What is International Women's Day?

International Women's Day is one of the only non-religious global holidays. Learn about its 113 year history and how to celebrate here.
People March For International Women's Day In Bangkok
People March For International Women's Day In Bangkok / Lauren DeCicca/GettyImages

If you're looking for something to celebrate, there's pretty much always some seemingly arbitrary holiday to latch onto. For instance, February 7 is "Wave All Your Fingers at Your Neighbor Day," and November 12 is "National Nathaniel Day." But some of these holidays, well-known or not, have a lot of history and significance behind them.

International Women's Day (Día de la Mujer) is one of these, with a shocking 113 years of history behind it. So, with over a century of practice, why do so many people not seem to know about it? The simple answer is that it was no longer considered necessary in many countries. However, the longer answer involves the widespread suppression of women's rights and socialist movements, both of which were crucial to International Women's Day's history.

What Is International Women’s Day?

International Women's Day is a global holiday intended to celebrate women and push for greater access to equal rights around the world. This two-fold mission is important, because it uses the history of women's accomplishments to prove that they deserve more power and respect in the future.

This is necessary, because women's rights are still not assured in most countries. According to the World Economic Forum, there won't be gender equality for at least another hundred years. It's going to be a long road ahead, but it's vital to fight for each and every step forward.

Countries approach International Women's Day from many different perspectives, which can help explain why some people haven't heard of it. While it's considered a day for political advocacy in some countries, others have declared it a celebratory holiday.

According to the IWD website, it's an official holiday in all the following countries: Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Germany, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.

In countries like Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, March 8 is also celebrated as Mother's Day. This is consistent with other countries' tradition of men and children providing flowers to the women in their lives for the holiday. International Women's Day is a truly global celebration, and one of the only non-religious days observed all around the world.

When is International Women’s Day?

International Women's Day takes place on March 8 every year. This date was chosen because of two major protests in New York City, in 1857 and 1908. Both focused on creating safer working conditions in factories and promoting women's suffrage.

While the first two observances of International Women's Day took place in February, the official date was set as March 8 in 1913. It can be tricky to find all of the protests and celebrations, however, because many parts of the world were on different calendars than we currently use. For example, Russia still followed the Julian calendar, so they celebrated International Women's Day on February 23.

Since the founding of International Women's Day, March 8 has become a notable day for political activism, with some surprisingly powerful results. In 1917, for instance, Russian women began a massive labor strike which, combined with other post-war protests, resulted in Czar Nicholas II abdicating the throne and Russian women receiving the right to vote.

While the United Nations declared in 1977 that national Women's Day celebrations could be held on any day, most countries have kept March 8 to honor these early protest movements.

A brief history of International Women's Day

Although there have been major pushes for women's rights throughout history, much of the modern discussion dates back to World War I. With men around the world away at war, women stepped up to keep their countries going, often organizing rationing programs and working in factories to make sure resources were available at home and abroad.

When the war ended, many women were unwilling to go back to a life in the household. On top of that, they had proven, en mass, that women were fully capable of taking on more active roles in their country. This prompted a major social change, but it also provided women leverage to push for the right to vote.

In 1908, around 15,000 women marched in New York City to demand better working conditions and the right to vote. After all they had done during the war, they were unwilling to quietly give up the progress they had made. They teamed up with pre-existing activist groups to bring more attention to their concerns, and the Socialist Party of America declared February 28 to be "National Woman's Day" in 1909.

While this first major event took place in the United States, similar events were happening around the world. The International Conference of Socialist Women met in 1910, where a team of representatives from 17 countries decided to designate one day per year as Women's Day, with an emphasis on women's suffrage. The motion was championed by Clara Zetkin, a German woman who was exiled when the Nazi Party came into power.

The first official International Women's Day took place in 1911, but it was only observed in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Even so, the idea quickly caught on, driving suffrage movements around the world.

International Women's Day was observed across much of Europe, as well as some countries in the Americas, for the next few decades. However, as women gained the right to vote, many countries stopped celebrating the holiday, believing it had served its purpose. With one win under their belts, women were told to be content with what they had gotten.

In addition, International Women's Day was a casualty of Cold War politics in western countries, due to its connections with socialism and the Russian Revolution. Any behavior that could be considered sympathetic to communism was under scrutiny, which included observing a socialist-created holiday. IWD only came back into common discourse in 2001, with the launch of its website and widespread discussions of sexual assault and reproductive rights.

Now, International Women's Day is intended as both a celebration and a reminder to keep pushing forward. It is particularly popular in countries where women are considered second-class citizens, but it is gaining in popularity because, even in the countries where women can vote, there is still a long way to go before we reach true equality.

How to celebrate International Women’s Day

There are many ways to celebrate International Women's Day, which gives people the ability to participate, regardless of their personal circumstances. According to the IWD website, "all IWD activity is valid." But it can be hard to think of ways to celebrate without guidance.

One major way that you could celebrate International Women's Day is to take political action. Look into what legislation is being considered that impacts women's rights, and contact your representatives. Plan a rally or protest, using the IWD Planning Toolkit. Or consider donating to charities that focus on supporting women.

You can also attend an International Women's Day event. There is a ton of variety in this option, with events held around the world focused on different topics. Some events share academic information about women and women's rights, while others try to bring more awareness to women who are thriving in their communities.

Find an International Women's Day event near you

If you'd rather focus on smaller tasks, there can also be a lot of benefit to raising awareness about International Women's Day. You can post on social media about it or share speeches that others are making about the status of women's rights around the world.

The official color for International Women's Day is purple, which has historically been associated with femininity and justice. So on March 8, wear your favorite purple outfit, and tell people what it means.

For those who would rather focus on their own communities, you can always celebrate the women in your life. Try to uplift them where possible and show your appreciation for all they do. While there is no official greeting for International Women's Day, you'll never go awry by thanking the women in your life and telling them how much you value them.

Additional guidance on how to participate can come from the holiday's annual theme. In 2024, the theme is "Inspire Inclusion," which the website explains "calls for action to break down barriers, challenge stereotypes, and create environments where all women are valued and respected."

This theme ties into the Women's History Month theme of "Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion." In essence, these two themes are all about the idea of intersectionalism. While women, in general, have to fight for equal rights, that struggle can be significantly harder for women who are part of other marginalized communities.

To honor this year's themes, people should think about what they can do not just to empower women, but to empower women of color, trans women, disabled women, and more.

Got questions about history, trivia, or anything else? Send an email to askeverest@fansided.comand we might answer here on the site!

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