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“The Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives!” – Slogan of the United Nations for the International Women’s Day 2018

Still celebrated across the world every year, the International Women’s Day is dedicated today, according to a statement of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres in March 2018to “achieving gender equality and empowering women and girls is the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.” Unknown to many is the history of the International Women’s Day.

The holiday first emerged in 1909 in New York when the Socialist Party of America designated February 28 to honor the female garment workers strike in New York City in 1906. At this strike, women protested for better working conditions, such as shorter hours, better pay, and equal voting rights. On the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, which saw over 100 women from across seventeen different countries, the leading German Social Democrat and secretary of the International Socialist Women’s organization, Clara Zetkin (1857-1933), supported by her German comrade Luise Zietz (1865-1922), proposed to celebrate every year in the spring an International Women’s Day to honor the women’s rights movement and to support its struggle for universal women’s suffrage. Her suggestion was met with unanimous approval. Though the group did not select a date, their aims were clear: to improve the working and living conditions of working class women, equalize citizenship rights including universal suffrage and the right to hold office, and push for women’s right to employment, vocational training, and an end to workplace discrimination. A year later, the International Women’s Socialist organization celebrated the first International Women’s Day, involving demonstrations by over a million people in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Denmark. Until the start of the First World War in 1914, the International Women’s Day was celebrated by the socialist and social democrat women’s movement in more and more countries to publicly demonstrate for their demands.

During the February Russian, women used the International Women’s Day to demonstrate, protest and strike for “Bread and Peace” on the last Sunday in February 1917 (which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar). Four days later, the Czar abdicated and the provisional Mensheviks Government granted women the right to vote. In the following year, the last of World War I, socialist women in several European countries protested around 8 March for “Bread and Peace,” held rallies and organized strikes. Since then, March 8 is celebrated by the socialist and communist women’s movement as the central date for the International Women’s Day.

Following the First World War, women in several European countries got the right to vote in 1918-19, but in many other countries they still remained excluded from political, social and civil citizenship rights. Even in the countries, where women had achieved political equality and were given the active and passive suffrage they continued to celebrate the International Women’s Day, because they quickly realized that this right was only the first step towards their emancipation: their discrimination in the economy, society and politics continued. But the resistance against the celebration of this day grew in the Western World during the interwar period and especially after the Second World War. The more the communist countries in Eastern Europe used the International Women’s Day to celebrate their achievements of “women’s emancipation,” the less the day was celebrated in the 1950s and 1960s in the West in the context of the Global Cold War. The history of this day was forgotten; it was depicted as a “communist” event.

This changed with the rise of the new women’s movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Women in the West and in non-aligned countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America re-discovered this day and its history and achieved in 1975, in the International Year of Women of the United Nations, that the UN decided to celebrate from now on every March 8 the International Women’s Day. Feminist activists pointed to the Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, as the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men and demanded that the UN need to do more to realize this goal. The 1995 United Nations International Women’s conference in Beijing agreed on a Platform for Action Declaration, a historic roadmap signed by 189 governments, focused on 12 critical areas of concern, envisioning a world where each woman and girl can exercise her choices, such as participating in politics, getting an education, having an income, and living in societies free from violence and discrimination.

In 2000 the UN included in its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as goal 3 to promote gender equality and empower women. In 2014, the 58th session of the Commission on the Status of Women of the United Nations—the annual gathering of states to address critical issues related to gender equality and women’s rights—focused on “Challenges and Achievements in the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.” UN entities and accredited NGOs from around the world took stock of progress and remaining challenges towards meeting the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The MDGs have played an important role in galvanizing attention on and resources for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The International Women’s Day is still observed each year on March 8 as a day to celebrate the social, political, economic and cultural achievements of women. It also marks a call to action for accelerating gender equality. Events for the holiday are held across the world, at global gatherings, conferences, award celebrations, exhibitions, festivals, fun runs, corporate events, concert performances, speaking events, online and digital gatherings, and more. Today the day is celebrated by different types of groups, ranging from charities to educational and political institutions and government bodies.

Although women have more rights than when the International Women’s Day was established over hundred years ago, they still lack equality. Therefore, is still important to celebrate International Women’s Day as a reminder that there is still work to be done and still rights to be gained. Women still need this day for solidarity in the continuing fight for social and gender equality. Likewise, commemorating the history of International Women’s Day reminds us what it stands for and why it was established. Without knowing this, people wouldn’t know why International Women’s Day is celebrated across the world or why it is important in the first place.

Bailey Aldridge, Journalism and Political Science major, Women’s and Gender Studies minor, Class of 2019


Literature and Websites


Poster of the German Social Democratic Party for the International Women’s Day March 8, 1914: “We Demand the Women’s Suffrage””
Demonstration of Russian women in Petrograd in February 1917 for “Bred and Peace!”
Poster of the German Communist Party for the International Women’s Day, 1932
Poster of the Free Trade Unions in the communist German Democratic Republic for the International Women’s Day 1954
US Poster for the International Women’s Day in 2011
International Women’s Day in Davao City, 2008