(WOMENSENEWS)–The evolution of March as Women’s History Month is a story with many points of origin, non-linear narratives, competing calendars and claims and a denouement of some irony.
It begins, most likely in 1908 with the Socialist Party of the United States organizing a Women’s Committee to campaign for women’s suffrage. A year later, in March 1909, women devoted to both the cause of labor and the cause of women led an uprising of thousands of garment industry workers in New York City.
The alliance of militant working women and women’s rights advocates inspired a German Socialist named Clara Zetkin and a Russian feminist representing textile workers named Alexandra Kollontai to declare an International Women’s Day in 1911.
By 1913, the date was fixed as March 8th. On that date in 1917, another uprising led by women, this one in the Russian city of St. Petersburg forced the Czar to abdicate. March 8th became a holiday to honor not only women’s labor, but women’s role in the Revolution.
Over the years and around the world, March 8th took on different meanings. In some years, it was an occasion for organizing against militarism and war. In the late 1950s, it was often the date of female-led anti-nuclear protests. At the same time, March 8th was a rallying point for the demands of workers. By the late 1960s, as women’s liberation was spreading in the United States, many radical feminist discovered, re-discovered or decided to honor the revolutionary women and called for an American revival of International Women’s Day. An activist calling herself Laura X, who had started a Women’s History Library, organized a march in Berkeley, Calif., on March 8, 1969. The marchers dressed as historical characters; she was a cross between Alexandra Kollontai and the dancer Isadora Duncan.
By the 1970s, pressured by women’s groups, International Women’s Day became broader in scope and official in nature. The United Nations began sponsoring it in 1975. In 1981, the new National Women’s History Project in Northern California, among other groups, successfully lobbied Congress to declare a national Women’s History Week in the days around March 8th. By 1987, the week became a month.
Along the way, the working class, socialist, grass-roots underpinnings of the holiday fell away and the focus in the United States largely became the achievements of individual women. Somehow, the 2004 presidential statement for International Women’s Day heralded “the advent of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan” and even the Department of Defense joins in, honoring women in the military on its Web site in March.
Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand On: Women as Agents of Change.” She can be reached at [email protected]