International Women’s Day has been around for more than a century. It started as socialist demonstrations and has now evolved into an official holiday in more than two dozen countries, a United Nations day for women’s rights and world peace, and, well, a marketing opportunity for Barbie dolls, cosmetics and beer (because capitalism). Not to mention its preeminent hashtagability.
But, of course, it’s not all marketing. Women in history have gathered together to protest, rebel and, in some cases, riot.
Here are seven of the greatest women-led protests, in honor of the holiday’s more egalitarian roots:
You have probably heard of the Boston Tea Party, when American colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston Harbor to protest a royal tax. But did you know there was a women-led tea party a few months later? On Oct. 25, 1774, Penelope Barker organized 50 women to join her in protesting the Tea Act in Edenton, N.C. Their “tea party” probably didn’t involve more than signing a strongly worded letter and vowing to stop drinking tea, but that was apparently enough to create a stir in England. In fact, the only contemporaneous records of the event that remain are from the British dissing it, including the above satirical drawing depicting the women pretty crudely.
At the start of the French Revolution — post-Bastille storming but long before all those heads started to roll — French women had a moment. Angry about the high price and lack of bread in the markets, they began to riot, storming the armory for weapons and, with revolutionary men joining them, marching on the palace at Versailles. They arrived at dawn on Oct. 6, 1789, invaded King Louis XVI’s bedroom and “accompanied” him, against his will, back to Paris. And that was it for an independent French monarchy.
In 1891, when a bill came up in New Zealand’s Parliament that would give women the right to vote, local suffrage activists dispersed petitions throughout the country in support. Nine thousand women signed; the bill passed the lower House of Representatives but was defeated in the upper body, the Legislative Council. The next year, the bill came up again. This time 20,000 women signed petitions, but the bill was again defeated in the Legislative Council. Then, in 1893, the bill came up for a third time; 32,000 women — a full quarter of all the European women in New Zealand — signed petitions delivered to the Parliament. When it passed the House, suffragists held huge rallies and sent flurries of telegrams to persuade members of the Legislative Council. It worked; the bill passed 20-18, and the colonial governor signed it, making New Zealand the first self-governing country to allow women to vote. (This meant white and Maori women; because of a nationhood requirement, Chinese immigrant women were excluded.)
Though socialist women in the United States and Europe had been holding “International Women’s Day” demonstrations for several years, Russian women took it to a new level in 1917. On March 8 (still February by the Russian calendar), female textile workers in the capital went on strike, demanding an end to World War I, an end to food shortages and an end to czarist rule. They asked male factory workers to join them, and according to revolutionary Leon Trotsky, 90,000 people struck that day. The next day, it doubled. The czar abdicated less than a week later. Since 1975, the United Nations has celebrated March 8 as International Women’s Day.
Abeokuta is now a city in Nigeria, but in the 1940s, it was a city-state under the control of British colonial authorities via a local puppet alake (king). There, a woman named Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti started a “ladies’ club” for educated women like her. But soon Kuti and her club united with market women who were being unfairly taxed. Over the protracted struggle, tens of thousands of women marched, sang abusive (read: hilarious) songs outside the alake’s compound and, according to The Washington Post’s Hannah Jewell in her book “She Caused a Riot,” stripped and beat male authorities who opposed them. Some of the older women may have also engaged in revolutionary flashing. It took a while, but it worked; the taxes were overturned, and the alake abdicated and went into exile. (And if that last name Kuti looks familiar to you, yes, she was the mother of legendary musician Fela.)
There were a lot of terrible things about the apartheid regime. One of the worst was the “pass laws,” which prohibited black men from moving freely through the country without a permit. In 1952, the government moved to implement pass laws on women, too, sparking protests. On Aug. 9, 1956, nearly 20,000 women joined in protest in the capital, Pretoria. It was a remarkably multiracial gathering for a country where mixing between races was banned. The leaders delivered petitions against the pass laws to the government, then stood with the crowd in silent protest for nearly half an hour before breaking out in song. The expression “You strike a woman, you strike a rock” originates from this moment. Aug. 9 is now recognized as Women’s Day in South Africa.