THE BLOG
03/08/2008 08:55 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Today's 100th Anniversary of Women's Day

Today, March 8, is the 100th Women's Day -- "International Women's Day" -- and it has been little noted in New York City despite having been born here.

One hundred years ago today 15,000 women workers marched down Fifth Avenue. Many of their goals were advanced by the largely successful 13-week shirtwaist workers' strike of 1909. The tragic Triangle Fire of 1911 sparked more progress and the suffrage parades in New York City and Washington in 1912-13 led via picketing of the White House in 1917 directly to woman suffrage in 1920. Despite these victories and the fact that women are better educated than men, working women are still trailing men in pay, and Wall Street women report that they are earning less than men doing comparable jobs.

Descriptions of Women's Day hark back to March 8, 1857, when needle workers in New York City reportedly demonstrated for higher wages, a reduction in the workday from 12 to 10 hours, and no uncompensated work. Their protest was reportedly dispersed by shots from an army unit and by the arrest of 70 workers.

The two key woman suffrage leaders of the second half of the 19th century -- Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony -- failed to obtain votes for women and died disappointed in 1902 and 1906. Their leadership torches were picked up by a new generation of brave women leaders who succeeded in their goal. The year Susan B died, the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union was founded. Needle workers in New York protested on March 8, 1908 under the auspices of Branch No. 3 of the New York City Social Democratic Women's Society. Women marched down Manhattan for better pay and a shorter workday -- and in addition they called for woman suffrage and better protection against child labor. These goals seemed largely achieved in the 1950s, but these victories became hollow when the brands started moving their production overseas.

In 1908 and 1909, the needle workers benefited from the support of wealthy women like Alva Vanderbilt Belmont and Anne Morgan, and also from a large contingent of volunteers from women's colleges like Bryn Mawr and Vassar. One of the most visible of the women in 1908 was Inez Milholland, a junior at Vassar College who became an icon of the suffragists in 1911 and 1912 when she rode horseback in costume at the head of the suffrage parades. She signed up two-thirds of Vassar students in a suffrage organization. She was forbidden to hold a suffrage meeting on the Vassar campus, so she scheduled it across the road at Poughkeepsie's Calvary cemetery in June 1908. Vassar's President Taylor had threatened to expel anyone who attended, but faculty and alumnae showed up along with 40 students and he thought better of expulsion.

During the 13-week strike of 1909, Inez Milholland was a law student at NYU, located next door to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory on Washington Square East. She picketed with the workers and explained to them their rights. She was called "the fairest of the Amazons" by the NY Times. In 1916 she campaigned against Woodrow Wilson for not supporting the Anthony Amendment to give women the right to vote, and she collapsed during the strenuous effort, dying from pernicious anemia, exhaustion and bad medical care while she was traveling. Her death precipitated White House picketing and President Wilson's capitulation. The suffrage amendment was finally ratified in 1920, 80 years after it became a gleam in Stanton's eye and 50 years after the vote was given to all men.

So now it's nearly 90 years after women got the vote. Has the right to vote spelled equality for women? In the educational area, increasingly so. Women are now becoming better educated than men. Women receive 58 percent of the bachelor degrees and 61 percent of the master's degrees in the United States. Of women 16 years and older, 37 percent work in management, professional and related occupations, compared with 31 percent for men. But women in the United States still earn just 77 cents for every $1 earned by men. Of the 259 members of the Financial Women's Association just surveyed in New York City, 96 percent say they get paid less than men for comparable work. In 2008, 86 women serve in the 110th U.S. Congress, just 16 percent of the 535 seats. The proportion of women in state legislatures is slightly higher, 24 percent.

The U.N. supports and promotes International Women's Day, but it is promoting women at a slower rate than men. In 2006 and 2007, the number of women appointed as directors (D-1 and D-2s), assistant-secretaries-general (ASG) and under-secretaries general (USG) was 25 percent, with 38 percent in the professional categories.

The worst news is how poorly women fare in developing countries dominated by non-Western culture. Women's choices are severely limited and in some countries women have few human rights. International Women's Day therefore needs to grow in importance not just to celebrate the achievements of suffragists but also to extend these rights -- in the United States and globally.