By Payten Humphreys
Every year on 8 March, celebrations and protests across the globe signal the historical observance of International Women’s Day (IWD). Recognised in over 100 countries, this day honours the progress that women have courageously fought for through centuries of patriarchal paradigms, while simultaneously shedding light on the disparities women still face today. However, this acclaimed, international holiday did not appear overnight, and it is vital to reflect on the revolutionary history of this significant day.
The Beginning of a Movement
In a time when women were gathering strength in their fight for their rights, pushing back against the oppression they were facing across social, economic and political spheres of life, early 20th century New York City was the backdrop for the beginning of what we know as 8 March today. In 1908, with a turnout of nearly 15,000 women, garment workers took to the streets to protest gruesome working conditions and low pay in the city’s textile factories as well as voting rights.
The following year the Socialist Party of America organised the first National Woman’s Day in honour of these workers on 28 February 1909. It was this first recognition that prompted the day’s connection to, specifically, working women’s rights, especially in the early days of this movement.
The National Woman’s Day was seemingly a success because the idea quickly caught on across Europe. At the second International Conference for Working Women in 1910, the idea was proposed to commemorate an international women’s day, with a suggestion of a more general title – ‘Woman’s Day’, led by Clara Zetkin, a prominent German activist and advocate for women’s rights.
According to the official International Women’s Day website, this conference was attended by 100 women from 17 different countries that were speaking for socialist parties, working women’s clubs, etc. However, no matter the group they were representing, they all unanimously agreed to the idea to help advocate for equal rights, and as a result, International Women’s Day was born.
The First IWD
Nevertheless, no specified date had been determined at the conference, and therefore, the first official International Women’s Day did not happen on 8 March. Missing the now-celebrated anniversary by eleven days, the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March 1911. Across these countries, over 1 million people had joined in to be proponents for women’s rights. Emphasising the socialist roots, this day overlapped with the fortieth anniversary of the Paris Commune, a socialist government that was in control of France in 1871, and efforts were made to honour the martyrs of this day.
Back over in the United States, National Woman’s Day was still being celebrated on the last Sunday in February. According to Tempa Kaplan’s On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day, socialist women joined together with the suffragists in a unified demonstration to march to local government hearings in Boston on 23 February 1911. The turnout of socialist women was so large that a journalist from Women’s Journal was quoted saying that “the socialist women seem to be the only ones earnest enough to parade for the cause,” further demonstrating the United States’ weariness of the socialist roots of IWD.
In Europe, World War I was perpetuating a deeper onslaught of inequalities towards women, and rallies and protests were appearing all across the continent to stand against the war and champion for peace. In Russia, International Women’s Day became a way to further campaign their efforts, and the country marked its first official International Women’s Day on the last Saturday of February in 1913.
The Russian Revolution
While it was years later, it was not until 1917 that the most monumental International Women’s Day demonstration was witnessed. In Russia, food shortages were constant, living conditions were abysmal, war deaths were in the millions and women were ready to protest. On 23 February 1917, in what is now known as the “Bread and Peace” strike, almost 100,000 Russian women and men marched, demanding the passing of a woman’s right to vote and the end of World War I. The strike went on for four days when finally the Czar gave in and women were granted the right to vote.
At the time, Russia had not yet adopted the Gregorian calendar, and 23 February in the Russian calendar translated to 8 March in the western world. Therefore, as a commemoration of that day, it was decided that the official date of International Women’s Day was to be 8 March.
Post-World War II and International Observance
With International Women’s Day’s popularity in socialist and communist countries, it was not until after World War II and well into the 1970s when other countries began to widely adopt the holiday. It became more accepted after a year-long dedication to International Women’s Year in 1975 when the United Nations officially declared 8 March as International Women’s Day. Looking for new ways to promote and advocate for women, in 1977, the United Nations’ General Assembly welcomed the Member States to celebrate United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace, which could be marked on any day of the year.
Flashing forward to 2021, it is remarkable to see that International Women’s Day is now celebrated and recognised as an official holiday in more than 100 countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Germany (some parts of the country), Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia.
The rich, blended history of this day symbolises the solidarity and the breathtaking diversity of journeys that women have been on. Through hardships, battles and demonstrations of strength in the face of adversity, 8 March serves as a reminder of the achievements and progress women have fearlessly and rightfully obtained.
However, with the celebration, this day serves to increase visibility of the disparate reality of unequal pay, opportunity and violence against women that still exists today. It is a day to celebrate the battles that were fought and join together to challenge the struggles against women that still run rampant today.