Now celebrated worldwide during the month of March, the observance originated in New York City in 1909 as “Women’s Day,” on February 28 to mark the anniversary of the city’s garment industry strike led by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union one year prior. The Socialist Party of America chose the day to honor the women who bravely protested miserable labor conditions. American Socialist and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed a New York crowd, saying, “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.” At the time, women still couldn’t vote.
Image: The Kheel Center via flickr.
By 1911, the tradition had caught on throughout Europe, becoming an “International Women’s Day” during March, set aside to reflect on the origins of one half the population’s early foray into demanding well-earned recognition and equal treatment.
It would still be a few years before women were granted the right to vote in national elections throughout the world. Denmark gave the nod to women’s suffrage in 1915 with Canada, Russia, Germany and Poland soon to follow and propertied British women over 30 given the vote in 1918; the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving American women the vote didn’t happen until 1920.
‘The Garment Worker’ (1984) by Judith Weller, outside 555 Seventh Avenue in the Garment District, is intended to be a reminder of the role of the ILGWU’s members in making New York one of the garment and fashion centers of the world. Note: It’s a man.
In 1987, Congress voted to expand the observance in the U.S. to the entire month of March. But America still lags behind much of the world in ways worth noting during any observance of women’s ongoing struggle for recognition and respect; for example, we’ve never had a woman serve as head of state. The United Nations website tells us:
International Women’s Day…is a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political. International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe. Since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women’s movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nations women’s conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas.
Women’s History Month comes this year at a moment when Americans have been rallying in record numbers in support of, among other things, women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas, recognizing that it’s time to take a good long look at the fact that many among us are uncomfortable with the idea of a female president, having never had one previously unlike so many other countries around the world. There’s plenty to celebrate and honor but just as much to question, as recent weeks have shown.
There has never been a better time to challenge the status quo. New York gave us Women’s History Month–and our 45th president; it’s a city filled with conflicting ideas, but also opportunity, role models and inspiration. The city offers a list of parks and monuments that honor the contributions of women and a full calendar of events can be found here. The National Women’s History Project has designated a 2017 theme of honoring women who have successfully challenged gender roles in both business and the paid labor force: “The 2017 Honorees represent many diverse backgrounds and each made her mark in a different field…These women all successfully challenged the social and legal structures that have kept women’s labor underappreciated and underpaid.”
Lead image: Suffragists outside the White House. HARRIS & EWING, VIA LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
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