The roots of International Women’s Day are more radical than you think

Founded by female socialists agitating for equality, the holiday even helped spark the Russian Revolution.

By Erin Blakemore
Published 6 Mar 2020, 14:25 GMT, Updated 8 Mar 2022, 10:09 GMT
Women around the world, like this demonstrator in Barcelona, take to the streets to demand equal ...
Women around the world, like this demonstrator in Barcelona, take to the streets to demand equal rights on International Women’s Day.
Photograph by Pau Barrena, AFP, Getty

This International Women’s Day—celebrated every year on March 8— the world will pause to recognise the roughly 50 percent of the population who identify as women. But though the holiday has been co-opted by celebrities and brands, its roots are far more radical than you might imagine. More than a century ago, the day was created by socialist movement leaders impatient for equality for women.

In 1909, the United States labour movement and the push for women’s suffrage were both gaining steam. Russian refugee, labor organiser, and journalist Theresa Malkiel served on the women’s committee of the Socialist Party of America. Envisioning a more active role for women within the movement, she declared February 23, 1909 “National Woman’s Day.” New York socialists celebrated with a meeting of about 2,000 people in Manhattan.

“The very first observation of our national Woman’s Day,” recalled activist Meta L. Stern three years later, “proved so successful that Woman’s Day became generally accepted as an annual Socialist holiday.” Along with May Day, she explained, the day stood “for new hopes and new ideals; the abolition of wage slavery and sex slavery; the coming of a freer, better and happier manhood and womanhood.” (Here's how the idea of beauty is becoming more inclusive.)

Socialist Clara Zetkin advocated for women's rights and universal suffrage in Germany starting in the 1870s. In 1911, her work led to the first International Women's Day in Europe.

Photograph by Ullstein Bild, Getty

The day quickly caught the imagination of socialists in Europe, too. At the suggestion of organizer Clara Zetkin, Europeans celebrated the first International Women’s Day. Instead of a February date, they chose March 8, 1911: the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, the revolutionary socialist government that briefly ruled France. Women marked the occasion with marches and speeches. (These are the best and worst places to be a woman today.)

Over the years that followed, the holiday became a powerful way for women to make their voices heard—and to protest World War I. As historian Temma Kapla explains, participants in wartime commemorations of the holiday “proclaimed their rights as wives and mothers or as housekeepers in public as well as private realms to intercede where the usual political leaders seemed incompetent.”

In March 1917, IWD celebrations helped spark a revolution. When tens of thousands of women converged in Petrograd, Russia to mark the holiday—as well as demand an end to World War I and protest food shortages—the demonstrations turned into a massive strike. Within hours, 100,000 workers, including men, walked out on their jobs to join the demonstrators.

The movement grew to as many as 150,000 striking workers within a few days. Eventually, even the Russian army joined the marchers, withdrawing their support from the Tsar Nicholas. It was the beginning of the Russian Revolution. (See women warriors throughout history.)

After World War II, the holiday picked up steam, and lost many of its associations with socialism and radical politics. As the women’s liberation movement swept around the world in the 1970s, the United Nations designated 1975 International Women’s Year and celebrated the holiday for the first time. Two years later in 1977, it designated March 8 International Women’s Day.

Today, the holiday is celebrated around the world with bouquets of fragrant flowers given by men to women or from woman to woman; as the New York Times’ James Hill and Andrew E. Kramer report, the Russian trade in IWD flowers is so brisk that it’s considered a cornerstone of the Dutch floral industry. IWD is a national holiday in 27 countries like Russia, Afghanistan, and Laos; in some countries, like Nepal and China, it’s a national holiday for women only.

This year’s observance celebrates “Generation Equality” and the continued fight for equal rights for women. (Around the world, women are taking charge of their futures.)

“We don’t have an equal world at the moment and women are angry and concerned about the future,” said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in a statement. “It's an impatience that runs deep, and it has been brewing for years…..Though we are radically impatient, we are not giving up and we are hopeful.”


Through the eyes of women—a century of National Geographic photography


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