Born at a time of great social turbulence and crisis, IWD inherited a tradition of protest and political activism. In the years before 1910, from the turn of the 20th century, women in industrially developing countries were entering paid work in some numbers. Their jobs were sex segregated, mainly in textiles, manufacturing and domestic services where conditions were wretched and wages worse than depressed. Trade unions were developing and industrial disputes broke out, including among sections of non-unionised women workers. In Europe, the flames of revolution were being kindled.
Many of the changes taking place in women's lives pushed against the political restrictions surrounding them. Throughout Europe, Britain, America and, to a lesser extent, Australia, women from all social strata began to campaign for the right to vote. There were many different perspective's on why this issue was important and how to achieve it. I mention here only a few of these differences.
Some socialists saw the demand for the women's vote as being unnecessarily divisive in the working class movement, while others such as German Clara Zetkin and Russian Alexandra Kollontai successfully fought for it to be accepted as a necessary part of a socialist program. Other socialists argued that it was more important to do away with property rights in respect to the vote than it was to campaign for the women's vote which, if successful in England, would by implication mean votes for women of property.
There were other divisions within the English suffragette movement about the way the movement was autocratically run from the top and about the sort of radical tactics adopted. Sylvia Pankhurst split with her more famous mother and sister over such issues, arguing that the main emphasis should be on connecting with and involving the mass of women, which meant also taking up the concerns of the sorely exploited working class women. She also argued that the suffragette movement should link itself with all other oppressed groups.
In the United States in 1903, women trade unionists and liberal professional women who were also campaigning for women's voting rights set up the Women's Trade Union League to help organise women in paid work around their political and economic welfare. These were dismal and bitter years for many women with terrible working conditions and home lives riven by poverty and often violence.
In 1908, on the last Sunday in February, socialist women in the United States initiated the first Women's Day when large demonstrations took place calling for the vote and the political and economic rights of women. The following year, 2,000 people attended a Women's Day rally in Manhattan.
In that year, 1909, women garment workers staged a general strike. 20-30,000 shirtwaist makers struck for 13 cold, winter weeks for better pay and working conditions. The Women's Trade Union League provided bail money for arrested strikers and large sums for strike funds.
In 1910 Women's Day was taken up by socialists and feminists throughout the country. Later that year delegates went to the second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen with the intention of proposing that Women's Day become an international event. The notion of international solidarity between the exploited workers of the world had long been established as a socialist principle, though largely an unrealised one. The idea of women organising politically as women was much more controversial within the socialist movement. At that time, however, the German Socialist Party had a strong influence on the international socialist movement and that party had many advocates for the rights of women, including leaders such as Clara Zetkin
Inspired by the actions of US women workers and their socialist sisters, Clara Zetkin ;had already framed a proposal to put to the conference of socialist women that women throughout the world should focus on a particular day each year to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women's clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin's suggestion with unanimous approval and International Women's Day was the result.
That conference also reasserted the importance of women's right to vote, dissociated itself from voting systems based on property rights and called for universal suffrage - the right to vote for all adult women and men The voice of dissent on this decision came from the English group led by Mrs. Despard of the Women's Freedom League, a group actively engaged in the suffragette movement.
Conference also called for maternity benefits which, despite an intervention by Alexandra Kollontai on behalf of unmarried mothers, were to be for married women only. It also decided to oppose night work as being detrimental to the health of most working women, though Swedish and Danish working women who were present asserted that night work was essential to their livelihood.