The History of International Women’s Day

March 8th marks International Women’s Day, an annual celebration of the social, political, cultural and economic achievements of women across the world. The day is not only important for celebrating the existing achievements of women, but also for advocating for further gender equality. Many use the day as an opportunity to raise awareness of gender-based inequalities and to take actionable steps to help fight these inequalities through supporting non-profit organisations focused on women’s issues.

Each year the day has a different theme and this year’s campaign theme is ‘choose to challenge’. By choosing to challenge we ensure that we remain alert to the inequalities faced by women and that those around us remain alert to them too. Choosing to challenge also means taking actionable steps to work towards eradicating those inequalities and challenging others to do so too. Many women before us chose to challenge the injustices in their societies. We can recognise and celebrate their actions and achievements through understanding the history and development of International Women’s Day itself.

International Women’s Day was officially recognised and celebrated by the United Nations in 1977, but March 8th has been a significant day for women and their achievements in the wider labour movement since the beginning of the twentieth century. This is largely because two of the most prevalent issues that united women internationally at the time related to labour: the struggle for women to access fair working conditions and the fight for female franchise.

On February 28th, 1909, the Socialist Party of America organised a ‘Women’s Day’ in New York City. The day was organised to honour a garment workers’ strike which had taken place on March 8th the previous year in New York, and saw many women protesting their unfair working conditions. The women involved in the demonstration demanded the right to form their own union and the right to vote. The demonstration eventually resulted in the first permanent trade unions for women workers in the US.

Inspired by the 1909 Women’s Day, German delegates at the 1910 International Socialist Women’s conference in Copenhagen proposed that a ‘special women’s day’ should be organised and celebrated annually. This Women’s Day would be international, honour the movement for women’s rights and build support for the campaign for women’s suffrage which was ongoing at the time. In the following year on 19th March, the first Women’s Day of this kind was held. Whilst March 8th was favoured, the decision was made to hold the event on March 19th in commemoration of the 1848 Revolution and the 1871 Paris Commune, where a socialist, revolutionary government ruled Paris for two months. The women who observed the 1911 Women’s Day used the day to demand for women’s right to vote and to hold public office, as well as their right to work, to vocational training and to the end of discrimination against women at work. In subsequent years the day was also used by women to protest against World War I and to advocate for peace.

On March 8th, 1917 (Gregorian Calendar), many women workers in Russia protested for ‘peace and bread’. The demonstration spread quickly from factory to factory and is viewed by many as the catalytic event for the Russian Revolution. Four days after the demonstration the Russian Czar abdicated and the Provisional Government came into power and granted women the right to vote. In 1922, in recognition of the achievements of the women of 1917, Lenin declared that March 8th would be celebrated as International Women’s Day. In subsequent years it was celebrated as a national holiday in the Soviet Union and other socialist and communist countries.

In 1967 the day was adopted by the second-wave feminist movement and re-emerged as a day of activism. Joined by labour and leftist groups they advocated not only for equal pay and equal economic opportunities, but also for reproductive rights, subsidised childcare, equal legal rights, and the end to violence against women and girls.

1975 was hailed ‘International Women’s Year’ by the United Nations. In 1975 a conference on the status of women was held by the United Nations in Mexico City. The conference established a set of goals for countries to achieve over the following ten years in order to advance the position of women and women’s rights internationally. Thus, the years 1976–1985 were designated the ‘Decade for Women’. As part of International Women’s Year, the United Nations officially recognised the first annual International Women’s Day, to be celebrated on March 8th in recognition of the date’s rich history and significance in the historic fight for women’s rights and freedoms.

In the spirit of the women who came before us, it is important that we continue to use our words and actions to call out, challenge and fight against the inequalities that women continue to face in our society.

  • Bethan Gilson, CWA Volunteer