Origins and History of International Women’s Day
Women have always and continue to occupy a leading role in all the decisive struggles of their day. In the course of their struggles for political rights second to none, they decided to hold an international day to celebrate and highlight their claims on society by virtue of their womanhood and their rights as members of societies which depend on them. Their courage and determination in the front ranks of the struggle for a society which recognizes everyone as equal members of the body politic with equal rights and duties always inspires everyone else to also fight for the rights of all.
Ever since women fought for the right to vote in the early 20th century, the essence of their fight has been political. They have put forward their claims on society as a matter of right, facing all kinds of state-inspired discrimination and violence against them and state-sanctioned attempts to relegate them to second, third and fourth grade citizenship based on brutal identity politics and exploitation. They speak in their own name and refuse to accept any limitations on their right to decide all matters which affect their lives.
International Women’s Day was first celebrated in March 1911, with March 8 set as the official date only in 1921.
1907: German communist Clara Zetkin proposes the idea of an annual demonstration in support of working women and women’s rights at the First International Conference of Socialist Women in Stuttgart, Germany.
1909: A “Woman’s Day” is held in the United States on February 28, organized by the National Women’s Committee of the American Socialist Party. Demonstrations highlight the demand for women’s suffrage along with the rights of women workers, particularly in the garment trade. They also honour the thousands of women involved in the numerous labour strikes at the time in cities such as Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.
1910: A resolution put forward by the German communist Clara Zetkin at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen, Denmark is passed to establish International Women’s Day. More than 100 women delegates from 17 countries attend the conference, among whom are the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament.
This Second International Conference of Socialist Women reiterates the principles adopted at the First International Conference on the question of women’s suffrage. These principles provide the framework for the resolution to establish International Women’s Day to focus on the question of women’s political rights.
1911: Implementing the resolution adopted at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women, on March 19 rallies are held in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland attended by more than one million women and men. “The vote for women will unite our strength in the struggle for socialism” is the call of these rallies. In addition to their demand for the right to elect and be elected, they demand the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination at work.
1912: Women in France, the Netherlands and Sweden take up the celebration of International Women’s Day. In the period leading up to World War I, these activities oppose imperialist war, express solidarity between working women of different lands and reject the national chauvinist warmongering hysteria of the ruling circles. For example, in Europe International Women’s Day becomes an occasion for speakers from one country to go to another country to deliver greetings.
1913: Russian women observe their first International Women’s Day on February 23 on the Julian calendar (March 8 on the Gregorian calendar). Conditions of brutal Czarist reaction prevent open demonstrations however, led by communist women, they find ways to celebrate the day. Women in Russia continue to celebrate International Women’s Day in various ways from 1913-1916. Many involved in organizing end up in Czarist prisons when the slogan “for the working women’s vote” becomes an open call for the overthrow of the Czarist autocracy.
1914: The first issue of Rabotnitsa (The Woman Worker), a journal for working class women, is published in Russia. The Bolshevik Central Committee creates a special committee to organize International Women’s Day. Meetings are held in the factories and public places to discuss issues related to women’s oppression and to elect representatives to carry forward the proposals from these meetings in the new committee.
1917: In Russia, International Women’s Day is a time of intense struggle against the Czarist regime. Workers, including women workers in the textile and metal-working industries, are on strike in the capital city St. Petersburg. On March 8 (February 23 on the Julian calendar), thousands of women factory workers in St. Petersburg strike for bread and peace. They demand, “Bread for our children” and “Return our husbands from the trenches.” It marks the beginning of the February Revolution, which leads to the abdication of the Czar and the establishment of a provisional government that makes the franchise universal and recognizes equal rights for women.
Following the October 1917 Revolution, the Bolshevik government implements more advanced legislation, guaranteeing in the workplaces the right of women to directly participate in social and political activity, eliminating all formal and concrete obstacles which previously meant the subordination of their social and political activity and their subservience to men. New legislation on maternity and health insurance is approved in December. A public insurance fund is created, with no deductions from workers’ wages, that benefits all women meaning that neither women nor their children are dependent on spouses and fathers for their economic wellbeing.
