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The forgotten woman behind International Women’s Day

Theresa Malkiel, circa 1910, not long after she came up with the idea of National Woman’s Day. (Wikimedia Commons)
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International Women’s Day is here again, and with it the opportunity to highlight women’s contributions to history, society and politics — and, of course, to sell stuff.

But how did the day get started? Some point to Russian communist roots; others claim an American origin story. The truth is that it’s neither and both. International Women’s Day began with a Russian-born Jewish woman in New York City, before traveling to the Soviet Union and back again.

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Theresa Serber Malkiel was born in 1874 in the Russian Empire, in an area now in western Ukraine. She came from a middle-class family and received a good education, but her Jewish family was increasingly persecuted and emigrated to the United States in 1891, when she was 17.

In New York City, her education mattered little, according to historian Sally M. Miller. Malkiel found herself in the same desperate position as so many other immigrant women, taking a job in a garment factory. Conditions were brutal: Shifts could last 18 hours, injuries were common and women earned half of what men did, barely enough to pay rent in crowded tenements and boardinghouses. So, like many Jewish and Italian immigrant women at the time, Malkiel soon joined the labor movement and then started a union for female cloak-makers.

Malkiel also became a socialist and, at 26, married fellow socialist and attorney Leon Malkiel. Her husband’s income allowed her to leave the sweatshop, but after moving to the suburb of Yonkers and having a child, Malkiel continued her activism, Miller wrote, providing aid to immigrant women, taking leadership positions in the Socialist Party of America and, with her husband, co-founding a socialist newspaper, the New York Call. (Side note: Their daughter, Henrietta, later co-founded another publication, Congressional Quarterly, with her husband, Nelson Poynter.)

Malkiel was a vocal proponent of women’s equality and the right to vote, though she was wary of the upper-class, nonimmigrant women who tended to lead women’s suffrage groups. In her pamphlets, columns and speeches, she argued that true equality — for women, African Americans, immigrants and child laborers — would only come through socialism.

It was in this context that she proposed the first National Woman’s Day in 1909. According to Rutgers University historian Temma Kaplan, events were held across New York, where thousands gathered to hear speeches and poems, sing socialist anthems and push for the right to vote.

Some websites claim that International Women’s Day marks the first known women-led labor strike on March 8, 1857, or that Malkiel sought to commemorate this strike, but there is no evidence such a strike ever happened. Newspapers from the time don’t mention it, though there was ample coverage of women-led labor strikes decades earlier in Pawtucket, R.I., and Dover, N.H. Additionally, Malkiel’s 1909 National Woman’s Day was held Feb. 23, not March 8. (More on that later.)

The first National Woman’s Day kicked off a busy couple of years for Malkiel. Later in 1909 and into 1910, she supported a huge strike of shirtwaist workers, dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000,” with financial aid, speeches and columns. After enduring a winter on the picket line, the strikers were largely successful, winning better pay and shorter working hours, though factory owners refused to budge on safety concerns.

The strike ended about the same time as the second National Woman’s Day on Feb. 27, 1910. This time, there were events all over the country, and the New York Times covered a large gathering at Carnegie Hall, where speakers were “all women except one, and he denounces Man.” By 1911, it had spread to socialist women in Europe, with events in Vienna, though these were held March 18 in honor of the Paris Commune, according to Miller.

Malkiel soon published a book called “The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker,” a fictionalized account of the uprising in which an American-born young woman joins with her immigrant co-workers to demand better working conditions.

But a year after the strikers’ seeming victory, their precarity was laid bare. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, whose workers had been part of the Uprising of the 20,000, caught fire, killing 146 people — 123 of them women and girls, who had been locked in by the factory’s owners. These days, more people remember the fire than the uprising that preceded it; even a 1949 Times article incorrectly claimed Malkiel’s book came after the fire.

Over the years, Malkiel turned away from the Socialist Party, where she and other women were constantly frustrated by the sexism of its leadership, despite the party’s public calls for equal rights, and focused on adult education for immigrant women. When she died in 1949 at age 76, a Times obituary didn’t mention her contribution to International Women’s Day, which by then used the plural “women’s” and was a big deal, if you lived in a communist country.

The event had continued to grow among leftist women in Europe, though the exact date moved around each year. Then, in 1917, International Women’s Day events in Russia snowballed into a general strike that ended with Czar Nicholas II’s abdication. Since then, it has been commemorated on the day the strike began, March 8 (or Feb. 23 on czarist Russia’s Julian calendar). It was a national holiday in the Soviet Union and in East Germany. In China, women are still given a half-day off work.

By the 1960s, feminists in Western Europe and the United States picked it up again, and the United Nations adopted it in 1975 as a day to celebrate the achievements of women. Kaplan, the Rutgers historian, traced the false origin story of the 1857 strike to 1950s France, where more mainstream feminists were probably trying to tamp down the Soviet vibes.

In the 21st century, social media has brought International Women’s Day to new generations — and new marketing opportunities, of which Malkiel and the millions of socialist women who created it probably wouldn’t have approved.

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