The History of International Women’s Day

Date: March 8, 2019

Women's Day

The History of International Women’s Day

All it takes is one voice. One voice to stand up and speak truth about injustice, about a needed change, about a basic human right that is being violated. All it takes is one voice supported by one other, supported by a few more, until its grows from a murmur to a roar. International Women’s Day is the voice heard ‘round the world, representing equality of women without a cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, or political divide. A day set aside to recognize and support the movement that continues to grow stronger

In every sense, Women’s Day is an international celebration with its roots in countries across the world. However, its origins lie in New York City in February of 1907, where the first event was organized by The Socialist Party of America. The original demonstration is not without controversy though. Some say this original demonstration was commemorating the anniversary of the 1857 garment workers protest by women, others say that was not the case and that there is no evidence that points this being the inspiration for the demonstration - or that there was even a protest in 1857 at all. The University of Chicago’s International Day of Women website tells us that The reason for this doubt is that in the 1980’s Temma Kaplan wrote On the Socialist Origins of International Women's Day, where she questioned this history. The thinking was that there were people who did not want the women’s movement to be closely associated with The Socialist Party of America, so they were thought to be creating a narrative that displaces the emphasis from the Socialists to the commemorations of garment worker protests. A much more noble, and less polarizing, subject.

Regardless, it was in 1909 that the first demonstration of women’s equality was held, at the time being called National Women’s Day. On that day, February 28, 1909, in front of a crowd of demonstrators that Caroline Perkins Gilman spoke. She said, "It is true that a woman's duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state." These words would go on to set the tone for demonstrations across the globe.

It was in 1910 that you started to hear the desire for unity and inclusion all around the world, starting at the International Women’s Conference in 1910, an even that was held right before the Second International Conference for the Socialist Party. It was a group of 100 women from 17 different country that met in Copenhagen, Denmark to establish their joint desire to continue this demonstration on an annual basis. This idea that started as a singular event, had already started to grow and expand throughout different countries. From there, the ball was rolling. March 1911 was the first official International Women’s Day, held in ustria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

The next year Russia joined in observing International Women’s Day in February of 1913. We read that it was after this year of observation that the day was established, moving forward International Women’s Day would be held annually on March 8. Across the globe women could observe, demonstrate and march in solidarity knowing their sisters around the world we’re doing so standing alongside of them. In 1914 countries in Europe started joining in, and although these demonstrations had been going on for a few years now around the world, they were drawing attention and opposition from authorities in places such as London. At one demonstration going from Bow to Trafalgar Square, Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to make a speech. Pankhurst was a prominent English campaigner, working throughout her lifetime for the suffragette movement. This was not the first or the last time someone would get arrested in conjunction with this day. While the suffragette and general women’s rights movement started to see a lot of growth in the early 20th century, they were by no means received with open arms. There continued to be severe opposition - from men and women alike - through the 1900’s.

It wasn’t until 1975 that the narrative around International Women’s Day was established, when the United Nations officially recognized and celebrated it. The International Day of Women’s website tells us that after establishing this day, the UN became in 1996 to give each year an annual theme. See some examples here of their first few years of themes.

1996 - Celebration the Past, Planning for the Future

1997 - Women at the Peace Table

1998 - Women and Human Rights

1999 - Word Free of Violence Against Women

Also shared on their website is some of the continued themes from the past few years: “Empower Rural Women, End Poverty & Hunger” and “A Promise is a Promise - Time for Action to End Violence Against Women.”

The ‘90’s saw a bit of a lull in the recognition of International Women’s Day, as well as the feminist movement. Third wave feminism was slowing down a bit, and did not seem to carry as much clout as the first two waves did. There was a bit of a resurgence after Friends of IWD created the site to document the history and spark continued interest, but it wasn’t until 2010 or so that the demonstrations drew more attentions.

In 2011, President Barack Obama declared March to be Women’s History Month striking a new found spark in the women who backs carried us to this point. On the eve of that year’s International Women’s Day, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton launched “100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges.” With both of those actions, the movement took off and continues to grow today.

So often it’s simply the spark of something that resonates within that will start the blazing fire of change. When women are supported and recognized, good things are bound to happen. This International Women’s Day, remember to tell a woman (or ten) in your life how great they are, and remember that we continue to build on the backs of the women who came and fought before us.