In case you missed it on Monday, March 8, Happy International Women’s Day! Celebration of women’s concerns — everyone’s concerns — appropriately occurs in March as women worldwide have had to march, strike, protest, and otherwise campaign publicly to free themselves from oppression and to gain better pay, working hours, and voting rights.
IWD has a history of 112 years, beginning in the 1900s, which the IWD website explains was a time of “booming population growth and radical ideologies.” In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City to demand better working conditions and voting rights. This global holiday in the U.S. began as a “Women’s Day” that the Socialist Party of America in New York City organized in February 1909. It was called National Woman’s Day, and it was celebrated on the last Sunday in February until 1913.
In 1910 at a Socialist Second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, 100 women from 17 countries agreed with Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, that IWD become an annual event in every country. In 1911, IWD was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. In Austria-Hungary, in 300 demonstrations, women paraded on the Ringstrasse in Vienna, demanding the right to vote and hold public office and protesting job sex discrimination. German women finally won the right to vote in 1918, and American women, via the 19th Amendment, gained the right to vote.
By 1913-14, Russian women celebrated on Feb. 23, the last Sunday in the month. The movement gained momentum so that by 1914, IWD was moved to March 8. Russian women won the right to vote in 1917. In London, women marched from Bow Street to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914, when Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak.
Responding to the deaths of more than 2 million Russian soldiers in World War I on Feb. 23, 1917, Russian women went on strike for “bread and peace.” After four days, the czar abdicated, and the provisional government gave women the right to vote. Some historians see this February Revolution a preamble to the October Revolution which combined became the Russian Revolution. Russia still used the Julian calendar, but Feb. 23 was March 8 in countries that used the Georgian calendar.
Celebrated for the first time in the United Nations in 1975, the U.N.’s recognition of IWD in 1977 assured its becoming a mainstream global holiday; in fact, in some countries it is a public holiday. The U.N. set the first annual theme in 1996: “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future.” Other official U.N. themes are listed at Wikipedia.org.
IN THE 2000s
The IWD saw changes in the 21st century when progress seemed to have bettered women’s lives. But gender parity still had not been achieved globally. The celebration provoked violence in Tehran, Iran, on March 4, 2007, when police beat men and women who were planning a demonstration.
In 2009 a British marketing firm, Aurora Ventures, created the internationalwomensday.com site to “energize the day.” On March 8, 2011, the 100th anniversary of IWD, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2011 “Women’s History Month.” He asked Americans to commemorate IWD by “reflecting on the extraordinary accomplishments of women.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton established the “100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges.” Sadly, in Cairo, Egypt, hundreds of men harassed women who rallied to stand up for their rights. Australia, however, issued a 20-cent coin to observe the 100th anniversary of IWD.
In each year of the 2000s, countries have recognized IWD in several ways: in 2012 Oxfam America, a global organization working to end the injustice of poverty, created an IWD award; in 2013, the International Red Cross campaigned for women in prison; in 2014, Beyoncé posted an IWD video to her YouTube account. Her song “Flawless” plays interspersed with phrases from a speech by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, “We Should All Be Feminists.” In a TEDx talk, Adichie said that a man told her she should not be a “feminist.” They were women unhappy because they could not find a husband. She believes that while we have evolved, our ideas about gender equality have not. “We teach girls to shrink themselves,” she said.
In 2016 the president of India thanked Indian women for their contributions over the years “in the building of our nation.” Air India operated the world’s longest nonstop flight in which women handled the entire flight operations as part of IWD celebrations. In 2017, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said women’s rights are still being “reduced, restricted, and reversed.” In 2019, the U.N. theme for IWD was “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change.” Berlin marked IWD as a public holiday for the first time.
The U.N. theme for 2020 was “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights.” Street marches occurred in London, Paris, Madrid, Brussels, Moscow and other European cities in spite of COVID-19. In Islamabad, stone throwers disturbed the effort, however, after an attempt to have it banned as un-Islamic failed. In the capital of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, masked men attacked the march, causing police to detain dozens of marchers.
About 27 countries recognize IWD as an official holiday. In nine other countries IWD is observed but not as a public holiday. The custom in some countries is that men give female colleagues and loved ones flowers and small gifts. In Italy, women receive yellow mimosas, a practice that politician Teresa Mattei began, choosing the mimosa as the symbol of IWD because the usual flowers — violets and lily-of-the-valley — were too expensive.
Efforts to declare IWD an official holiday in the U.S. failed despite the attempts of human rights activist Beata Pozniak in 1994 to lobby members of Congress to that end. Even though the bill never went to vote, Americans observe the day with Facebook accolades to the extraordinary women in their lives and with other recognitions of women’s contributions to society.
Liz Meador is a retired English instructor from Wayne Community College and an adjunct at North Carolina Wesleyan College.