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Origins in the Struggles of Working Women in the USA —
International Women's Day


March is observed as Women’s History Month because March 8 is International Women’s Day. The holiday had its origins in the struggles of working women in the United States. On March 8, 1908, the underpaid and badly treated women workers in New York’s needle trades demonstrated for better conditions.

• • •

Work in New York’s garment shops a century ago was seasonal. Workers were either pushed for up to 60 hours a week, or thrown out on the street without income of any kind. Most workers were employed by small shops, which constantly tried to bid down prices and wages. Workers were charged for the use of sewing machines, needle and thread, fined for coming in late or spoiling cloth. Most workers were young women, who were paid a pittance; men were either skilled workers or subcontractors.

On the evening of November 22, 1909 Cooper Union hall in New York was filled to capacity with young immigrant women, many of them attending their first union meeting. Three garment shops were already on strike, and the industry was seething with rebellion. On the podium were officers of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and various prominent guests, among them American Federation of Labor President Samuel Gompers.

For two hours, speakers urged caution. Then a striker named Clara Lemlich rose, and asked for the floor.

Although only 20 years old, she was a founder of ILGWU Local 25 and already a veteran of two strikes. She was still recovering from a beating on the picket line.


"I am a working girl," she said, "one of those on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared — now!"

The men ran the union. But the women, exploited and abused, were going to make history. The meeting voted unanimously to adopt Clara Lemlich’s resolution. The general strike was on.

ILGWU officials expected that maybe 3,000 shirtwaist workers would join the general strike. That next morning, 15,000 workers, many of them teenaged girls, walked off the job. Only a few had been union members. By day’s end more than 20,000 workers from 500 garment shops were on strike for union recognition, a union shop and higher wages.

Strike meetings were conducted in three languages — English, Yiddish and Italian. The (all-male) union staff was too small to cope, so rank-and-file strikers, allies from the Women’s Trade Union League and socialist women took over the day-to-day operations of the strike, run out of 20 halls spread over New York’s garment district.


Picketing continued through the winter. Strikers braved harsh winds and snow, brutal police and thugs hired to break up the picket lines. In 13 weeks more than 600 young women were arrested. Judges were viciously anti-union; one told a young woman: "You are on strike against God." Many young women showed great bravery. A 16-year-old was badly beaten by her father and brothers but still refused to scab.

The strikers rejected an offer in December because it did not include the union shop. But as the strike dragged on through January, the ILGWU settled with some large shops without the union shop or union recognition. The strike was declared over on Feb. 15, 1910 with many issues unresolved. Nevertheless, the more than 20,000 women workers had shown remarkable solidarity and courage. That proved to be their greatest achievement.

The courage and determination of these working women in New York captured national and even international attention. Impressed by the Uprising of the 20,000, delegates to the International Socialist Congress in 1910 declared a worldwide day of solidarity with women of all countries fighting for equal rights.

And March 8 has been celebrated as International Women’s Day ever since.

UE News - 03/01

Home -> UE News -> 2001 Archives -> Feature

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