A Brief History of International Women's Day


March 8 marks International Women's Day-  a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. But how did it come about and when did we start to celebrate it? 

The marking of International Women's Day dates back to the early 1900s, a time where radical ideas including women's rights grew in popularity. Around this time, strikes and marches for women's rights became an increasingly common occurrence particularly in Britain and America.

 Clara Zetkin (left) & Rosa Luxemburg on their way 
to the SPD Congress. Magdeburg, 1910

In 1909, the Socialist Party of America declared 28 February  National Women's Day and this was celebrated across the United States. This day was celebrated annually on the last Sunday of February until around 1913. A year later, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Women's section of the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutchschlands proposed the idea of an International Women's Day at the Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen. The idea was that women across the globe could celebrate and demand equal rights on the same day together. The idea was largely welcomed by other women at the conference and so International Women's Day was born.

In 1911, International Women's Day was celebrated for the first time on 19 March. Over 1 millions women and men across the globe went on strike and held rallies to demand equal rights for women including the right to work and the right to vote. 

Fast forward to 1913-14, International Women's Day was observed for the first time in Russia. The country was on the brink of war and women marched for peace on 23 February .You may see some differences between dates of International Women's Day around this time - Russia used the Julian calendar which meant celebrations were held on 23 February where as the majority of the rest of the world used the Gregorian calendar meaning celebrations landed on March 8, the current date we mark IWD. In 1914, the day was largely consumed with campaigns for either peace or solidarity in relation to the forthcoming war. 

International Women's Day 1917 Russia via
Wikimedia Commons

International Women's Day of 1917 will go down in Russian history. Russian women went on strike for "bread and peace" as Russia was feeling the devastating effects of the First World War. over 90,000 Russian workers joined the protests. Despite resistance from the Russian political leaders, the women continued to protest for many days. It was these protests that sparked the Russian Revolution that forced the Tsar to abdicate and Russian women were soon granted the right to vote. 

International Women's Day was first celebrated by the United Nations in 1975 and in 1977, the General Assembly of the UN proclaimed "a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions". Since then, the UN has held conferences to mark the occasion and from 1996 they introduced annual themes to focus discussions.

Over 100 years later, International Women's Day is recognised and celebrated annually across the globe. 

Further Reading

"History of International Women's Day" International Women's Day
"History of Women's Day", United Nations
Orlando Figes, "The Women's Protest that Sparked the Russian Revolution", The Guardian, (March 2017)
Mary Davis, "The Origins Of International Women's Day", Marx Memorial Library


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