Their spirit ricochets through time from the days when immigrant women
marched out of the factories in America
and shocked everybody with their resolve.
International Women's Day, March 8, is a holiday celebrated by the
oppressed around the world. It is a holiday that came out of the struggle of
women. In particular, the struggle of immigrant garment workers in New York's Lower East Side
provided the inspiration for the demand that there be a special day to
celebrate the struggle of women. From the beginning, International Women's Day
has been linked with revolution.
Around the turn of the century thousands of women worked in the garment
district in New York.
Most of these women were immigrants from Russia,
Italy and Poland. They
worked up to 15 hours a day and were paid by the piece. They were charged for
needles, thread, electricity, and even the crude boxes they had to sit on
because there were no chairs. They were issued harsh fines--for being late, for
damaged work, for taking too much time in the toilet. Children also worked long
hours, huddled in the corners of the shops, snipping threads from finished
garments. One garment worker recalled, "We wore cheap clothes, lived in
cheap tenements, ate cheap food. There was nothing to look forward to, nothing
to expect the next day to be better.''
In 1908 women began to stage walkouts and strikes at various sewing
factories. Sometimes a company would settle a strike by meeting some of the
demands of the male strikers but included clauses in the settlement that said
"no part of this agreement shall refer or apply to females.'' In spite of
many arrests and heavy fines, in spite of brutal beatings by police and hired
thugs, the women, many of them teenagers, continued the walkouts. Middle and
upper class women inspired by the strikers came out to the pickets to give
their support and were arrested too. And when newspapers covered these unusual
arrests, the public began to find out about the brutal conditions and slave
wages of the women strikers.
After months of small shop actions the women decided to escalate the
struggle by calling for a tradewide general strike.
And in defiance of the heads of the union, on November 22, 1909, the
"Uprising of Twenty Thousand'' began.
One garment worker from the Triangle Shirtwaist Company described the
event: "Thousands upon thousands left the factories from every side, all
of them walking down toward Union
Square. It was November, the cold winter was just
around the corner, we had no fur coats to keep warm, and yet there was the
spirit that led us on and on until we got to some hall to keep warm and out of
the wind and out of the cold for at least the time being. I can see the young
people, mostly women, walking down and not caring what might happen. The
spirit, I think, the spirit of a conqueror led them on. They didn't know what
was in store for them, didn't really think of the hunger, cold, loneliness, and
what could happen to them. They just didn't care on that particular day; that
was THEIR day.''
The strike lasted for months and ignited strikes in other areas. Though
the strike itself was only partially successful in terms of changing work
conditions, the "uprising" did change some important things. It
challenged the image of what uneducated immigrant women could do, and it filled
the East Side and many women and immigrants
and oppressed people more broadly with pride and a sense of strength.
In 1910 the anniversary of these demonstrations, March 8, was declared
International Women's Day by an international conference of socialists and
communists. Since then it has been celebrated worldwide by all revolutionaries
and those fighting for the liberation of women and the emancipation of all of
8 March Women’s Organization (Iranian-Afghanistan)