World·In Depth

History of International Women's Day

International Women's Day traces its history back to the labour movements of the early 20th century.

On the 100th anniversary, a look at the day's roots in the labour movement

A woman holds a sign reading 'Enough exploitation, we refuse service' during a demonstation in Warsaw on March 6, in anticipation of International Women's Day. (Kacper Pempei/Reuters)

Although more associated today with recognizing and acknowledging the contributions of women, International Women's Day began as an offshoot of increased labour unrest in the early 20th century.

As industrialization changed the fabric of society, pushing more people into urban centres and factories, the rights of the worker emerged as an important socio-political issue.

In 1909, the Socialist Party of America established National Women's Day, to be held across the United States on the last Sunday in February.

Women's labour unrest continued in the U.S. through 1909, with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union staging a short-lived strike in September in New York City. On Nov. 22, a general strike was called, dubbed the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, which lasted 13 weeks and eventually led to a fairer contract for 15,000 labourers.

In Europe, women's issues were also top of mind. In 1907, the first meeting of Finnish parliament included 19 women.  In 1910, an International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, featuring representation from 17 countries, including union leaders and the Finnish parliamentarians.

Clara Zetkin, the founder of International Women's Day, is seen at left with friend Rosa Luxemburg. Zetkin came up with the idea during a womens' labour conference in 1910. (WikiMedia Commons)

Clara Zetkin, head of the women's office for the Social Democratic Party of Germany, first raised the idea of an annual women's day when women all over the world would be able to air their grievances about labour conditions, suffrage and the need for women in parliament.

The first International Women's Day was held on March 19, 1911, (moved to March 8 in 1913), with rallies in Germany, Denmark, Austria and Switzerland. More than one million women and men attended.

One week later, a devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City drew further attention to the horrible working conditions female workers, mostly immigrants, were forced to endure.

Radical labour reforms were forthcoming, however, as socialism fell out of favour with many Americans leading up to the First World war, and that country's last National Women's Day was held in 1913. The United States did not acknowledge International Women's Day again until 1975.

The start of a revolution

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the popularity of International Women's Day grew in many European countries.

In Russia, during the First World War, when more than two million Russian soldiers had already perished, women organized a day of protest, going on strike for "bread and peace." It was held on the last Sunday in February 1917.

The Russians used the Julian calendar at the time, so that date corresponded to March 8 on the Gregorian calendar. Four days later, in what came to be known as the February Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate.

A German poster advertises International Women's Day, 1914. (WikiMedia Commons)

Following the subsequent October Revolution and the Bolsheviks' rise to power, Lenin declared March 8 a national Soviet holiday, commemorating the sacrifice of women in the establishment and defence of the Soviet state. In 1965, it was set aside as a non-working day, as it remains today.

In addition to Russia and other former Soviet Bloc countries, International Women's Day is marked with a day off in the majority of European countries, as well as in many African, Asian and South American nations. It is tradition in many of these countries for men to acknowledge the women in their lives with gifts.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, countries with rich histories of Women's Day celebrations, like the Czech Republic and Poland, stopped marking the holiday in attempts to eliminate any remnants of Soviet rules. In recent years, the day has been marked but celebrations tend to be smaller than in the past.

It was not until 1975, International Women's Year, that the United Nations sanctioned International Women's Day.