never kept.)

March 8 continued to resonate through the movement for equality: on March 8, 1917, (or February 23, according to the Julian calendar the Russians used at the time), Russian women marched in Petrograd to demand bread and peace. Since other workers were striking at the same time, Czar Nicholas II was forced to resign, and the provisional government granted women's suffrage.

In 1922, Lenin established International Women's Day as a holiday at the urging of Clara Zetkin. The holiday was revived in the United States on March 8, 1968 in Chicago, and was finally recognized by the United Nations in 1975.

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