International Women’s Day is a holiday that’s celebrated worldwide on March 8th and celebrates the cultural, economic, and political achievements of all women. It also celebrates the social achievements of women. Celebrations of women’s achievements aren’t the only purpose for this holiday. It’s also designed to raise awareness about the importance of women’s equality, accelerate gender parity between men and women, and raise money for charities that address women’s issues.
Every year, a theme is chosen for this holiday. In the past, this theme has included “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives” in 2018, “Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change” in 2019, “I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights” in 2020 and “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world” in 2021.
International Women’s Day History
International Women’s Day as a holiday can be traced back to the early 19th century. This is a time when urbanization and industrialization were not only expanding people’s lives but were also causing a lot of turbulence in the world. At the same time, human populations around the globe boomed, along with some pretty radical ideologies. To put it simply, it was a time of great change and expansion.
Women’s inequality and oppression added to the growing unrest and the political debate. More and more women were becoming vocal and politically active as they began to campaign for much-needed change. Then something remarkable happened. In 1908, approximately 15,000 women would end up marching through the streets of New York City. Their demand was simple but powerful. They wanted shorter hours, better wages, and most importantly voting rights. These women knew that without voting rights they’d never be able to enact the systemic changes they needed to enact, so that’s why it was one of the most important points of their movement.
Two years later, in 1910, the Second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was at this convention that the idea of an International Women’s Day was tabled by the leader of the “Women’s Office” of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, Clara Zetkin. Clara Zetkin proposed there should be a woman’s day in every country to ensure that the demands of women are addressed. This conference had over 100 women representatives from 17 different countries, unions, political parties, and working women’s clubs.
The following year, in 1911, International Women’s Day was observed for the very first time in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and Germany on March 19th. On this first celebration of the day, over a million men and women attended International Women’s Day rallies all over the world. These rallies actively campaigned for women’s right to vote, work, be properly trained and educated in the field of their choice, hold public office, and get rid of discrimination.
The enthusiasm of the women’s movement would get an unfortunate boost when the “Triangle Fire” claimed the lives of over 140 working women, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrants, in New York City on March 25th. This tragic event highlighted the need for changes to the working conditions faced by women by passing important labor legislation in the U.S.
The year 1911 was also the time of the Bread & Roses campaign. The name of this campaign was a political slogan that originated from a speech given by Helen Todd, an American women’s suffrage activist. Her speech contained a line that said “bread for all, and roses, too.” This speech would inspire the poem Bread and Roses by American poet and novelist James Oppenheim. This poem was published in The American Magazine in December 1911 and contained the attribution line” Bread for all, and roses, too—a slogan of the women in the West.” In this metaphor, bread represents the notion that all workers should have enough to eat. And the roses represent the things workers need to not just survive but to enjoy the little things in life. As such, bread and roses have been a significant rallying cry for women’s rights through the 20th and 21st centuries.
In 1913, Russian women celebrated their first observation of this holiday on February 23—which was the last Sunday in February of that year. Following that observation, and after many discussions, it was decided that International Women’s Day should be celebrated annually on March 8 in a standardized way across the world. The following year, with the onset of WWI, women all over Europe began campaigns to not only express their solidarity but to campaign against the war.
On the last Sunday of February in 2017, a strike for “bread & peace” was organized by Russian women. This was in direct response to the death of over two million Russian soldiers during the war. The women remained on strike for four days, opposed by political leaders the whole time, and ending up forcing the Czar to abdicate. They then forced the provisional government to grant them the right to vote. Russia was using the Julian calendar at the time, which would make the date the strike began February 23, but on the Gregorian calendar that date was March 8, 1917.
Even though International Women’s Day celebrations continued from 1911 onward, it wouldn’t be until 1975 that the United Nations would officially celebrate the holiday. It would be another two years, until December of 1977, that the United Nations General Assembly would adopt the resolution proclaiming a UN Day for Women’s Rights & International Peace. According to the resolution, this day would be observed by the UN Member States on any day of the year and in accordance with any national or historical traditions in each Member State.
It would be another 19-years, however, before the United Nations introduced themes to their annual celebration of this holiday. The first them introduced by the UN was “Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future” in 1996. This was followed by “Women at the Peace table” in 1997; “Women and Human Rights” in 1998; “World Free of Violence Against Women” in 1999; and, “Women Uniting for Peace.”
By the year 2000, the topic of feminism began to become less popular in the world, and there seemed to be a movement directly opposing it by certain political factions. It became clear to feminists, women rights activists, and proponents of International Women’s Day that something had to be done to reignite the movement. Women had not yet broken the glass ceiling of pay equality and in many ways, women were still second-class citizens. Something had to be done to re-energize the base.
