International Women's Day is celebrated worldwide on March 8. It dates back to 1908 when women needleworkers marched through the Lower East Side of New York City to protest child labor, better working conditions and to demand their right to vote.
The labor struggle in the United States traditionally focused on men. Women supported their weight and their share from the beginning, supporting men's organization, and very soon, after realizing that women's needs were ignored in existing unions, they formed their own unions.
The first women's strike took place in 1820, women working in New England's tailoring industry demanded better conditions, decent wages and shorter hours.
The most famous of the first strikes took place at the Lowell cotton factories in Massachusetts. Here young women worked 81 hours a week for $3 dollars, of which 1/4 went to food and board to the Lowell company pensions. The factories originally opened at 7 a.m., but the employers, noting that women were less "energetic" if they ate before work, changed the opening time to 5 a.m., with a breakfast break at 7 in the morning (for half an hour).
In 1834, 14 years later and after several pay cuts, Lowell's women left as a form of protest but had to return several days later and on less pay than they had. They were brave women but the company had power; any misbehavior led to disciplinary action where they were blacklisted.
Two years later, in 1836 they went out again singing with great courage through the city the following message:
"Oh, isn't a shame a woman as pretty as me,
have to go to a factory to disappear and die?"
Without any positive results, they had to return to work within a few days.
In 1844, this organization led to the Lowell Women's Labor Reform Association. Their main demand was a ten-hour day. And thanks to this, the leadership and activity of this union is credited with the beginning of some of the first reforms in the conditions of the textile industries.
On March 8, 1857, garment workers in New York City marched and protested, demanding better working conditions, a ten-hour day and equal rights for women. Their ranks were divided by the police.
In the period of intense work activity that followed the Civil War from 1861until 1865, when widowhood and difficult times forced thousands of women to enter the workforce, causing panic and hostility from men, women were excluded from most national unions. They then formed their own union, including the Daughters of San Crispin, a union of shoemakers. During this time, unions were formed by women cigar makers, sewers, and printers, as well as tailors and laundresses.
Fifty one years after the garment workers' march in 1857, on March 8, 1908, her sisters in the needle trade in New York marched again, honoring the 1857 march, demanding the vote and the end of the exploitation in factories and child labor. The police were also present on this occasion.
Garment workers formed some of the most famous unions in US history. In particular the International Union of Ladies' Clothing Workers, founded around 1900.
Garment factories in big cities like New York were deplorable. Fire hazards abounded, light was scarce, the sound of machinery was deafening, and the environment was polluted.
Women were fined for practically anything: talking, laughing, singing, oil stains on the fabric, stitches too big or too small. The overtime was constant and required, but paying for it was not.
With the support of the National League of Women's Trade Unions, founded in 1903, (3 years after the founding of the International Ladies' Clothing Union), shirt makers launched a series of strikes against Leiserson and Company and the Triangle Waist company, two of the most famous stores in New York.
These actions culminated in the first long term general strike by women, ending tired arguments that they could not organize and carry on a lasting struggle. For 13 weeks in the bitterness of winter, women between the ages of 16 and 25 barricaded and were beaten daily by the police and taken in "Black Maria" police vans.
This strike was called the "Rising of the 20,000, this took place in 1909.
The courts were tilted in favor of the owners of the workshops; a magistrate accused a striker: "You are on strike against God and Nature", whose main law is that man will earn his bread with the sweat of his brow. This sparked a cablegram from George Bernard Shaw, who along with other Europeans were following the course of America's job history. He wrote: "Enchanting, Medieval America always in intimate personal trust with the Almighty."
The strike was finally broken, as the protests took place store by store, but the talent and resistance of the women made it possible for people to change their way of thinking and to agree with them, stating that the labor organization protected only men.
On March 8, 1908, Cotton Company workers in New York went on strike to protest unacceptable working conditions. The factory owner rejected their demands, so the women exercised their legitimate collective right by locking themselves in the factory. They all died in a subsequent fire, the origin of which was never discovered.
In 1910 at the World Congress of the Socialist Party in Germany called the Second International, the German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed that International Women's Day be proclaimed on March 8 to commemorate the United States' demonstrations and honor women workers in all the world.
Since then, mauve (purple), the color of the cloth produced by these women, has become the symbol of the feminist struggle. There is also a theory that at the time the factory was burning, the smoke that came out was mauve (purple) because it was the color of the textile that the women worked on.
Zetkin, who was a renowned revolutionary who argued with Lenin about women's rights, was considered a serious threat to the European governments of her time; the Kaiser called her "the empire's most dangerous sorceress."
A year after the "Rising of the 20,000" strike broke, the infamous Triangle Blouse Factory fire occurred on March 25, 1911. By trapping the women on the upper floors, the fire doors had been locked from the outside to prevent women workers from retiring, the fire claimed the lives of 123 women and girls and 23 men, most women between the ages of 13 and 25 and most of them recent migrants to the US.
Employers went to trial; one was fined $20. An agreement was reached with the families of the deceased women for $75 per death.
Rose Schneiderman, organizer of the Garment Workers, rebuked the community for supporting the law and the institutions that made such tragedies possible. "I know from my own experience that it is up to working people to save themselves," She proclaimed. "The only way they can be saved is through a strong movement of the working class."
This has been only a fraction of the history of American working women; part of this fraction was enough to inspire an international movement.