March 8th is International Women’s Day. We are looking at the innovator of the holiday, the earliest version of this holiday. Theresa Malkiel.
Theresa Malkiel was born in Bar, Russian Empire(now Central Ukraine) in 1874. Her family fled Jewish persecution from the Russian Empire, landing in Manhattan in 1891. Theresa began working like many women of the time in garment factories. She quickly organized a union for fellow garment factory workers in New York, while becoming President of the Union. She represented the Union in numerous labor federations. She joined the Socialist Party of America in 1899. Malkiel was elected to the Woman’s National Committee of the Socialist Party in 1909. As a delegate, she strived to bring more women to the party. One action she undertook was National Woman’s Day, as a way to support Women’s Suffrage. The first two Woman’s Days took place in late February. Observed in New York City and Philadelphia and internationally by other socialist parties. Before International Women’s Day was adopted as a holiday by international socialists.
Malkiel headed south to speak for the Socialist party in 1911. She learned of the racial segregation in the party and was appalled after learning that the party denied an invitation to speak in front of thousands of black socialists. Later on the tour, after discovering black due-paying socialists were denied entry to the speech. She organized a speech outside of the meeting hall for the members who were denied. After the tour, Malkiel publicly attacked Southern Socialists in the New York Call, “Lord preserve us from this kind of Socialists…We must not preach Socialism to the negroes because the white workingmen are foolish enough to allow their masters to arouse their prejudices against their fellow workers in order to keep them divided so as to play off one against the other.”
Malkiel in the last few decades of her life focused on adult education. She founded the Brooklyn Adult Students Association. Malkiel acted as an administrator for classes and summer camps and worked to educate and naturalize foreign-born women.
Theresa Malkiel fell to the waste side when it comes to history. When she died in 1949, her description read as the following “widow of a well-known New York Lawyer.” For someone who dedicated her life to improving the lives of workers, women, and black Americans, it is sad to see her reduced to who she married.