Today, March 8th is International Women’s Day.
- A day dedicated to celebrating the cultural, social, and political achievements of women.
- A day to reflect on the issues that they still face globally.
But when did International Women’s Day start, who started it?
History of International Women’s Day
To unravel the true history of Women’s Day we need to go back over 100 years. The first hints of it appear around 1900. The German Social Democratic Party was holding conferences to discuss women’s issues. Such as the fact that they weren’t allowed to vote.
By 1907 the International Conference of Socialist Women had gathered in Stuttgart, Germany. This was led by Clara Zetkin a German Marxist from the German Social Democratic Party. One of her primary goals was to get women into work so that they could take part in workers’ rights organizations. So they had the means to improve their own conditions.
At the conference, they demanded
“the right to universal female suffrage without qualifications of property, tax, education or any other kind of barrier which may hinder members of the working class from availing themselves of their political rights.”
Across the ocean, in the US the Socialist Party and the Women’s national committee had declared the first Woman’s Day. Marching through the streets of New York they protested for better pay and working conditions. Which took place on the 28th of February 1909. The March 8th date hadn’t been set yet.
Following this, a second International Conference of Working Women came together in 1910. There in Copenhagen over 100 delegates from across the world came together. Clara Zetkin pushed the idea of an International Woman’s Day. A day every year and in every country where women could organize and press for equal rights. After a unanimous vote, International Woman’s Day was born.
These women at the conference were pushing some other revolutionary ideas.
- They demanded an eight-hour working day.
- They proposed that pregnant women stop working for eight weeks prior to giving birth and that women be paid “motherhood insurance” of eight weeks if the child lived and all working women would enjoy these benefits, including agricultural laborers, home workers, and maidservants.
- These policies would be paid for by a special maternity fund out of tax revenues.
- These policies were supposed to not only help mothers and keep them safe but also pay women for the essential non-paid work that kept society functioning while allowing them to remain in the paid workforce.
This heavily influenced the ideas of maternity and paternity leave that are common in nearly all developed countries today.
From its very starts International Woman’s Day was a day for working women and its goal was to address their issues. Following this. International Woman’s Day celebrations sprang up across Europe.
The first European celebration of International Woman’s Day happened in Vienna on March 18, 1911. Women marched around the famous Ring Strasse carrying banners including red flags commemorating the martyrs of the Paris Commune and demanding the equal right to vote. Millions of flyers soon carpeted Germany.
Their words were:
“Comrades! Working Women and Girls! March 19 is your day. It is your right. Behind your demand stands Social Democracy, organized labor. The Socialist women of all countries are in solidarity with you. March 19 should be your day of glory!”
More than a million women took to the streets in Germany. Crying out for equality. The fervor continued into 1912 with the Lawrence Textile Strike in the US, better known as the Bread and Roses Strike.
Bread and Roses was the slogan coined by Rose Schneiderman. A Polish-born American socialist and feminist. During her speech, she said,
“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”.
In other words, workers need more than just wages to survive, the bread. They also need dignity and decent working standards, roses.
More and more demonstrations took place as Woman’s day continued to be celebrated. But then the world decided to have a war. A First World War. Across Europe, political demonstrations such as Woman’s Day were cracked down on to keep peace on the home front. To oppose this war, Clara Zetkin organized the third and final Socialist Women’s Conference in April 1915. It drew delegates from across the globe including people such as Nadezhda Krupskaya and her husband, Vladimir Lenin.
They stated that the war only benefited the rich and the arms manufacture and stole away the sons and husbands of mothers. The war went on despite all the efforts of these women, but the idea of Woman’s Day also went on.
Celebration of International Woman’s Day
The most dramatic celebration of International Woman’s Day was in 1917 in Russia. Led by feminist Alexandra Kollontai. She is a recipient of the Order of the Aztec Eagle award, which is completely unrelated but I just thought was badass. Women’s Day had already caused a ruckus in Russia. Russian women had observed their first International Woman’s Day in 1913. The following year all the organizers of the International Woman’s Day in Russia ended up in handcuffs. Which kind of dampened the celebrations. But the war had changed things quite quickly.
