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Reclaiming the radical roots of International Women's Day


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At Fusion, Katie McDonough reclaims the origins of International Women’s Day from “lean-in” feminists and corporate marketing campaigns that have blunted its radical edge. She tells the story of militant self-organized labor actions by women in the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries—actions which led to the establishment of International Women’s Day, and which resemble labor efforts of today, such as the Fight for $15 movement in the US. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

A little more than nine months before the idea for the first International Women’s Day was introduced in 1910, a 23-year-old Ukrainian immigrant named Clara Lemlich incited what would become the Uprising of 20,000, a strike of an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 garment workers that stretched out for more than two months in New York City.

According to records of that meeting, Lemlich, a young revolutionary who was a familiar presence at other strikes and had recently had her ribs bashed in by anti-union thugs, demanded a work stoppage for better wages, hours, and labor conditions. Later that day, Lemlich, along with thousands of other women, reportedly took the oath to strike in her native Yiddish: “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise.” The Uprising of 20,000 won a series of concessions from management on wages and hours, and set the stage for broader institutional reform in response to the deadly 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

In a 1965 letter to a graduate student about that time in her life, Lemlich recalled that her earliest efforts at organizing had been in the company of other women: “The girls, whether socialist or not, [had] many stoppages, and strikes broke out in many shops,” she wrote. “However every strike we called was broken by the police and gangsters hired by the bosses. In 1906, some of us girls who were more class conscious called a meeting… where we organized the 1st local of the waist makers [garment union].”

Lemlich’s legacy, which remains closely associated with the earliest manifestations of the women’s labor movement in United States, is still niche history. But it “shows the ways in which women workers have always linked the economic strategy of striking and the political strategy of labor standards,” Jennifer Klein, a professor of History at Yale University, told me in a phone interview. It also shows a lineage of women who fought—literally fought—from places of great precarity to reshape institutions and improve the conditions of their own lives and communities.

Image via Fusion.