Looking Back: How Town Hall celebrated International Women’s Day in 1946

In the run up to International Women’s Day, THSH is diving into the archives to explore Birmingham Town Hall’s rich history as a hub of speechmaking, protesting, and campaigning in the suffragette movement, which won the vote for most women 100 years ago last year.


IWD in Town Hall, 15 March 1946

From 1946 there is a poster for ‘International Women’s Day Town Hall Celebrations’. The aim of the celebration will be recognisable  today: ‘To unite all women irrespective of race, politics, creed as wives, mothers, workers, citizens, for peace, equality, security, opportunity … WOMEN’S SACRIFICE must NOT be in VAIN’.

The guest list really demonstrates the changing times in British politics for women. In attendance were Mrs. Mavis Tate, ex-MP from Frome in Somerset, and Mrs. Barbara Lewis, a Liberal parliamentary candidate who had stood for Birmingham Handsworth in the 1945 election. The whole meeting was chaired by the lady Mayoress, to further show the importance of the event.

Barbara Lewis - Liberal Candidate for Handsworth

          Image sourced from Birmingham Images

However, what will be confusing to a modern reader is the date – 15 March 1946. Isn’t international Women’s Day on 8 March?


Why is International Women’s Day on 8 March?

The history and significance of 8 March as International Women’s Day is a bit muddled as it goes back over a century to groups separated by entire continents and political systems.

The first National Women’s Day was suggested by the Socialist Party of America in 1909. Women garment workers in New York had been on strike against low pay and terrible working conditions, and the SPA planned for this Women's Day to be in honour of those strikes, on 28 February.

The next year, 1910, the Socialist International, an alliance of socialist parties from around the world, held its International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. The conference took the idea of a Women’s Day from the SPA and declared an “International Women’s Day”.

This happened in 1911 on 19 March in various countries in Europe to protest the social and political inequality of women in those countries, and demand the right to vote.

In 1917, at the end of “February”, Russian women went on strike against the First World War and their living and working conditions, demanding ‘peace and bread’. The strike was so successful that the Tsar of Russia abdicated and the provisional government that took over gave women the right to vote.

Wikipedia Petrograd Womens Strike

           Image sourced from Wikipedia

The provisional government in turn was overthrown by the Bolsheviks in “October” 1917, establishing the Soviet Union.

Up until this point, Tsarist Russia had been using an old-fashioned calendar which was several days out of sync with the rest of the world because it didn’t have leap years. The Soviet Union (USSR) switched to an accurate calendar after the revolution.

In honour of the role of women in the “February” revolution, Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai created a Women’s Day on 8 March – the day of the “February” revolution adjusted for a correct calendar. The “October Revolution”, which famously started the Soviet Union, also happened in November.

As the twentieth century drew on and the Cold War divided the world, new communist countries started instituting their 8 March International Women’s Days, such as China from 1950 and Cuba from 1959.

In 1975 the United Nations began to observe International Women’s Day, deciding to set it on the same day as the USSR’s Women’s Day, 8 March.

The reason Town Hall’s 1946 International Women’s Day celebrations fell on 15 March is probably because it happened before this international agreement at the United Nations.


Labour’s Women’s Victory Rally

Also in the same year, the West Midlands branch of the Labour Party held a Women’s Victory Rally in June, 1946. Mrs. Attlee, wife of the then-Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was guest of honour.

Img002

          Image sourced from Sandwell CHAS

Also in attendance were two female MPs: Edith Wills, MP for Birmingham Duddeston, and Margaret Bondfield, who had been the first female cabinet minister under Labour Prime Minister, Ramsey Macdonald, in the 1920s.

Margaret Bondfield had also been the chair of the Adult Suffrage Society, a society which campaigned for women’s suffrage. More specifically, as a socialist organisation it campaigned for the right of all women to vote, unlike the WSPU whose demands for the vote only to be given to property-owning women (at least initially) would have excluded working-class women.

The Labour Party’s Chief Woman Officer, Mary Sutherland JP, also gave an address.

Thanks to the Sandwell Community History and Archives Service, you can read the programme for the 1946 Women’s Victory Rally at Town Hall here by clicking on the images below:

          Images sourced from Sandwell CHAS.