The History of International Women’s Day

Published 8th March 2018
Today, International Women’s Day (IWD) will be celebrated around the world, a day to recognise women’s rights movements and women’s achievements. However, the meaning of IWD has changed over the years, and continues to differ between cultures. From a radical political demonstration, a celebration of traditional gender roles, a communist state holiday, to a day of action on gender equality, the various historical connotations of IWD have reflected changing perceptions of women, and contemporary political movements.

The birth of International Women’s Day in the early 20th Century was strongly linked to labour movements and socialism. The earliest Women’s Day was held in New York, on February 28th 1909, and was organised by the Socialist Party of America. In 1910, an International Socialist Women’s Conference, organised in Copenhagen and including women from 17 countries, voted to establish an annual International Woman’s Day to promote equal rights and women’s suffrage. On March 19th 1911, over a million people participated in the first IWD. Demonstrations took place across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with women demanding the right to vote, and protesting against discrimination.

By 1914, IWD had started to take place on March 8th, with demonstrations in Germany, Russia and London. In London, Sylvia Pankhurst, was arrested on her way to speak to the protests, and 10 others were arrested during the protests, which were described by The Times as ‘wild scenes’ involving ‘vast numbers of people’ and ‘inflammatory speeches’. The arrest of Pankhurst, a prominent suffragette and supporter of labour movements, shows the links between IWD with what was seen at the time as radical and violent political movements.

The Russian Revolution began on the 8th March 1917, after women in Saint Petersburg went on strike for “Bread and Peace”, leading to mass strikes and seven days later, the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the granting of women’s right to vote. Following the Communist Revolution, IWD was made an official holiday in the Soviet Union, changing its connotations from a day of radical revolution to an official state-enforced celebration of Soviet women. Following this, IWD was predominantly celebrated by communist countries, heavily coloured by communist ideology, which preached the ideals of gender equality, although in practice women in communist countries still faced inequalities. In the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, IWD was marked by huge Soviet-style celebrations, and after the fall of Communism the day fell out of favour, regarded as a symbol of the old regime.

IWD remains an official holiday in many countries. In some cultures there is a tradition of men giving the women in their lives flowers and small gifts. In others, its meaning remains more radical. In 2007, IWD sparked violent protests in Iran, and police beat hundreds of men and women who were planning a rally. In 1975, the UN began celebrating IWD as a way of recognising women’s achievements, and since then celebrations of IWD have spread globally, becoming a rallying call for support for women’s participation in politics and economics. Today, in the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp, protests are taking place across the world on IWD, to push for progress in gender equality and women’s rights.

Written by Annabel Twose, Project Coordinator for First 100 Years