11:23 AM

How a socialist celebration of women became Americanized

“International Women’s Day” wasn’t always a card-giving holiday

On March 8, some Americans will send greeting cards to the important women in their lives to celebrate “International Women’s Day.”

Little do most of them know about the radical origins of the holiday they are marking, said Birgitte Søland, professor of history at The Ohio State University.

The first “Woman’s Day” celebration took place in Chicago on May 3, 1908, and was led by the U.S. Socialist Party. About 1,500 women gathered on a day officially dedicated to “the female workers’ causes” to demand economic and political equality.

“Today, International Women’s Day seems to be more like Mother’s Day, where people send greeting cards, flowers or gifts,” Søland said.

“It is another transformation of a holiday that has undergone vast changes.”

Søland wrote about the surprising history of the holiday for Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, a publication of the Ohio State and Miami University history departments.

Birgitte SolandSøland decided to write about the history of International Women’s Day after receiving two electronic greeting cards that seemed incongruous with what she knew as a historian about the holiday.

One greeting card featured a colorful depiction of a young female figure playfully applying lipstick, surrounded by flowers and butterflies, along with the text “Happy Women’s Day.”

“To be honest, I was a bit baffled,” Søland said in her Origins article.

“I didn’t associate Women’s Day with lipstick and chocolate boxes and flowers. I thought that was more for Mother’s Day. But when I got a second card, I realized it was a trend I was not aware of.”

After the first event in Chicago, observance of Women’s Day kept to its socialist roots and took hold in Europe.

On March 18, 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time. More than a million Austrian, German, Swiss, Polish, Dutch and Danish women took part in marches and meetings.

Similar events spread through Europe in the following years, with demonstrations calling for women’s rights and female suffrage.

“Many feminists readily joined their socialist sisters,” Søland said.

In 1913, Russian women were the first to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8. In 1917, the March 8 protests of working-class women in Saint Petersburg, angry about rising food prices and deteriorating living conditions, helped trigger the Russian Revolution, Søland said.

That set the date for International Women’s Day not just in Russia, but also for the rest of Europe. In 1922, Lenin established it as a communist holiday in the new Soviet Union.

While the holiday never gained much traction outside of socialist and communist countries during the early 20th century, things changed with the emergence of second-wave feminism in the 1960s, at least in Europe. There, it was given the updated name of “Women’s International Day of Struggle.”

During the International Women’s Year in 1975, the United Nations first celebrated International Women’s Day. But the UN was careful to avoid any hint of protest, calling it “a time to reflect on progress made” and “celebrate acts of courage and determination of ordinary women.”

“They went out of their way to dissociate this from the communist holiday. It is much more of a celebratory holiday than it is a day of struggle, as feminists cast it at the time,” Søland said.

Now, March 8 is marked in a variety of ways around the world.

“Including, it appears, in the United States by sending cards and flowers to honor the women in our lives,” she said.