Festa della Donna commemorates women’s rights

Mary Ann Pinto
March 8, 2007

When boyfriends, husbands and employers give sprigs of yellow mimosa to their girlfriends, wives and female employees, you know it’s Women’s Day. When all the female members of the household abandon the men to go out to dinner in festive groups, you know it’s Women’s Day. While most people can tell you that La Festa della Donna is a day dedicated to women’s rights, few can explain the origins of this international holiday.


Most Italians believe that La Festa della Donna is celebrated on March 8 to commemorate the anniversary of a fire which ravaged a New York factory, causing the death of numerous women workers. In reality, the tragedy took place on March 25, 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located on the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the Asche Building in lower Manhattan caught fire, and 146 of the factory’s 500 employees perished. Most of them were immigrant women and children.

The fire began on the eighth floor and spread rapidly because of the presence of highly flammable paper patterns, fabric and sewing machine oil. The doors to the rooms where the young women worked opened inwards and were almost always locked, to keep the employees in and union organizers out. As their hair and clothing caught fire, these desperate young women realized their only option was to jump from the building’s windows. When the fire engines finally arrived and ladders were put up, the longest one reached only the sixth floor. Onlookers watched in horror as the fire escape broke and the firemen spread their safety nets, only to find that the nets weren’t strong enough to hold those who jumped into them.


Public opinion was deeply shaken by the magnitude of this tragedy. Anne Morgan, niece of J. P. Morgan and member of the Women’s Trade Union League, called an urgent meeting of workers and community leaders at the Metropolitan Opera House on April 2. Together, they formed a commission to investigate working conditions in factories. As a result, much-needed laws designed to guarantee a higher level of safety in New York factories passed through the state legislature. Other states soon passed similar laws. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire gave so much impetus to the women’s rights movement that it is mistakenly believed to be the origin of Women’s Day.


So how, exactly, does March 8 come into play? For more than a century, this has been the traditional date to hold strikes for woman’s rights, starting with an 1857 protest in which hundreds of female garment workers united to demand higher wages, improved working conditions and a work day of less than 12 hours. Almost 50 years later, on March 8, 1909, more than 15,000 women marched in New York once more, demanding better working conditions and the right to vote. This strike was part of a three-month process, where strikers were supported in their efforts by the Women’s Trade Union League, a group of middle- and upper-class women. At this time, strikers won some concessions for better wages and shorter hours, but their demands for safer working conditions were completely ignored.


The official recognition of Woman’s Day is the product of a long struggle, which represents more than a century of international efforts. The holiday originated in the United States, where it is currently almost completely overlooked. In 1908, a group of American Socialist women met in Chicago and organized the first national observance of Women’s Day, which took place on February 28, 1909. Other women’s groups across the globe soon followed suit. In 1910, Women Socialists International met in Copenhagen, Denmark, and presented a proposal to establish International Women’s Day in commemoration of the 1857 garment workers’ strike. The proposal was unanimously approved by representatives from 17 countries.


The following year, on March 19, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated. The United Nations charter, issued in 1945, proclaimed equality for women as a fundamental right. Italy’s La Festa della Donna came into existence that same year, when a group of women met in Rome on March 8 and passed a resolution to observe International Women’s Day. When they met the following year, they chose mimosa to be the holiday’s symbolic flower, perhaps because it blooms in almost every Roman garden in March.


In 1975, the United Nations declared March 8 International Woman’s Day. In Italy and other developed countries, women have made a great deal of progress toward achieving equal rights, and they occupy high professional and political positions, but this is not the case everywhere. Italian women can be proud that they were among the first to observe International Women’s Day. As they pin sprigs of mimosa on their jackets and dine with their friends to celebrate women’s achievements, they will also remember the need to continue striving for political, economic and social equality for all women in their country and the rest of the world.

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