International Women’s Day: What is the annual event and when did it start?

The day has been celebrated for more than a century

Olivia Petter
Monday 08 March 2021 09:09 GMT
International Women's Day: when and how did the annual event start?

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Louise Thomas

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International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the social, economic and political achievements of women that serves to champion women’s rights, female empowerment and gender equality.Add article

Thanks to cultural and societal shifts as prompted by the#MeToo movement, the day has become increasingly prominent and is now recognised by millions of people around the world.

But while some people might only be just waking up to the importance of this annual celebration, International Women’s Day has actually been around for more than a century and dates back to the early 1900s.

From its socialist roots to how it came to be observed byUnited Nations, read on for everything you need to know about the history of International Women’s Day.

When and how did it begin?

The first National Woman’s Day, as it was called, was acknowledged in the US on 28 February 1909.

It was catalysed by the labour movement in 1908, which saw 15,000 female garment workers go on strike in New York City to protest against poor working conditions.

Led by a Ukraine-born suffragist named Clara Lemlich, the women demanded better pay, shorter working hours and improved working conditions.

The following year, The Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day in honour of the workers.

National Woman’s Day became recognised as an international celebration in 1910 after German women’s rights activist Clara Zetkin made the suggestion at an International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Denmark. There were 100 women from 17 different countries in attendance, and Ms Zetkin’s idea was met with unanimous approval.

It was first celebrated as an official international day on 19 March 1911.

Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland were among the first countries outside of the US to mark the day.

When did it become formalised?

While the day was globally celebrated in March from 1911 onwards, specific dates of acknowledgement differed between countries until 1917.

In the midst of World War One, which had begun three years earlier, women in Russia staged a strike for “Bread and Peace” in protest of food shortages and wild inflation rates that were happening in the country at the time. The strike put increasing pressures on Tsar Nicholas II, who was the Emperor of Russia at the time, forcing him to abdicate four days later.

The provisional government then granted Russian women the right to vote. The date that the strike began was Sunday 23 February according to the Julian calendar, which was used at the time. According to the Gregorian calendar – the most widely used calendar in the world today – that date is 8 March, which is when International Women’s Day is now celebrated each year.

When did it become recognised by the United Nations?

The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day in 1975 during its International Women’s Year.

This signified that the aims of the day – to advance the status of women worldwide and campaign for gender equality – had officially been recognised as a part of the organisation’s commitment to championing human rights.

In 1996, the UN began adopting an annual theme for International Women’s Day, the first of which was “Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future”. This was followed by ”Women at the Peace table”, “Women and Human Rights”, and in 1999, “World Free of Violence Against Women”.

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is “choose to challenge”.

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