By 1917 the number of women working in factories had skyrocketed as men marched off to war. The women replacing them were paid half as much. On top of this women found themselves mostly working in the textile and chemical industries. Ones with long hours and horrific conditions. Things came to a boiling point on International Woman’s Day 1917 as women took to the streets to protest their mistreatment. Storming the streets of Petrograd on February 23rd or March 8th on our calendar, women struck against war, starvation, and the Czar. In their thousands they marched through the streets calling out to factory workers, men, and women alike, to join them.
Two days later nearly every industry in Petrograd had ground to a halt. The protests weren’t just made up of workers anymore either. Students, teachers, and those across the economic spectrum joined in. Czar Nicholas ordered the military to shot if they deemed it necessary. Soldiers and police smashed into the demonstrators. But to no avail, they couldn’t be stopped. The women had managed to convince whole regiments to switch sides and join them.
As Leon Trotsky tells us this about women.
“They go up to the cordons more boldly than men, take hold of the rifles, beseech, almost command, ‘Put down your bayonets; join us!”
Russia’s February Revolution had begun. Trotski wrote,
“23 February (8th March) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this ‘Woman’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution.”
7 days after International Women’s Day, Czar Nicholas II abdicated, ending 304-years of Romanov rule over Russia. The provisional government became one of the first governments of a major power to grant women the right to vote.
In 1921, Clara Zetkin and the Second International Conference of Communist Women in Moscow stated that March 8th would now be the official date. Lenin, with help from Zetkin, made International Woman’s Day a communist holiday in 1922.
Communists in China started celebrating it that year as well. These things were eventually destroyed by Stalin. In 1936, he reversed most liberal policies and banned abortion. Women’s right to vote would become useless afterward. But the idea still remained and the revolutionary spirit that caused them to be won in the first place couldn’t be done away with.
With its connection to Communism and Russia, Woman’s day fell out of favor in the West. Especially as women gained the right to vote and people considered women’s fight for rights to be over. The US gripped with panic and fear at the thought of communism’s existence, disowned the day entirely.
After 1922 information on it becomes scarce. Sometime during the 1940s, it seems to have switched names from Woman’s Day to Women’s Day.
And so this day. One that had inspired working women of the 20th century. One that had been the rallying cry for rights and the fuel for a revolution was hidden behind an iron curtain.
International Women’s Day remained a major holiday only celebrated in socialist countries up until the 1970s. But as Flower Power took hold in the late sixties, feminists brought the celebration back and gave it new meaning as the women’s movement grew.
How 8th March became the day of celebration?
Most of the international community did not formally observe the date until 1975. The UN celebrated International Women’s Year that year, with Valentina Tereshkova the first woman in space acting as the Soviet representative. Since 1975 the UN officially celebrated International Women’s Day on March 8th.
International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in many countries. On this day feminist demonstrations are held in many countries. Because even though those early revolutionary women of the 20th century achieved an enormous deal for women’s rights.
Do we still need a day for women?
The sad fact is that globally, women still earn less than their male counterparts, they are less represented in business and politics, they suffer greater risks of violence, and carry the burdens of family care nearly singlehandedly. But every year brings more progress. From Kabul to Kentucky every International Women’s Day celebrates a new year with more powerful women as this revolutionary day continues to inspire women just like it did over a century ago.
Is there any theme for International Women’s Day 2021?
Purple, green, and white are the colors of International Women’s Day.
- Purple signifies justice and dignity.
- Green symbolizes hope.
- White represents purity.
These colors originated from the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) in the UK in 1908.
This year IWD community declared the 2021 International Women’s Day theme, which is Choose To Challenge. From challenges comes change. Let’s celebrate this amazing day and support our mother wife and sisters.