The Socialist History of IWD

It's calling branding, Alan (and it shouldn't be)

My first instinct this International Women’s Day was 1) to recall the time McDonald’s turned their hallmark golden arches into a “W” to celebrate women and 2) to seek out the worst brand posting. (My personal favorite this year came from Twitter for the movie “Avatar”).

And likely many saw the ill-advised but pretty brilliant (people were talking about it, win for brand) “put women back in the kitchen” Burger King shtick that occupied an entire page in the New York Times, an attention grabbing stunt that relied on apparent understanding of the tongue-in-cheek nature of this declaration, but for all intents and purposes recreated it wholesale without a smidge of irony.

As I primed myself to make a good dunk on the Burger King tweet I was hit with an epiphany, or what others might call “a rare moment of critical thought,” wherein I remembered that dunking on the brands is exactly the point of the engineered-to-be-enraging brand tweets, but beyond that, that it recreated (by design) the worst parts of what “International Women’s Day” has come to mean. 

Like many days, trends, ideas—there’s a collective and very specifically American amnesia around where the origin came from, with most (me) reacting instead to the real time reiteration, or the very-watered down version by some strangers on [insert chosen social media app]. Awareness raising campaigns, especially now, feel even more hollow—but most have roots in something vital and urgent, full of meaning, rendered meaningless because of the failure to disentangle the current iteration from where it came from. 

And so in distancing ourselves from the “ick” of Lean In or of hot women talking about why crying at work is empowering, actually, we perhaps reproduce the exact sort of glossing over that benefits said collective ignorance. Let’s not, or—I won’t. Please, you guessed it, clap. 

So where did IWD come from? Thankfully lots of smart people have written very good articles addressing this exact phenomenon, so here are two, which I’ll link and also quote from below:

International Women’s Day: The History of IWD’s Socialist Roots by Adryan Corcione 

In November 1909, immigrant women in their teens and 20s in New York City began an 11-week strike, or as many labor historians recall it, “the uprising of the 20,000.” In her book Women and Socialism, historian Sharon Smith explains that although the strike took more than two months during a brutal winter, the women won recognition for most local factories in Local 25 of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

That’s right Americans, can you believe it, a movement that started with roots in labor activism has been rendered ineffective by being continually attached to meaningless versions of self-expression and self-empowerment, mostly as pursued through brand activism and personal problems reframed as some larger call to action. I.e. “be nice to me, a woman, on this IWD,” instead of “here’s what a win for all of us could look like.”

The same article interviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, editor of the collection How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, who really gets to the point here:

“International Women’s Day, historically, has always been about highlighting the relationship between capitalism and women’s oppression, and that remains significant today,” Taylor tells Teen Vogue.

Another article (this one in Rolling Stone) points out how far the modern “celebration” in the U.S. has strayed from the original intent. That piece also introduces the role Clara Zetkin played in cementing the history of IWD: after the garment workers’ win in America, German Marxist / communist Zetkin “proposed International Women’s Day at the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen that year. In 1911, it was honored for the first time on March 8th, with hundreds of thousands of European women turning out to campaign for labor rights and the right to vote.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the American version of IWD has lost its way, while many women around the world still recognize its historic origins, and celebrate in ways more meaningful (bread and roses, marches, protests) than the reversal of the McDonald’s arches. Isn’t this emblematic of American ideas in general, of U.S. feminism, where so much fixates on individualism at the same time our empire continues to reach its tentacles around the world?

But why? I think there are many different reasons, and though I’m not an expert on anything I suspect it’s a combination of American exceptionalism and neoliberalism, splintering movements that could be unified and connected to larger social good and instead making them laughably ineffective, embarrassing, individualized, the domain of Bic for Her.

Look at these posters celebrating IWD from around the world:

In looking at the reception of surface level IWD takes and the origin of IWD, I felt like there was a parallel here, one that certainly speaks to my decision to disengage from “Feminist Instagram” a while back, for so much fails to connect to any reality outside itself.

The origin being coopted by brands, by whoever is loudest, by whatever narrative is prettiest and most unthreatening—very familiar. And self-implicating! So much of (liberal) feminism discourse in America talks of empowerment but fails to connect this supposed freedom with any articulated vision of anti-capitalist thought, so it becomes more hollow pleas for women CEOs.

But there’s also the problem that any woman saying anything publicly becomes seen as feminism, rather than just a woman saying something, who is certainly not representative of a larger whole. Which also feels distinctly American—this idea that there will be one leader, one person to look to, one guide, one voice, one correct take.

For this I offer wisdom gleaned from mushrooms:

“How does a gathering become a ‘happening,’ that is, greater than the sum of its parts? One answer is contamination. We are contaminated by our encounters; they change who we are as we make way for others.” [From the Mushroom at the End of the World.]

Food for thought, not a thesis here. If this resonates, check out some books and people that have been wonderfully contaminating to my mind. Would also love to hear how you do/don’t celebrate IWD where you live!

Other things to read / listen to:


This newsletter (the one you’re reading now) is edited by my lovely friend Lexie, who is raising money for a documentary on trans boy+ mental health called "What Will I Become?" (@whatwillibecome_doc).

Here’s more from them:

All of the items donated for the option relate to "The Ship We Built;" the first middle grade book centering a trans boy to be written by one for a major publisher. 

The auction includes the original artwork that was not used in the book, personalized advanced readers copies, publishing consultations, and other fun stuff ☁️☁️☁️☁️☁️☁️☁️ link with more information on all is !Feel free to share with book loving friends!!

ID: a beautiful poster for the documentary “What Will I Become?” The documentary honors transboy + mental health, nuance, and anti-patriarchal futures. This text is written in yellow on top of a midnight starry sky, with hills and trees underneath. For more info about the rally, click the link above!

Picture of my Hot Dog:

I will be back in your inboxes shortly to describe my week of birdfluencing and why it went so well. But, until then, know that this was me: ‘Hot pigeon’ goes viral, putting NYC’s flock to shame. I’ve done it.

With love,
Shelby + Clem