In 2001, a website was launched to highlight the importance of this holiday and that website was internationalwomensday.com. This website not only served to highlight the importance of women’s rights but also acts as a way to raise money for women-specific charities. In 2011, on the 100-year anniversary of the first International Women’s Day, U.S President Barack Obama proclaimed March to be “Women History Month” for 2011.
The fight for women’s rights and equality continues to this day. There’s still a lot of work to be done, and women’s activists are doing the hard work to fight for those changes. And International Women’s Day remains an important part of that work. It gives people a chance to reflect upon the history of the women’s rights movement, as well as to actively campaign for change.
Official UN Themes For International Women’ Day 1996-2021
Although we mention a few of the United Nations annual themes for this holiday, we thought that it would be appropriate to collect all of them from 1996 to 2021 below. So without further explanation, below are the UN themes for International Women’s Day for a quarter of a century.
- 1996: Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future
- 1997: Women and the Peace Table
- 1998: Women and Human Rights
- 1999: World Free of Violence Against Women
- 2000: Women Uniting for Peace
- 2001: Women and Peace: Women Managing Conflicts
- 2002: Afghan Women Today: Realities and Opportunities
- 2003: Gender Equality and the Millennium Development Goals
- 2004: Women and HIV/AIDS
- 2005: Gender Equality Beyond 2005; Building a More Secure Future
- 2006: Women in Decision-making
- 2007: Ending Impunity for Violence Against Women and Girls
- 2008: Investing in Women and Girls
- 2009: Women and Men United to End Violence Against Women and Girls
- 2010: Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All
- 2011: Equal Access to Education, Training, and Science and Technology: Pathway to Decent Work for Women
- 2012: Empower Rural Women, End Poverty, and Hunger
- 2013: A Promise is a Promise: Time for Action to End Violence Against Women
- 2014: Equality for Women is Progress for All
- 2015: Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!
- 2016: Planet 50–50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality
- 2017: Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030
- 2018: Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives
- 2019: Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change
- 2020: I am Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights
- 2021: Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world
A Short List Of Some Of The Women Who Shaped Feminism
Since you can’t talk about suffrage and women’s rights without talking about the women involved, we thought that we’d list some of the most influential feminists in history. Even though we can’t give a bio for each of the women listed below, we do hope that the following list will encourage our readers to do their own research and find out more about these remarkable women.
- Mary Wollstonecraft
- Susan B. Anthony
- Alice Stone Blackwell
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton
- Emmeline Pankhurst
- Sojourner Truth
- Simone de Beauvoir
- Eleanor Roosevelt
- Betty Friedan
- Gloria Steinem
- Angela Davis
- bell hooks
- Barbara Walters
- Coretta Scott King
- Maya Angelou
- Audre Lorde
- Ruth Bader Ginsburg
- Alice Walker
- Hillary Clinton
- Michelle Obama
- Oprah Winfrey
- Malala Yousafzai
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Roxane Gay
- Janet Mock
- Patrisse Cullors
- Tarana Burke
- Meghan Markle
- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
- Naomi Klein
- Kathleen Neal Cleaver
- Winona LaDuke
- Laverne Cox
Of course, the above list of people who have advocated for feminism is incomplete. There are millions more people who have fought for gender parity and equal rights under the law. Fortunately, International Women’s Day is a great day to learn more about the remarkable people who are advancing the cause of feminism. And we urge everyone reading about this holiday to take the time to research them.
Observing International Women’s Day
An important way to celebrate this holiday is by taking the initiative to get involved in the women’s rights movement—either actively or in a supporting role. A person can attend a festival or lecture, organize a women’s rights event, or speak at a local fundraiser. A person can also become involved in the political fight for gender parity by getting involved in the political process on a local, state, or national level.
Successful women can also use this day to share what they do with younger women at job fairs to show them what is possible and to inspire them to reach for their dreams. Or, a person can simply learn about the history of the women’s rights movement and think about ways it can be carried forward today.
In some countries, it is customary for men to give their female colleagues and family ones small gifts and flowers on this day. In other countries, it’s observed much in the same way as Mother’s Day where children give their mothers and grandmothers special gifts. In Italy, the holiday is often observed by men giving women yellow mimosas. Of course, these are only a small fraction of the ways this day is celebrated and each country puts its own spin on its celebration.
While celebrating this holiday, people can use the hashtag #InternationalWomensDay on their social media posts to spread the word about it. And since International Women’s Day is a part of National Women’s History Month, they can also use the hashtag #NationalWomensHistoryMonth as well. Spread the word far and wide about this holiday and help the women’s movement march forward.
When is International Women’s Day?
|This year (2021)||
March 8 (Monday)
March 9 (Tuesday)
|Multiple dates - more|
|Next year (2022)||
March 8 (Tuesday)
March 9 (Wednesday)
|Multiple dates - more|
|Last year (2020)||
March 8 (Sunday)
March 9 (Monday)
|Multiple dates - more|