History of International Women's Day

History of International Women's Day [Note 1]

International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world as well as by the United Nations. In many countries, including China it is designated as a national holiday. Dating back to 1910 it was born at a time of great social change and today inherits a strong tradition of protest and political activism.

As the industrial revolution progressed, women in developing countries were increasingly entering the workforce. In most cases their jobs were sex-segregated and found mainly in textiles, manufacturing and domestic services where conditions were wretched and wages minimal. Trade unions for male workers were developing and industrial disputes began to break out, including among groups of non-unionised women workers.

Throughout Europe, America and, to a lesser extent, Australia, women began to campaign for the right to vote. In the United States in 1903, women trade unionists and liberal professional women who were also campaigning for women's voting rights set up the Women's Trade Union League to help organise women in paid work. In 1908, on the last Sunday in February, socialist women in the United States initiated the first Women's Day. Large demonstrations took place calling for the vote and supporting the political and economic rights of women. The following year, some 2,000 people attended a Women's Day rally.

In 1910, Women's Day was increasingly supported by the women’s movement and female socialists in a growing number of countries. In 1910 at the second International Conference of Socialist Women it was proposed that Women's Day become an international event, despite some political controversy over female organising within the socialist movement.

The first formally designated International Women’s Day events were organised in 1911 on 19 March in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where over one million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job. In Russia it was first commemorated on the last Sunday in February 1913. In the run up to the First World War, the movement became interlinked with the peace movement. In 1914, throughout Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with their sisters. Despite political opposition to their action, in 1917, Russian women chose the last Sunday in February again to mark the two million dead soldiers and to strike for "bread and peace". Four days later Czar Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday fell on 23 February on the Russian (Julian) calendar but on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar elsewhere in use.

International Women’s Day continued to be celebrated to varying degrees through the years. It was revived by the Women’s movement in the 1960’s and in 1975 the U.N. began sponsoring International Women's Day.

Discussions as to how far women should call for legislation to protect themselves and how far such legislation may in fact discriminate against women were already evident in the second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910. For example, the Conference called for maternity benefits which, despite an intervention on behalf of unmarried mothers, were to be for married women only. It also decided to oppose night work as being detrimental to the health of most working women, although Swedish and Danish working women who were present asserted that night work was essential to their livelihood. The debate over whether or not some gender based legislation which highlights the biological differences of men and women actually impedes true equality still continues today.

The Role of the United Nations

The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international agreement to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the UN has helped advance international legislation designed, at least in theory, to protect and promote the equal rights of women and “today a central organizing principle of the work of the United Nations is that no enduring solution to society's most threatening social, economic and political problems can be found without the full participation, and the full empowerment, of the world's women.”


The main treaties and conventions regarding women are:

• Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

• Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952)

• International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966)

• International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966)

• Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1967)

• Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (1974)

• Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1979)

• Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993)

• Inter-American Convention for the Prevention, Punishment and Elimination of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará Convention) (1995)

• Universal Declaration on Democracy (1997)

• Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1999)

Despite great advances in many countries, women are still subject to discrimination, abuse, denial of human rights and treatment as a second class citizen. Despite most governments around the world lip service to international conventions and non discriminatory practices, for many women workers, life has seen little progress while for others the situation has improved enormously. International Women’s Day remains a day of Action and not celebration alone for there is a long road ahead towards true equality – especially in practice.

[Note 1] : Much of this material has been taken from the lively and informative “A History of International Women's Day in words and images” by Joyce Stevens. For the Cyber Edition please visit http://www.isis.aust.com/iwd/stevens/contents.htm

March 2004

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