American socialists initiated International Women's Day with a National Women's Day (NWD) on the last Sunday of February 1909. It heralded an eventful year for women's struggles in the US. On the frozen streets of New York City up to 30,000 shirtwaist makers from the East Side, most of them women, many of them Italians and Jews, waged a thirteen week strike for better pay and conditions, fewer hours and a ban on non-union labour. Their slogan - "We'd rather starve quick than starve slow" - revealed the desperation of their plight, while their courage and grim determination found expression in song:
Inspired by this spirit of resistance, leading German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed to the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910 that an International Women's Day (IWD) be proclaimed. The resolution won support at the conference and the subsequent Congress of the socialist Second International. Although the Americans continued to celebrate a February NWD until 1913, IWD became the primary event worldwide to commemorate the New York strike and focus attention on the struggles of working class women.
IWD was celebrated for the first time in March 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. In Vienna on 18 March, writes Temma Kaplan, "women marched around the Ringstrasse, carrying banners including red flags commemorating the martyrs of the Paris Commune." It was one of 300 IWD demonstrations across the Austro Hungarian Empire that day.
Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, who helped organise Germany's first IWD, wrote that "Germany and Austria ... was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere ... in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for women ... During the largest street demonstration, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators' banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament."
Six years later Kollontai was at the forefront of an even more dramatic and influential uprising of women, this time in Russia. On the occasion of International Women's Day (23 February on the Gregorian calendar but 8 March in the West) women workers led a demonstration from the factories and breadlines of St Petersburg under the banner "Bread and Peace." Having failed to quell the protests after two days, Czar Nicholas II ordered the military to open fire on the demonstrators, which served only to deepen the crisis and precipitate the revolutionary overthrow of the regime. Since that time, 8 March has been celebrated worldwide as IWD.