1920: V.I. Lenin has an important discussion with Clara Zetkin, which she recounts in the pamphlet Lenin on the Women’s Question, where he sets out the necessity for “a powerful international women’s movement, [established] on a clear theoretical basis.” He recalls the experience of the role of women in the Russian Revolution, saying in part:
“In Petrograd, here in Moscow, in other towns and industrial centres the women workers acted splendidly during the revolution. Without them we should not have been victorious. Or scarcely so. That is my opinion. How brave they were, how brave they still are! Think of all the suffering and deprivations they bore. And they are carrying on because they want freedom, want communism. [… ] It shows the capacity of women, the great value their work has in society. The first proletarian dictatorship is a real pioneer in establishing social equality for women. It is clearing away more prejudices than could volumes of feminist literature […].”
1921: March 8 becomes the official date for International Women’s Day when Bulgarian women attending the International Women’s Secretariat of the Communist International propose a motion that it be celebrated around the world on this day. The date is chosen to honour the women in the Russian Revolution, recognizing their role as a contribution to the struggle of women for their emancipation internationally.
In Turkey the day is first celebrated in 1921, underground, by communist women in Ankara.
1924-25: In China, the first public celebration of the day is held in the southern city of Guangzhou, when 2,000 people gather for a mass meeting at which speakers call on women to unite behind the struggle against imperialism and feudalism in the name of personal and national liberation.
Word of the Guangzhou mass meeting spreads throughout China, and the following year women from around the country gather in Beijing to protest the government’s refusal to grant women the right to vote.
1928: The first International Women’s Day rally is held in Australia. It is organized by communist women to demand an eight-hour work day, equal pay for equal work, paid annual leave and a living wage for the unemployed.
1930s: In Mexico, International Women’s Day is first celebrated during the 1930s.
1936: Spanish communists organize a massive demonstration in Madrid on March 8 demanding protection of the Spanish Republic against the growing fascist threat.
1937: Spanish women demonstrate against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco on International Women’s Day.
1943: Italian women mark International Women’s Day with militant protests against fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for sending their sons to die in the Second World War.
1945: Immediately after the Second World War, the tradition of International Women’s Day is revived all over the world. It is marked with official celebrations in the republics of the then-Soviet Union.
1951: In China on International Women’s Day, more than 100,000 demonstrators take to the streets of Beijing and Shanghai to protest the post-war American occupation of Japan.
1960: “La Emancipación de la Mujer es obra misma de la mujer” (“The emancipation of women is women’s own work”) proclaims a Mexican poster created for International Women’s Day. The poster celebrates the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Mexican Revolution and also pays tribute to the victory of the Cuban Revolution the previous year.
1960s-70s: With the upsurge of the movement of women for their rights in the 1960s and ’70s International Women’s Day re-emerges as a day of activism for women’s rights and empowerment.
1972: In Australia, large International Women’s Day marches begin in 1972 with several thousand women rallying particularly in Sydney and Melbourne.
1975: The United Nations designates International Women’s Year and celebrates International Women’s Day for the first time.
Two years later the UN General Assembly adopts a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. In establishing it the UN attempts to distance itself from the content of the day as a day of women’s struggle for their rights and to present it as “a time to reflect on progress made” and “celebrate acts of courage and determination of ordinary women. This is the content taken up since that time by official circles in many countries, including Canada.
1981: The Democratic Women’s Union of Canada is founded under the leadership of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) on March 8 in Vancouver, to organize women to play their leading role in the emancipation of the working class, the necessary pre-condition for their own affirmation.
1986: Within two months of the fall of the 30-year Duvalier dictatorship in February, there are two women’s marches demanding justice for all Haitians in general and for women in particular. Almost 2,000 women march in the remote village of Papay where a peasant movement has been organizing underground, while on April 3 in Port-au-Prince, more than 30,000 women from all social sectors take to the streets.
2019: The 10th Congress of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC) concludes its proceedings on International Women’s Day attended by some 360 delegates and 40 guests. More than 4,300,000 women are members of the Federation. Women represent 53.2 per cent of the positions held in the National Assembly of People’s Power in Cuba and constitute 48.4 per cent of the members of the Council of State.
International Women’s Day today sees women in all countries in the front ranks of the struggle for justice, peace and a modern democracy in which the rights of women are provided with a guarantee.