Women's History Month Was in Part Spurred By a Russian-Jewish Refugee

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Like many children of Soviet refugees, I grew up celebrating the 8th of March as International Women's Day.

It was an odd socialist vestige, one that even refugees-of-communism turned diehard-capitalists wouldn't let go of. It was a day for extravagant bouquets, kitschy e-cards and tacky toasts, honoring the valiant women in every family. Since then, the day has largely been co-opted by marketers, corporate messengers, and social justice activists alike.

As we near the end of Women’s History Month — the larger umbrella under which International Women’s Day lives — it’s a good time to remember a figure oft-forgotten in American feminist history: A Russian-Jewish refugee named Theresa Serber Malkiel who first established International Women’s Day.

Theresa was born in the town of Bar, now Ukraine, in 1874. At the time, Jews in the Russian Empire were increasingly restricted in where they could reside and work; in 1891, her family fled Russian antisemitism and arrived on the shores of New York.

Here, a 17-year-old Malkiel found work as a cloak-maker on the Lower East Side. Within a year, Malkiel quickly got involved in socialist circles, joining the Russian Workingmen’s Club, and in 1894, she worked to unionize her workplace. Even when she later married a successful lawyer and escaped the sweatshop, eventually moving to Yonkers, she continued to be rattled by the injustices she had seen, and devoted herself to writing and speaking about both workers’ exploitation and women’s rights nationwide.

As an activist, Malkiel began to write about the hypocrisy she saw within the ranks of her party — she saw activists waxing poetic about workers’ rights, but women’s rights were dismissed. “In the heat of the battle for human freedom, the proletarians seem to forget that the woman question is nothing more or less than a question of human rights,” she wrote in her essay, “Where do we stand on the woman question?” in 1909. ”We are told very often to keep quiet about our rights and await the social millennium. Safe advice, rather, for the men.”

Later that year, as head of the Socialist Party’s National Woman’s Committee, Malkiel established National Woman's Day, held in February — largely seen as the precursor to International Women’s Day, now held on March 8th. The resolution was a landmark victory for her as a career activist; in an article for the New York Call socialist paper, she declared that the day would “be celebrated and observed through the length and breadth of our country as a day of woman's coming greatness, as a token of her just demands, as a protest against her present disqualification.”

Also in 1909, Malkiel helped organize the New York shirtwaist strike of mostly Jewish women workers, called the “Uprising of the 20,000,” and went on to publish The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker. The novel fashioned a mythological heroine out of Mary, a young girl activist for workers’ rights; in it, she described the grueling daily lives of Lower East Side working women.

According to the late feminist scholar François Basch, Malkiel chose to make the protagonist a “free-born American” — that is, not an immigrant like herself, or most of the girls she met in the sweatshops — possibly due to “her fear of anti-Semitic reactions from middle-class WASP readers.” For Malkiel, the women’s experience as workers was essential — but she understood that to be credibly heard by her privileged readers, she had to morph into an average American woman — not a Jewish immigrant.

In 1910, a year after Malkiel’s National Woman’s Day in the US, Clara Zetkin introduced the idea of International Women’s Day at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. Eventually recognized on March 8, the day continued to be integrated with the labor rights movement. In 1975, the UN marked International Women’s Day for the first time, and Malkiel’s National Woman’s Day eventually extended into what we know as Women’s History Month.

Malkiel’s oft-forgotten contribution to awareness around women’s rights wasn’t her only battle; she also spoke out against racism in the Socialist party. In 1911, on a speaking tour in the South, Malkiel was shocked by the racism she saw within socialist circles. Her “blood boiling,” she described in a newspaper article how white Socialists refused to allow Black people to attend her lecture in Arkansas. "When our Comrades heard of it they would not allow it, as they claimed it would break up their organization," she wrote. “Lord preserve us from this kind of Socialists.”

Malkiel continued to be active in the party until 1920, when she ran a failed campaign for a seat in the New York State Assembly. It was then that she withdrew from the party and turned her attention to immigrant women's education, her focus until the end of her life in 1949.

It is unclear what pushed Malkiel to withdraw from the party, as the records of her life are rather hazy. Perhaps, as someone who had experienced both antisemitism and misogyny and witnessed racism, Malkiel could no longer identify with a cause that practiced political exceptionalism, in which all women’s rights were not seen as essential, and in which only some identities were deemed worthy of protection, and not others.

Her memory asks hard questions of American women who call themselves progressive yet practice political exceptionalism — those who refuse to do the hard work of undoing their own unconscious biases, including deeply buried antisemitism. This Women’s History Month in particular, with antisemitism soaring and the continued exclusion of certain women from conversations around feminism and protection, Malkiel’s legacy matters more than ever.


Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue