WOMEN OF POWER
The History Behind International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day, also known as IWD for short, grew out of the labour movement to become a recognised annual event by the United Nations (UN) since 1975. This International Women’s Day, we are celebrating and rejoicing the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all over the world.
BY HIRANMAYII AWLI MOHANAN
The origins of IWD goes back much further than 1975, its seeds planted in 1908, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter working hours, better pay and the right to vote. The historian Temma Kaplan revisited the first official National Woman’s Day, held in New York City on Feb 28, 1909. (The organisers, members of the Socialist Party of America, wanted it to be on a Sunday so that working women could participate). Thousands of people showed up at various events uniting the suffragist and socialist causes, whose goals had often been at odds.
Great unrest and critical debate was occurring amongst women. Women’s oppression and inequality was spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change. Then in 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
In 1910, a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country, there should be a celebration on the same day — a Women’s Day — to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.
On the eve of World War I campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on Feb 23, the last Sunday in February. Following discussions, International Women’s Day was agreed to be marked annually on March 8 that translated in the widely adopted Gregorian calendar from Feb 23 — and this day has remained the global date for International Women’s Day ever since. In 1914, women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity. For example, in London there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak at Trafalgar Square.
International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. Then in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.
In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on February 28. Women continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913.
Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen in Denmark in 1911, International Women’s Day was honoured the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end discrimination. However, less than a week later on March 25, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disastrous event drew significant attention to the working conditions and labour legislation in the United States that became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events. 1911 also saw women’s Bread and Roses campaign.
On the last Sunday of February, Russian women began a strike for “bread and peace” in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in World War I. Opposed by political leaders, the women continued to strike until four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. The date the women’s strike commenced was Sunday, Feb 23 on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. This day on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was March 8.
The UN announced their first annual theme, “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future”, which was followed in 1997 with “Women at the Peace table”, in 1998 with “Women and Human Rights”, in 1999 with “World Free of Violence Against Women”, and so on each year until the current.