• Peter Templeton

The American Origins of International Women's Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day. This event has some intriguing historical beginnings, early in twentieth-century America.

It was first organised by a woman called Theresa Malkiel. She had been born Theresa Serber in Imperial Russia on May 1st, 1874, during the lengthy reign of Tsar Alexander II. The family migrated to the US in 1891 when Theresa was 17 years old. We can only speculate as to the role anti-Semitism played in the decision. Still, the period following the assassination of Alexander II was marked by significant anti-Jewish rioting. Another cause might have been the extremely autocratic policies of his successor, Alexander III. By the standards of Tsars, at least, the older of the two had been something of a moderate.

On relocating to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the young Theresa worked in a garment factory. After only a couple of years, she was one of the founders of the Infant Cloak Makers’ Union. Fiercely committed to her beliefs, Malkiel represented her Union at various federations (such as the Knights of Labor and United Hebrew Trades) and moved between left-wing parties. She joined the Socialist Labor Party in 1893 and leaving (with many opponents of SLP leader Daniel De Leon) for the Socialist Party of America in 1899. The following year, she married fellow socialist Leonard Malkiel.

For Malkiel, the rights of women and the Socialist movement were inevitably interconnected. In 1905, she returned to front line union organisation when she organised the Women’s Progressive Society of Yonkers. Eventually, this would go on to become a crucial group in the formation of the Socialist Women’s Society of Greater New York. In 1909, she was elected to the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist party.

Theresa Serber Malkiel, C. 1910

It was while working in this role that she organised the first ‘National Woman’s Day’, the precursor to the contemporary International Women’s Day. It took place not in March, but on February 28th, 1909. It was not celebrated on March 8th until 1917, when that date was adopted in the USSR, with the United Nations eventually following suit in 1975. Back in February 1909, however, this was still an American affair, and crowds gathered in New York City. The feminist writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed the gathered crowd, saying “It is true that a woman’s duty is centred in her home and motherhood, but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.”

Women in the United States continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913. From the success of this first day, socialists would begin organising conferences and days dedicated to women and the furtherance of their rights throughout Europe in the next decade, including the observation of the first official International Women’s Day in Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland in 1911. In 2020, the day is an official holiday in 27 countries.

Malkiel would continue to work for her feminist and socialist objectives. She worked to further the cause of the Shirtwaist strike, fundraising and writing The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker (1910). When the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire occurred (killing 146 people, 123 of them women) the book seemed to strike a chord with the public. As a result, Malkiel joined the ranks of fiction writers whose work has helped to influence politics and legislation. She also toured the Southern States and was horrified with the segregation that she encountered, seeing it as incompatible with socialism.

As time went on, unions displaced socialist parties as the primary outlets for left-wing politics in the United States. Malkiel was unsuccessful in an attempt to win a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1920, and the following decade would not be anymore welcoming to socialist ideas. For much of the rest of her life, Malkiel would work in adult education, with a constant concern being the education and naturalisation of female immigrants to the US. When she died in 1949, her earlier notoriety had all but passed away, and she was noted in her obituary primarily as the widow of her lawyer husband, Leonard.

Today, though, we choose to redress that balance by acknowledging (if only for a moment and in our limited way) Theresa Malkiel, her fight for greater equality, and her role in creating something that lived far beyond her own lifetime.

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