Blog post

The Origins of International Women's Day

By Dr Ruth Larsen - 8 March 2023

Today is International Women’s Day. This day not only celebrates the roles of women but also supports campaigns for global gender parity. It is marked by events around the world, and it is an official holiday in some countries including Azerbaijan, Uganda, Zambia and China. In many places, it has a similar status as Mothering Sunday, and gifts are exchanged. It has been used to campaign for a wide range of issues in recent decades, especially in relation to women in the workplace, politics and sport.  

So, what are the origins of this day, and why is it still celebrated?

It is difficult to pinpoint the origins of International Women’s Day (IWD). However, scholars such as Rochelle Ruthschild argue that the movement can be traced a National Women’s Day held in New York in 1909, which marked the strike action organised by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union.

Inspired by this, at the second International Conference of Socialist Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910 it was suggested that there should be an International Women’s Day (IWD). Events took place in a number of European countries in March 1911, and in Germany over a million leaflets calling for female suffrage were distributed. 

One of the leading supporters of the movement was Clara Zetkin, who was instrumental in encouraging Lenin to establish IWD as a national holiday in Russia in 1922. Other communist regimes also celebrated the day during the 1920 and 30s, including China.

In  Europe, members of communist political parties used it for their campaigning. For example, in 1936, one of the leaders of a Communist Party in Spain led a demonstration in Madrid of thousands of women against the growing threat of fascism. 

There were events in non-communist countries too; there were various activities in Australia in the 1930s and 1940s, including a major rally in Perth which involved women from as groups as diverse as the Movement Against War and Fascism, the Association of University Women, Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Mothers Union.  

In Britain, events and rallies took place during the 1910s and 1920s, many of them focused on female suffrage. The day was especially marked by people within the labour movement, and we know that there were a series of IWD events taking place in Chesterfield in the 1940s. 

Despite its origins in Chicago and New York, the associations of International Women’s Day with communism and the labour movement meant that it was not generally observed in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. However, the growing feminist movement in the 1960s revived the movement, and in 1969, about fifty feminists marched through Berkeley, using the trade unionist phrase “Bread and Roses”, as their slogan.

In this period, IWD also grew in popularity amongst women’s groups in Britain, with the day being largely marked by community-led events and marches.

International Women's Day was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. This led to a growth in co-ordinated activities on a global scale. They promoted an annual theme for the day and by 2011, the centenary of the first formal IWD, there were celebratory events around the world.

The day and its campaign remain important. According to the World Economic Forum 'gender parity will not be attained for almost a century'. While the day was first developed over a hundred ago, it still campaigns for a current and urgent issue.

Find out more about International Women’s Day 

If you're interested in Derby's local history take a look at a project by International Women’s Day Derby in partnership with Culture Train (co-founded by a University of Derby graduate) that mapped the history of IWD in Derby and Derbyshire. 

About the author

Ruth Larsen

Dr Ruth Larsen
Senior Lecturer in History; Programme Leader for BA (Hons) History and Integrated Masters in History; Subject Lead for Joint Honours History

As a Senior Lecturer in History, Ruth Larsen is the Programme Leader for undergraduate History programmes. She has research expertise in British History of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially relating to gender history and the history of the country house.

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