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Where did International Women's Day come from?

By Imogen Shaw
08 March 2021

By Imogen Shaw

Today, people around the world are celebrating International Women’s Day. To mark the occasion, the Government has announced the launch of a new advisory council to lead the UK’s gender equality work at the G7. The Gender Equality Advisory Council will “produce recommendations to drive women’s empowerment across the world”, with a particular focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. The Labour Party has also released a short video talking about the party’s achievements and redoubling its commitment to gender equality.

Both announcements met with a broadly positive reception, although as ever, some commenters could not let the marking of International Women’s Day pass without challenging the need for the day, and complaining about the absence of an International Men’s Day (there is in fact an International Men’s Day, which has been celebrated on 19 November since its foundation in 1992.)

International Women’s Day is an older institution. Seen by some as an exercise in branding, and often incorrectly assumed to be a recent tradition, the roots of International Women’s Day are more radical and long-standing than many will have guessed.

The event that would lead to the founding of International Women’s Day was a Women’s Day event organised by the Socialist Party of America in New York City on 28 February 1909.  The next year, a group of German delegates at the 1910 International Socialist Woman's Conference proposed that "a special Women's Day" be organised annually. The inaugural International Women’s Day was celebrated not on 8 March but eleven days later, on 19 March 1911, a date selected to commemorate the 1848 Revolution in Berlin.

The first time International Women’s Day is on record as being celebrated on 8 March was in 1913 in Germany – so chosen because it marked the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune.

Four years later, when tens of thousands of women converged in Petrograd in1917 to International Women’s Day, protest food shortages and demand an end to World War I, the demonstration expanded. The movement grew to as many as 150,000 striking workers – including men – within a few days. Eventually, the Russian army joined the marchers. This marked the beginning of the February Revolution. Leon Trotsky later wrote that while meetings and actions in the name of International Women’s Day had been anticipated, “we did not imagine that this 'Women's Day' would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without a date. But in the morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for the support of the strike… which led to mass strike... all went out into the streets."

Seven days after the International Women’s Day action in Petrograd, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. After women gained suffrage, International Women’s Day became a national holiday in Russia.

Until the late sixties, the occasion was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and officially recognised by communist countries, after which point the influence of second wave feminism saw International Women’s Day expand its reach. The United Nations began officially marking the day in 1977.

Socialist groups still commemorate International Women’s Day, and in most years, you’re still likely to see marches and days of action led by activists across the world – a number of which have had to go virtual this year, with much of the world still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, just because it isn’t possible for many of us to march this year, it doesn’t mean there is nothing we can do to support gender equality. One thing that I hope anyone can take from the radical roots of International Women’s Day is that the day itself should be a focal point for action, not the sum-total of what we can do to progress gender equality. Whether or not you or your organisation has planned anything for International Women’s Day this year, it’s never too early to start thinking about what you could do to build on this over the next twelve months.

Why not set yourself a challenge for International Women’s Day 2022? It’s great to celebrate achievements and take stock of where there is progress still to be made – but the more important thing is that we continue to take action and make progress every day that isn’t International Women’s Day, too.