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A History of International Women’s Day

There has been some debate as to the true origin of International Women’s Day (IWD), although it is commonly accepted that International Women’s Day was born out of the socialist movement in the early 20th century.

Abigail Smith

By Abigail Smith (MA in Public History at UCD)

International Women’s Day has become a day in which to celebrate and reflect on the achievements and contributions of women around the world. In honor of International Women’s Day, History Hub has curated a playlist of podcasts on some fascinating aspects of women’s history. This includes Dr. Amelia Almorza Hidalgo on ‘Spanish Women on Transatlantic Voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries’, Professor Judith Devlin on the Russian Revolution, and Dr. Frances Nolan on ‘The ‘Jacobite woman’: female ‘outlaws’ after the Williamite-Jacobite war’.

There has been some debate as to the true origin of International Women’s Day (IWD), although it is commonly accepted that International Women’s Day was born out of the socialist movement in the early 20th century. Some origin stories reference a day in 1857, or possibly 50 years later in 1907, when textile workers, facing long hours, low pay, and dangerous conditions took to the streets of New York in protest. In commemoration of these alleged demonstrations, Socialist groups in the United States would celebrate the first National Woman’s Day in February of 1909, marking the last Sunday in February as a commemorative day for women. One year later in 1910 at the International Socialist Women’s Meeting in Copenhagen, which preceded the general meeting of the Second International, Luise Zietz, a German Socialist and political leader, suggested the establishment of an International Woman’s Day. This was seconded by Clara Zetkin, another prominent German activist, and the international celebration was born.

The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on 19 March 1911, and more than one million women and men from Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland participated in IWD rallies. Demands such as an end to gender discrimination and rights to work, train, vote, and hold political office were at the forefront of their campaign.

On 8 March 1917 (in Russia, this would have been 23 February 1917, based on the calendar at the time), Russian women in Petrograd took to the streets in the name of International Women’s Day to protest living conditions, rising food prices, and recent layoffs. The continued protests would begin the February Revolution, which resulted in the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. This event would establish International Women’s Day on 8 March, with Lenin officially naming it a communist holiday in 1922. It would be adopted by other socialist nations in 1949 and was celebrated, primarily by those nations, until the late 1960s.

In 1975, the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March. 1975 was also deemed International Women’s Year, beginning the UN Decade for Women. The UN held 3 international conferences centered on the status of women over the next decade in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985) with an additional conference in 1995 in Beijing. 6000 women from 80 countries attended the conferences in Mexico City, 7000 in Copenhagen, and 15,000 in Nairobi. The conferences represented an important time in women’s history, as they marked a strengthening of global networks for non-governmental organizations centered on benefitting women. This phenomenon was also reflected in an improvement in how women’s experiences and voices were considered in global decision making on subjects like development and human rights. Out of these conferences and the Decade for Women, the UN would establish such projects as the Commission on the Status of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. In 2015, the UN established the Sustainable Development Goals, one of which has an explicit focus on gender equality.

Every year, the UN selects a theme for International Women’s Day, over the past decade this has included themes like ‘Women and Men Unite to End Violence Against Women and Girls’ (2009), and ‘Equal Access to Education’ (2011). The 2018 theme for International Women’s Day is ‘Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives’, perhaps harkening back to the work of the early 20th century activists who helped establish this international celebration of women.

 

Further Reading

Charlotte Bunch. ‘Opening Doors for Feminism: UN World Conferences on Women’, Journal of Women’s History 24, no. 4 (2012), pp 213-221.

https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/214867/files/DPI_1804_%5BST_%5DDPI_1804-EN.pdf, accessed 5 March 2018

C. Johnman, F.Sim, and P.Mackie, ’International Women’s Day’ Public Health 132, (2016), pp 1-2.

Helen McCarthy, ‘The Diplomatic History of Global Women’s Rights: The British Foreign Office and International Women’s Year, 1975’, Journal of Contemporary History 50, No. 4, pp. 833 – 853.

https://iwd.uchicago.edu/page/international-womens-day-history#1907 The Early Beginnings,  accessed 22 February, 2018.

https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg5, accessed 22 February, 2018.

http://www.un.org/en/events/womensday/index.shtml, accessed 22 February, 2018.

http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/women/, accessed 22 February, 2018.

http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/history.htm, accessed 22 February, 2018.

http://www.unwomen.org/en/csw, accessed 22 February, 2018.

Temma Kaplan, ‘On the socialist origins of International Women’s Day’, Feminist Studies 11, No. 1 (1985), pp. 163-171.

Image: ‘Poster for Women’s Day, March 8, 1914. Claiming voting right for women’ by Karl Maria Stadler (1888 – nach 1943) (Scan from an old book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons