The American Garment Workers Who Helped Inspire International Women’s Day

Jobs in the garment industry were some of the first to empower women in the industrial workforce

shirtwaist strikers
Portrait of women shirtwaist strikers holding copies of "The Call," a socialist newspaper, in 1910 Kheel Center via Flickr

International Women’s Day describes itself as “a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity.”

No one group is responsible for the event, its website says. But the roots of this celebration did largely come from one group: women workers. It was first known as “International Working Women’s Day,” and its purpose was to give laboring women a focusing point in their struggle for fair working conditions and pay.

In America in the early twentieth century, working women were coming together to fight for labor rights as well as other rights, like voting. The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) became one of the largest unions voicing the concerns of women workers (men also joined this union.) It was formed in 1900. Another central influence in the movement was the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL), formed three years later.

It was initially challenging to get working women to join unions, for a number of reasons including class and racial struggles, write historians Annelise Orleck and Eileen Boris. But in a moment in the early twentieth century, the interests of working-class women who were fighting for labor rights and human rights aligned with those of middle-class feminists, who, they write, were "focused primarily on achieving equality with male professionals and executives." 

The WTUL was a uniting force, they write, because it “drew together educated women reformers (mostly white, Protestant and native-born) and young women workers (many of them immigrant Jews, Italians and Irish) to improve factory wages, working conditions and hours.”  

At that time, working-class women who worked in industrial settings did their jobs in dangerous conditions, and their work was valued significantly lower than that of men, even men doing similar jobs. A central industry for the kind of factory work women did was garment-making, which was also the subject of several 1900s-era strikes that helped to transform American labor.

“This cross-class network deepened with the uprisings of young women garment workers that began in New York in 1909 and then spread out over the next few years into other Eastern and Midwestern cities,” the historians write. One such strike, known as “The Uprising,” lasted 14 weeks in 1909 and comprised 20,000 New York women’s shirtwaist makers. Writes the Jewish Women’s Archive:

The uprising was more than a “strike.” It was the revolt of a community of “greenhorn” teenagers against common oppression. The uprising set off shock waves in multiple directions: in the labor movement, which discovered women could be warriors; in American society, which found out that young “girls”—immigrants, no less—out of the disputatious Jewish community could organize; in the suffragist movement, which saw in the plight of these women a good reason why women should have the right to vote; and among feminists, who recognized this massive upheaval as a protest against sexual harassment.

According to the International Women’s Day website, that strike helped to inspire the creation of National Women’s Day. This holiday merged with International Women’s Day in 1910, which was originally more focused on the plight of laboring European women. Butbfter the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 exposed the struggle of American garment workers, as Smithsonian has written about before, that cause became emblematic of Women’s Day.

“Shortly after the fire, the Executive Board of the Ladies’ Waist and Dress Makers’ Union, Local No. 25 of the ILGWU, the local to which some Triangle factory workers belonged, met to plan relief work for the survivors and the families of the victims,” writes the University of Illinois. Other labor organizations as well as Jewish community groups joined forces with them.   

United, the groups cared for the injured workers and the families of those killed. They also fought for labor legislation that would protect vulnerable workers, and saw them passed.

After 1913, International Women’s Day came to be celebrated on March 8, as it is today.  

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