International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated annually on March 8th. But what is it exactly and when did it all begin?
The day has occurred for well over a century, with the first IWD gathering in 1911.The day is not country, group or organization specific – and belongs to all groups collectively everywhere.
Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained “The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
What is International Women’s Day?
International Women’s Day (March 8) is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity.
No one government, NGO, charity, corporation, academic institution, women’s network or media hub is solely responsible for International Women’s Day. Many organizations declare an annual IWD theme that supports their specific agenda or cause, and some of these are adopted more widely with relevance than others. International Women’s Day is a collective day of global celebration and a call for gender parity.
International Women’s Day is all about unity, celebration, reflection, advocacy and action – whatever that looks like globally at a local level. But one thing is for sure, International Women’s Day has been occurring for well over a century – and continue’s to grow from strength to strength.
What’s the history of IWD?
International Women’s Day (IWD) has been observed since the early 1900’s – a time of great expansion and turbulence in the industrialized world that saw booming population growth and the rise of radical ideologies.
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 accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913.
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.
Following the decision agreed at Copenhagen in 1911, International Women’s Day was honoured the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. 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 25th, 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 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 eve of World War I campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February 1913. In 1913 following discussions, International Women’s Day was transferred to March 8th and this day has remained the global date for International Women’s Day ever since. In 1914 further women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity. For example, in London in the United Kingdom there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8th 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.
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 1. 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 February 23rd on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. This day on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was March 8th.
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.
The UN commenced the adoption of an annual theme in 1996 – which was “Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future”. This theme was followed in 1997 with “Women at the Peace table”, and in 1998 with “Women and Human Rights”, and in 1999 with “World Free of Violence Against Women”, and so on each year until the current. More recent themes have included, for example, “Empower Rural Women, End Poverty & Hunger” and “A Promise is a Promise – Time for Action to End Violence Against Women”.
By the new millennium, International Women’s Day activity around the world had stalled in many countries. The world had moved on and feminism wasn’t a popular topic. International Women’s Day needed re-ignition. There was urgent work to do – battles had not been won and gender parity had still not been achieved.
The global internationalwomensday.com digital hub for everything IWD was launched to re-energize the day as an important platform to celebrate the successful achievements of women and to continue calls for accelerating gender parity. Each year the IWD website sees vast traffic and is used by millions of people and organizations all over the world to learn about and share IWD activity. The IWD website is made possible each year through support from corporations committed to driving gender parity. The website’s charity of choice for many years has been the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) whereby IWD fundraising is channelled. A more recent additional charity partnership is with global working women’s organization Catalyst Inc. The IWD website adopts an annual campaign theme that is globally relevant for groups and organizations. This campaign theme, one of many around the world, provides a framework and direction for annual IWD activity and takes into account the wider agenda of both celebration as well as a broad call to action for gender parity. Recent campaign themes have included: #BalanceforBetter, #PressforProgress, #BeBoldforChange, #PledgeforParity, #MakeItHappen, #TheGenderAgenda and more. Campaign themes for the global IWD website are collaboratively developed each year with stakeholders and widely adopted worldwide.
Today, International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world – in many countries, it is a national holiday. It has grown to become a global day of recognition of women’s achievements and a call to action to support women’s rights and advance gender equality.
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day, #InnovateForChange, is a call to action, asking everyone to harness the power of technology to create a more equal world.
With this in mind, the focus is on removing the barriers facing women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), so that new ideas and solutions that will transform our society and strengthen our economy.
In Canada, only a third of graduates in STEM are women, a difference that’s magnified in fields such as engineering and computer science. Meanwhile, Canada and other countries face major job shortages in many STEM fields. When women are held back from filling high-quality jobs like these, Canada’s economy is also held back.
Increasing the number of women in STEM is a simple, direct and effective way to fuel change that improves the lives of people across Canada. Let’s work together to create more opportunities for women and girls in STEM, where they can help shape our future into one of greater equality and prosperity for everyone.
Below, a video highlighting women in STEM:
For more information visit the website: cfc-swc.gc.ca
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