International Women’s Day – now held annually on 8th March – is a day dedicated to celebrating women’s economic, social, political and cultural achievements. In the 21st century and with rise of post-modern feminism the event has taken on a new relevance, one that includes blasting Destiny’s Child and re-posting sarcastic feminist memes on Instagram. But where did International Women’s Day (IWD) begin? And how? Debut follows the history of the event and its ongoing legacy.
Across the world IWD is celebrated by many diverse countries. The describes it as ‘a day when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.’
IWD was born out of labour movements in the early 20th century in North America and Europe. The first officially recognised Women’s Day was an American event, organised by the Socialist Party of America on February 28, 1909 in New York to honour the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union. It wasn’t until 1910 that an International Women’s Conference was proposed by German Socialist Luise Zietz at the newly formed International Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark; her proposal met unanimous approval from the conference of 100 plus women present (who represented17 countries). The original goal of IWD was to promote equal rights including universal women’s suffrage and to protest against women’s poor working conditions.
As a result of the ambition of the Copenhagen conference goers the first official IWD took place in 1911 (March 19) in a number of northern European countries – Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland – where more than a million women and men rallied for women’s right to vote, to hold political office, to work, to vocational training and an end to workplace discrimination. In what once was the Austro-Hungarian Empire more than 300 individual demonstrations took place. Meanwhile, in North America, the National Women’s Day (NWD) continued to take place in February; at this point in its history, the IWD was very much a European affair.
In the run-up to, and during, World War 1 the IWD also became a vehicle for protest against war and also to recognise the importance of women’s roles during the war effort. Significantly, in 1917, after the IWD had been transported to Soviet Russia women went on strike for “bread and peace” in protest of the deaths of over 2 million Russian soldiers and food shortages during WW1. In what was sparked by a series of socialist meetings and rallies to acknowledge the contributions and achievements of Russian women, the result was a revolution that would alter Russian history. Now known as part of the February Revolution, the strike lasted for four days and over 50,000 people took part in accompanying protests. As a result, the Tsar Nicholas II abdicated and the Russian Empire came to its end. In 1965 the Soviet Union made March 8 a national holiday to commemorate Soviet women.
After its growth during the early 20th century, the IWD has now become an established international event, in part helped by the United Nations which first celebrated it in 1975 and then in 1977 proclaimed March 8 to be a United Nation’s Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.
1975 was also the year of Iceland’s historic women’s strike (October 24). The strike, which was held to “demonstrate the indispensable work of women for Iceland’s economy and society” and “protest wage discrepancy and unfair employment practices,” saw 90% of the female population refuse to work, do any housework or do any child-rearing for the entire day (at the time women earned less than 60% of what their male counterparts earned). As a result, the strike paved the way for the world’s first female president, Icelander Vigdís Finnbogadóttir.
Today, while many might believe that the fight for equal rights is over, the IWD remains as an important reminder that it in reality equality is an ongoing battle, especially for many women across Developing and Developed countries. Female education, reproductive rights and health, and violence against women are major struggles millions of women across the world face in their day to day lives. In the privileged West it is our duty to recognise IWD and act, not only on March 8, but every day, to continue fighting for an equal future.
The IWD 2017’s campaign theme is #BeBoldForAChange, asking for supporters to question how they can help forge a more equal world. Have a look at the and comment below or tweet us with your plans for recognising IWD. Even if you just plan to listen to Destiny’s Child on repeat.
Words by Esther Newman