A Brief History of International Women's Day

Women's Equal Rights March
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The purpose of International Women's Day is to bring attention to the social, political, economic, and cultural issues that women face, and to advocate for the advance of women within all those areas. As the organizers of the celebration state, "Through purposeful collaboration, we can help women advance and unleash the limitless potential offered to economies the world over." The day is often also used to recognize women who've made significant contributions to the advancement of their gender.

First Celebration

International Women's Day was first celebrated on March 19 (not the later March 8), 1911. A million women and men rallied in support of women's rights on that first International Women's Day. The idea of an International Women's Day was inspired by America's National Women's Day, February 28, 1909, declared by the Socialist Party of America.

The next year, the Socialist International met in Denmark and delegates approved the idea of an International Women's Day. And so the next year, the first International Women's Day—or as it was first called, International Working Women's Day—was celebrated with rallies in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Celebrations often included marches and other demonstrations.

Not even a week after the first International Women's Day, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women, in New York City. That incident inspired many changes in industrial working conditions, and the memory of those who died has been often invoked as part of International Women's Days from that point on.

Especially in the early years, International Women's Day was connected with working women's rights.

Beyond That First International Women's Day

  • The first Russian observance of International Women's Day was in February 1913.
  • In 1914, with World War I erupting, March 8 was a day of rallies of women against war, or women expressing international solidarity at that time of war.
  • In 1917, on February 23—March 8 on the Western calendar—Russian women organized a strike, a key beginning of events resulting in the czar being toppled.

The holiday was especially popular for many years in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Gradually, it became more of a truly international celebration.

The United Nations celebrated International Women's Year in 1975, and in 1977, the United Nations officially got behind the annual honoring of women's rights known as International Women's Day, a day "to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women's rights."

In 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day resulted in many celebrations around the world, and more than usual attention to International Women's Day.

In 2017 in the United States, many women celebrated International Women's Day by taking the day off, as a "Day Without Women." Entire school systems closed (women are still about 75% of public school teachers) in some cities. Those who were unable to take the day off wore red to honor the spirit of the strike.

Quotes Suitable for International Women's Day

Gloria Steinem
“Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman. It's about making life more fair for women everywhere. It's not about a piece of the existing pie; there are too many of us for that. It's about baking a new pie.”

Robert Burns
“While Europe's eye is fix'd on mighty things,
The fate of empires and the fall of kings;
While quacks of State must each produce his plan,
And even children lisp the Rights of Man;
Amid this mighty fuss just let me mention,
The Rights of Woman merit some attention.”

Mona Eltahawy
“Misogyny has not been completely wiped out anywhere. Rather, it resides on a spectrum, and our best hope for eradicating it globally is for each of us to expose and to fight against local versions of it, in the understanding that by doing so we advance the global struggle.”

Audre Lorde
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

Variously Attributed
"Well behaved women rarely make history."

Sources and Further Reading

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Brief History of International Women's Day." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, thoughtco.com/international-womens-day-3529400. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 29). A Brief History of International Women's Day. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/international-womens-day-3529400 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "A Brief History of International Women's Day." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/international-womens-day-3529400 (accessed April 2, 2023).