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How to restore the radical origins of International Women’s Day

The 1974 program shows how the day could move from honoring past progress to inspiring future change

Mandatory Credit: Photo by RAHAT DAR/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (12837850c) Pakistani brick kiln workers and supporters chant slogans and hold placards during a rally to protest against violence against women working in brick kilns on the eve of International Women's Day, in Lahore, Pakistan, 07 March 2022. International Women's Day is globally observed on 08 March to highlight the struggles of women around the globe. It was proclaimed by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly as the day for women's rights and world peace in 1977. Women's rights protest on eve of International Women's Day in Lahore, Pakistan - 07 Mar 2022 (Rahat Dar/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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International Women’s Day is recognized as a global holiday to celebrate women’s social, political and economic progress. The coronavirus pandemic has limited in-person community events, leading to a massive hashtag campaign highlighting women of all backgrounds. Although this beautiful worldwide celebration of women’s achievement is necessary, it can easily evade some of the issues women of color still face today as they battle for racial justice, equal pay, affordable child care, reproductive rights and food security.

Women of color have long used IWD to promote radical and revolutionary ideas that were widely contested in mainstream feminist circles. Particularly during the 1970s, women of color used the day to raise awareness of their particular struggles and demand the eradication of racism, gender oppression and economic exploitation. IWD celebrations staged by the Third World Women’s Alliance, a radical women of color collective, offer contemporary community organizers an example of successful coalition-building, feminist political education projects and international solidarity practices.

IWD has origins in the socialist labor and women’s suffrage movements of the early 20th century. The Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day on Feb. 28, 1909, to honor the women who participated in the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York City. These women, mostly European immigrants, marched through New York’s Lower East Side to rally at Union Square, demanding better wages, voting rights and improved working conditions. The demonstration sparked national protests over the following months, even leading the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to join the strike.

Inspired by these American labor activists, German delegate Clara Zetkin and others proposed an “international” women’s day in 1910 at the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen. The female delegates in attendance at the conference agreed to use IWD celebrations to promote equal rights for women and advocate for suffrage. Following the conference, IWD celebrations took place throughout Europe in countries such as Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.

For decades, people commemorated IWD as a communist holiday. In 1974, however, women in the Third World Women’s Alliance reframed it once more specifically as an opportunity to honor the struggles of working-class women of color and their contributions to society. So they began planning their first of many IWD celebrations.

Black women in New York founded the TWWA in 1968, and the group expanded to the West Coast with chapters in California and Washington. Its membership also broadened to include Asian, Latina, Middle Eastern and Indigenous women.

Members of the TWWA’s Bay Area chapter formed a committee of local activists and organizers to specifically put together a day-long program. On Sunday, March 10, 1974, 600 people from the San Francisco Bay area gathered at the Oakland Community Learning Center for the Third World Women’s Committee’s first event as part of IWD.

The Black Panther Party of Oakland featured the TWWA’s 1974 IWD event on the front cover of its newspaper, The Black Panther: Intercommunal News Service. Describing the scheduled events, the editor wrote, “the highly successful four-hour program paid homage to the years of struggle of Third World women in the US and working women in the world.” At the time, Third World peoples were defined as formerly colonized subjects in North America, Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

Johnnie Tillmon, a well-known leader of the National Welfare Rights Organization, was among the many speakers of the day. Two years earlier, she had published an essay, “Welfare is a Woman’s Issue,” in the American liberal feminist magazine Ms. in which she argued for women’s right to economic security and challenged the sexism in public assistance programs. Her speech at the TWWA’s IWD celebration brought an anti-capitalist lens to discussions of racism and sexism, harking back to IWD’s origins.

Doan Thi Nam Huu of the Union of Vietnamese in the United States also spoke, bringing an anti-imperialist and antiwar perspective to the IWD event. The Panthers in attendance at the event described her speech as an explanation of “the interrelatedness of the liberation struggle in Vietnam and the struggle to liberate women.”

The TWWA used other creative outlets to diversify the cultures, nationalities and ethnicities commemorated on IWD. Members hosted performers such as Joanne Miyamoto, who “received a prolonged applause when she sang, ‘We don’t want a piece of your pie, we want to bake our own.’ ” Choir songs, short skits and a “photographic display” also helped attendees learn about multiple forms of women’s oppression. Music, dance and food fostered a sense of appreciation of the cultures of different women of color.

One of the more radical programs of the day was for children. The TWWA’s family development committee provided child-care services for their IWD event and created child-friendly educational activities for the younger attendees, which allowed parents to enjoy the IWD festivities. TWWA members went beyond articulating and imagining radical societal changes. They put their ideas into practice through community engagement and cultural activism.

Almost 50 years ago, women of color in the San Francisco Bay area used IWD to bring Black, Asian and Latina women together. Their efforts sought to connect their interlinked issues, and they proposed radical solutions to bring meaningful change. Organizing locally but thinking globally, these women of color found creative ways to raise awareness of women’s liberation struggles in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. They aligned the issues facing communities of color in the United States within a broader movement for reproductive justice, welfare rights and women’s rights.

If the contemporary movements for Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and universal health care haven’t already made it clear, communities of color continue to face oppression that was only exacerbated by the pandemic. Intentionally creating IWD events that only honor progress misses the opportunity to explore the work that still needs to be done. The TWWA’s first IWD celebration model reminds us of the power of our radical foremothers, while also applauding contemporary leaders in the movement and raising awareness of today’s struggles for working-class women.