Made in the USA

Americans may think of International Women’s Day as a sentimental export from abroad—but this week’s global strike is a throwback to its real history.

International Women's Day
Activists march for women’s rights on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Women’s March that took place the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump was almost certainly the largest single-day demonstration in American history. By one estimate, at least 3.7 million people took to the streets in at least 500 cities—more than 1 out of every 100 Americans.

This Wednesday, the movement that coalesced around feminist opposition to Donald Trump faces its next big organizing test. “A Day Without a Woman,” as the Women’s March organizers are calling it (following the recent “Day Without Immigrants”), is intended to be a global “day of action” in which women will strike from both paid and unpaid labor. “I think a lot of women were looking to see what else can be done” after the event in January, said Carmen Perez, co-chair of the Women’s March. “We are expecting this to be national and worldwide.”

The event’s message is somewhat muddier than the summons that rallied millions to urban centers in January: Organizers are urging participants to take the day off, to avoid shopping except at small businesses owned by women or minorities, and/or to wear red in solidarity. A separate group of grassroots organizers who started planning their own strike back in October are calling it the International Women’s Strike, or just the Women’s Strike, and are encouraging a wider slate of actions. (The two coalitions have since joined forces but haven’t quite synched their branding.)

It’s not yet clear how many women will heed the call, and what they will accomplish. But one notable aspect of the action lies in the date itself—March 8, International Women’s Day. Though most Americans are probably only vaguely familiar with the holiday, if the strike is successful, that may change: It will mean a now-global celebration has come home to its radical American roots.

The first official National Woman’s Day was declared in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, which held several large events on a single day in New York City. Organizers chose a Sunday, Feb. 28, so working women could participate. It worked: The events attracted thousands of people, including both suffragists and socialists, who had sometimes clashed in the past over priorities and strategies. “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood,” writer and reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman told a crowd in Brooklyn, “but home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.”

Within a few years, the concept of a “women’s day” for causes related to labor and women’s rights had taken off in Europe. By some estimates, more than 1 million people attended rallies worldwide on March 19, 1911. In 1917, Russian feminist Alexandra Kollontai led a massive protest that helped set off the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution. In deference, Lenin declared Woman’s Day an official holiday in 1922. Chinese and Spanish Communists began formally celebrating it, too, and International Women’s Day remained a communist holiday until the mid-1960s. In 1975, the United Nations officially recognized March 8 as International Women’s Day.

In many countries, International Women’s Day remains a popular cause for celebration. But that doesn’t mean the holiday’s foremothers would find the festivities up to snuff. In Argentina, the day “has now lost its political element,” with men crowding shops to buy flowers and tchotchkes for their wives and girlfriends. In China, many women receive time off from work, but public observations tend to focus on shopping and beauty. (Last year, one shopping mall offered special Women’s Day discounts to women deemed attractive by a face-scanning machine.) Women’s Day in Armenia kicks off an unofficial month of feminine-themed celebrations that culminates in Motherhood and Beauty Day on April 7.

In the United States, the holiday’s reddish tint caused it to fall out of mainstream favor rather quickly, and until a few years ago, few Americans had heard of it. Recently, however, as digital marketing campaigns flow across national borders, the softer and more commercial descendent of the original radical American holiday has arrived back on our shores. A coalition of corporations, including BP and PepsiCo, now promotes International Women’s Day online with hashtags and official themes. (This year’s is #BeBoldForChange. Inspired yet?) A March 8 Google Doodle last year celebrated “Doodle-worthy women of the future” by asking women across the world to talk about their aspirations, from the unobjectionably noble (improve girls’ access to education) to the unobjectionably fun (swim with pigs in the Bahamas). Americans can now order an International Women’s Day bouquet to “honor an inspiring woman in your life,” or celebrate by buying perfume or mascara whose proceeds go to empowerment-related causes. Capitalism hearts your socialist holiday!

Tension over the radical origins of Women’s Day is nothing new. One long-popular origin story had it that the holiday was first established in 1907 to mark the 50th anniversary of a massive demonstration by female garment and textile workers in New York City, whose rally against low wages and 12-hour work days was brutally shut down by the police. There was only small problem with this inspiring tale: Neither the 1857 protest nor the 1907 tribute seem to have actually occurred. Two French feminist historians busted the myth in the 1980s, revealing that the 19th-century uprising was actually invented in 1955, in part “to detach International Women’s Day from its Soviet history.”

The organizers reclaiming International Women’s Day this week, by contrast, have no qualms about its far-left origins and are in fact trying to restore that spirit to the soft-focus holiday it’s become. Ashley Bohrer, a member of the International Women’s Strike’s national planning committee, described the strike in part as an effort to draw attention to “the decoupling of International Women’s Day from its very radical working-class background.” Early on, she pointed out, the holiday had often been called International Working Women’s Day. “In recent years people have celebrated March 8 as Women’s Day,” she said, “but what’s been lost is the ‘working’ part and the ‘international’ part.”

It will be interesting to see how many people participate in the strike this week and in what terms they describe their activism. The official platform of the Women’s March in January was unapologetically progressive, with support for abortion access, the labor movement, and immigration reform. But part of the event’s ultimate success was that it maintained the vibe of a friendly big-tent affair. Mothers and daughters (and their male friends and relatives) marched together in what organizers called an “army of love,” and the event’s quasi-official uniform was a fuzzy pink hand-knit hat.

There’s nothing fuzzy and pink about the Women’s Strike. Its official color is red, the color of revolution, of communism, of the flag that flew outside the radical Paris Commune in 1871. It suggests “they’re embracing a history of revolutionary struggle,” said historian Estelle Freedman, whose research areas include women and social reform movements. Red pushes the debates over pink aside, Freedman said, and says something bolder: “Let’s embrace the red of revolution.”