The story of Women’s History Month’s beginnings
By Jacob Foote
NIAGARA UNIVERSITY, NEW YORK – Holidays for women were celebrated since the early 20th century in socialist countries. So why did it take nearly 60 years for the Western world to catch up?
Women’s History Month has its roots in International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8 every year. The first observance of a Women’s Day occurred in New York, Feb. 28, 1909 as organized by the Socialist Party of America. After an International Socialist Women’s Conference where the establishment of an annual Women’s Day was proposed, over a million people worldwide participated in the first recognized International Women’s Day in 1911. In nations such as Germany, Austria and Switzerland, women paraded the streets calling for the right to vote and hold public office.
On March 8 in 1917, women in St. Petersburg went on strike calling for “Bread and Peace,” making demands for the end to World War 1, food shortages, and czarism which would explode into the Russian Revolution. Days later, women under the provisional government were granted the right to vote; among the first of the Western world. In that same year, March 8 was declared a national holiday in Russia.
Recognition of a holiday for women was for the most part limited to countries claiming to be socialist until after the 1970’s, as the United Nations adopted International Women’s Day in the International Women’s Year, 1975. First instituted as a week surrounding that day, the designation of March as Women’s History Month in the United States began in 1987.
In the Western world, the meaning of these celebrations changed. Socialist nations recognized the women’s struggle as inseparable from the greater working class struggle. At the International Socialist Women’s Conference, for example, women called for voting rights in so far as they believed in and promoted universal suffrage. However, in Western countries the emphasis of identity was substituted for this role of solidarity. Rather than seeing themselves as part of a larger struggle, women in these countries were repeatedly told – and continue to be taught – to focus on their gender identity.
Why did it take until the 70’s for the Western hegemony to recognize a day celebrated since the late 1910’s? The answer is far from simple, but it may have had to do with the fact that at that time various social movements were being coopted by COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) operated by the FBI.
Gloria Steinem, a renowned feminist, had a longstanding history with the CIA. Many have claimed her links were not severed after she became independent and co-founded Ms. magazine. Contrary to feminists of the past who called for equality, in her magazine Steinem sponsored divisive views that bashed on males outright. The contemporary so-called ‘feminist thought’ followed by many today may be attributed in part to Steinem’s efforts; the breakdown in awareness of what feminism actually stands for a result.
Feminism should be recognized for what it really is, defined by the history that it is built upon. Those who uphold its virtue of equality should denounce those who advocate a stratification of the sexes; even if they are themselves claiming to be feminists. A movement that has since its inception fought against sexism should not be permitted to devolve into a sexism of its own, a women’s sexism. Only through the recognition of men and women as equals, and by acting on that recognition, may humanity as whole stride forward.