International Women’s Day : a brief history

International Women’s day is celebrated each year on the 8th of March with the aim of ensuring a bright, equal, safe and rewarding future for women. It is seen as one of the important days of the year in regards to celebrating the achievements of all women, raising awareness about equality, lobbying for an acceleration of parity between genders and fundraising for women-focused charities.

Clara Zetkin, a Marxist working in the German Social Democratic party, coined in 1910 the idea of “International Women’s day” at the second International Conference of Working Women. The conference had over 100 participants, representing 17 countries and a variety of actors and gave it unanimous support to Zetkin’s idea. Other revolutionary ideas were also discussed at the conference too, including an 8-hour working day, maternity leave and maternity pay.

Zetkin placed huge weight on her desires. It worked. 

In 1911, International Women’s day was honoured for the first time on the 19th of March in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The day saw over one million women and men attending IWD rallies pushing for the right to vote, work and hold public office.

However, the First World War broke out and domestic political activities ceased, by force, to exist. To oppose the war, Zetkin organised the third Socialist Women’s conference in April 1915 which once again drew delegates from across the world, including Vladimir Lenin.

By 1917, the dynamic of war had changed the demographic of the domestic workforce forever. Women were now the majority. In Russia, despite the mass arrests on International Women’s day two years earlier, women once again went to the streets on International Women’s day to protest pay and conditions asking all industries and men to join the protest. Tsar Nicholas ordered military action against the protest – to no avail. The February revolution which would eventually lead to the fall of Tsarist Russia had begun.

Trotsky wrote: “But we did not imagine that this “Women’s Day” would inaugurate the revolution.”

It was declared by Zetkin and Lenin at the “Second International Conference of Communist Women” that March 8th would be a communist holiday in 1922, also celebrated the same year by the communist government in China.

Due to its links to communism and the increasing number of countries granting women the right to vote, International Women’s day lost its “global” energy. It wouldn’t be for another 64 years later that the United Nations would celebrate the day again.

According to the International Women’s day website by the new millennium interest in the campaign had significantly dipped and feminism was an unpopular topic. Urgent reinvigoration was needed. So, in 2001, ‘internationalwomensday.com’ was launched with the specific purpose of putting the date back on the calendar. The inclusion of campaign themes for each year and collaboration with stakeholders were fundamental in its new launch. The extraordinary push for fundraising brought a new sense of direction for the day. 

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Freyja Elwood

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August 2022
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