Dear USA

How the U.S. Abandoned a Holiday it Helped Birth

Today is a particularly extraordinary one. Today, March 8th, is the 43rd International Women’s Day (IWD) since its inaugural observance by the United Nations in 1975.

As an American, I was completely unaware that this public, unofficial holiday even existed until one day, during my teenage years, I came across numerous images of mimosas (the flower, not cocktail!) on my Facebook feed. My Italian friends were congratulating and sending virtual mimosas to all of the women in their lives, including me, and I had no idea why. Since then, I’ve always wondered why we do not commemorate IWD in the States. Interestingly enough, I recently learned that the historic event that spurred the momentum for such an international movement occurred in New York City exactly 110 years ago.

According to the official International Women’s Day website, 15,000 women workers courageously marched through the Lower East Side of Manhattan on March 8, 1908 in protest against the dangerous, unfair and cruel conditions working in the garment factories. These women, mostly immigrants, not only marched for improved labor conditions, but also for the coveted right to vote. A year later, on February 28th, the first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States with the blessing of the Socialist Party of America.

Garment workers protest in Union Square, 1913. Courtesy of the Kheel Center, Cornell University.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 19th, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Tragically, six days later, 146 people were killed in a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in what is now known as the Brown Building of New York University at the heart of Greenwich Village. The victims, mostly young Jewish and Italian women, did not perish in vain. Hundreds of thousands of activists, led by women laborers, mobilized in the years after to demand legislation that would protect workers and prevent such a tragedy from ever happening again.

Women were also at the forefront of the anti-war movement during this period. In Russia, women observed their first IWD on the last Sunday in February 1913. They succeeded in organizing massive peace protests and strikes in the years following, one of which fell on February 23rd, 1917 (March 8th on the Gregorian calendar), paving the way for the Russian Revolution. At the same time throughout the rest of Europe, women adopted March 8th as a day to unite against the patriarchy and call for an end to the war.

Russian demonstrators in St. Petersburg on March 8, 1917. Credit: Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images.

Unfortunately, back in the States, the momentum for an IWD celebration fizzled with the onset of the First World War. Rosalind Rosenberg, a history professor at Barnard College, explains why to RadioFreeEurope.

“It was the Socialist Party of America that originally designated Women’s Day in this country, and with World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, socialists became pariahs to a large extent in the United States,” she says. “The party persisted, but it didn’t have the kind of popular support that it had had before World War I in the United States.”

Even after the United Nations announced March 8th the official IWD, the U.S. never really learned to embrace the holiday. It seemed the country was incapable of recovering from the panic and fear associated with Socialism following the war, although President Barack Obama did declare March 2011 Woman’s History Month. Additionally, many organizations and campaigns organize events—both locally and nationally—each year to commemorate IWD. These initiatives serve not only to recognize and applaud women’s accomplishments thus far, but especially to continue to fight for women’s rights and gender equality.

The first Women’s March in Washington, D.C., 2017. Credit: Bryan Woolston/Reuters.

Although we’ve come so far since the women before us marched for their rights more than 100 years ago, we still have a way’s to go. In fact, women are still demanding. Women are still resisting. Women are still marching.

Today, over 100 countries observe International Women’s Day, including Italy. As mentioned above, Italians celebrate La Festa della Donna by gifting yellow mimosas to the lovely ladies in their lives. If you’re a woman in Italy, make sure you get a mimosa; if you’re in the States, be free to drink one!

*CLARIFICATION: President Barack Obama was not the first to declare March as Women’s History Month; Congress did in 1987.

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