Ever wondered how International Women’s Day began? Well, the woman behind the annual day of recognition of women was Theresa Malkiel, a Russian-born Jewish woman living in New York City. As head of the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), she established an annual National Woman’s Day which was the precursor to International Women’s Day.
Theresa was born in 1874 in the Russian Empire, in an area which is now in western Ukraine. Unfortunately, due to the current war in Ukraine, the day cannot be celebrated this year. Theresa came from a middle-class family and received a good education, but her Jewish family who was increasingly persecuted, emigrated to the United States in 1891, when she was 17.
When she got to New York City, Theresa went to work as a cloak-maker in a garment factory. The conditions were appalling and the shifts lasted for 18 hours. Injuries on the job became commonplace and to add insult to injury, they earned half of what men earned which meant that they could barely afford to pay rent in crowded tenements and boardinghouses.
Theresa was an American labor activist, suffragist, and educator. She was the first woman to rise from factory work to leadership in the Socialist party. In 1910 she wrote, The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker, a fictionalized account of the shirtwaist strike. The novel gained public attention and was instrumental in helping to reform New York state labor laws. In 1911, while on a speaking tour of the American South, she drew attention to the problem of white supremacy within the party. She spent her later years promoting adult education for women workers.
She was revolted by her party’s practice of racial segregation and when a group of dues-paying African-American socialists were denied entry to the local meeting hall in Mississippi, she gave her speech in the pouring rain. She was strongly opposed to segregation and believed it to be incompatible with socialism.
Theresa spoke on women’s rights and against America’s involvement in the first World War. She spent the last two decades of her life promoting education for immigrant women and assisting them with naturalization. She married attorney and fellow socialist Leon A. Malkiel in 1900 and moved to Yonkers. They had a daughter. Theresa remained committed to improving the lives of working women until she died on November 17, 1949.
“Come, my sisters, let us shake off our fetters; let us rise and assert our rights. It is time! The bugle call sounds louder and louder; my toiling sisters of the world, arise!” – Theresa Malkiel
“Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #BreakTheBias” (International Women’s Day website).
Let us do what we can where we are, to continue Theresa Malkiel’s fight for women to live in a gender bias free world where we are treated as equals.