Why International Women’s Day

For many people International Women’s Day is a very new celebration which began to gain prominence during the 1970s. In fact it was first publicly celebrated as International Women’s Day in 1911. The history of the day has an even earlier beginning.

Women in the US demonstrated on March 8th in 1857 against the low wages and poor working conditions they experienced. Many of the women were arrested, while other were trampled by the crowds. 51 years later on 8 March 1908, thousands of people marched to commemorate the 1857 demonstration, condemn child labour and poor and unsafe working conditions – and for the right to vote. This day was marked as the first National Women’s Day in the US.

Following the 1908 march, the last Sunday in February was declared National Women’s Day and activity was organised by American socialists. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on 23 February 1909.

On 18 July 1889 Clara Zetkin delivered her first speech on behalf of women in Paris. She advocated women’s rights, including women’s participation in national and international events, and called for women to hold anti-war demonstrations on International Women’s Day in 1914. She became a communist after the First World War and encouraged Lenin to establish International Women’s Day as a holiday. The socialist celebration became an official communist holiday and as a result many women in non-communist countries stopped observing it.

International Women’s Day was first celebrated in Russia in 1913 with a rally held in St. Petersburg, despite police brutality. The Russian women led by Alexandra Kollontai, following the American tradition of march on the last Sunday in February.

The most famous year was 1917, when the women’s march in St. Petersburg sparked Russia’s February revolution which overthrew the Russian monarchy. The march was held on 23 February according to the Julian calendar. When the calendar was changed to the western Georgian one, in 1918, the date fell on 8 March. The event became an annual celebration in Russia. Women gave each other red roses, cards and it was declared a national holiday.

European women celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time on 19 March 1911. Rallies and demonstrations were held in Germany, Denmark, Switzerland and Austria to demand women’s right to vote and hold public office, and to call for an end to sex discrimination in employment and education. More than a million people, women and men, participated in this event. The following year France, the Netherlands and Sweden joined in the celebration.

The 1911 celebration in Austria was held on March 18th. 3000 women marched in Vienna carrying banners. In 1918 women in Vienna marched to promote peace, despite being banned. In Italy women were also working for peace. Socialist women hung posters for women in the working class neighbourhoods of the town in hopes of women working together to bring peace.

Australian celebrations of the day began on 25 March 1928. The first marches were held in Sydney and Melbourne in 1931 with equal pay for equal work being the main issue.

In 1977 International Women’s Day on 8 March was given official recognition by the United Nations, which invited countries to designate this day as UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. Celebrations began in Africa and Latin America increasing the number of women involved on a world wide scale.

Britain did not celebrate International Women’s Day until 1926, the year of the General Strike. International Women’s Day in Britain has always had strong ties to trade unions. 8 March was the day for expressing opposition to fascism in Europe with the outbreak of the Second World War.

The International Women’s Day which came out of the 1960s and 1970s was brought about through the new Women’s Liberation Movements. 5,000 women demonstrated in London in 1971 demanding equal pay, equal opportunity, free 24 hour child care, free contraception and abortion on demand. Since this event the celebration of International Women’s Day in Britain has continued to grow. The day is now celebrated by women around Britain and in the rest of the world. It has become the opportunity to celebrate our strength, courage and achievements, to inform, to raise women’s voices and above all to bring us together.