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The History of Women’s Day in 6 Snapshots

Early 20th century garment workers, going on strike.
Kheel Center, Cornell University/Flickr

International Women’s Day is observed worldwide every March 8. Dedicated to the achievement of women everywhere and contributing to the push towards gender equality, the origins of this historical day date back over a century. Here’s a quick timeline of its interesting history.

Although important women’s rights groups and movements began to mobilize during the 19th century all over the world, it wasn’t until the early 1900s that big changes began to happen. Since then, women have made great accomplishments in the social, cultural, economical, and political spheres.

International Women’s Day (IWD) was established as a way to celebrate their strength and resilience and to inspire more women to do the same. These are six snapshots of the history of the symbolic date:

  • 1908-1909: In the U.S., oppression and inequality were causing great unrest and total discontent among women. In February 1908, 15,000 garment workers went on strike and marched down the streets of New York City demanding change, asking for shorter working hours, equal wages, and voting rights. The protests went on for over a year until, in 1909, the Socialist Party of America organized the first National Women’s Day on Feb. 28.
  • 1910: A woman named Clara Zetkin took the idea of Women’s Day and made it international at the second International Conference of Working Women held in Copenhagen. The German political leader and feminist activist proposed to celebrate working women around the world on the same day; all 100 delegates from 17 countries agreed.
  • 1911: The first International Women’s Day—or International Working Women’s Day as it was initially called—was celebrated with rallies in Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria on March 19, 1911. Less than a week later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in NYC killed 146 workers, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women. The event inspired significant changes in working conditions and labor legislation in the U.S., and it has been invoked in IWD celebrations from then onward.
  • 1913-1917: On the verge of World War I, while men were at war, women were left to face a variety of difficulties and a government that wouldn’t listen to them. Though they celebrated the first IWD in 1913, the nationwide protest of Russian women led to transferring the historical date to March 8. It was on that day when thousands initiated a strike for “bread and peace” across the country that eventually resulted in the dissolution of the Russian Empire and the acquisition of voting rights for women.
  • 1949: Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China, IWD was proclaimed as a national holiday by the State Council and women were given the right to a half-day off from work.
  • 1977-1996: The United Nations General Assembly officially recognized IWD and declared the official UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. In 1996, they adopted an annual theme for IWD, the first one being “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future.”

Though we still have a long way to go, we shouldn’t take what we have today for granted. Over the years, the world has become a much better place than what it was decades ago, thanks to the millions of women who fought hard to have their voices heard.

This year’s theme for IWD is “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights” with the hashtag #EachforEqual, which highlights the need for a gender-equal world and inspires everyone to do more to achieve it.

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »
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