(updated from the original published to Bubblews writing site, now gone)
Today, 8 March 2016, is International Women’s Day. The day features various events around the world to celebrate the achievements of and respect for women. It is especially important here in Australia as we have a right-wing Coalition government (of the Liberal and National parties) that arguably hasn’t been particularly into women although it is improving. In a 19-person Cabinet under previous PM Tony Abbott, there was originally one woman. Not surprisingly, Australia has more International Women’s Day events per head of population than most countries.
The history of International Women’s Day is the story of the struggle of women to get a better deal in life. I think the theme for this day in 2016, “Pledge for parity”, is spot on. If we give women and other people who are potentially disadvantaged by various political, social and economic systems the same opportunity as those traditionally favored by these systems, then society and the economy will be much better off for it.
Women had long played a role in meetings and demonstrations aimed at improving their lot. Female reform societies were established in northern England in mid 1819 and many members wore white and carried their society flags at a huge meeting for parliamentary reform, which would become known as the Peterloo Massacre, in Manchester, UK in August of that year.
International Women’s Day came out of labor movements in the US and Europe in the first decade of the 20th century. The first women’s day was held in Chicago on 3 May 1908. National Woman’s Day was first celebrated in New York on 28 February 1909 when about 15,000 women, including many from the garment industry, marched for better pay and conditions and voting rights. The day was observed each year until 1913.
The first International Conference of Working Women was held in March 1910 in Copenhagen. At the second one, also held in Copenhagen, in August of that year, socialist Luise Zietz proposed an International Women’s Day. It received unanimous approval from the over 100 women, including the three female members of the Finnish parliament as well as women from socialist parties, unions, and working women’s clubs from 17 countries who had gathered for the conference.
Clara Zetkin of Germany’s Social Democratic Party’s Women’s Office organised the first International Women’s Day on 19 March 1911, attended by over one million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. They campaigned for the right of women to work, vote, hold public office, and not be discriminated against.
Russian women took part in International Women’s Day in 1913, campaigning for peace. It was celebrated on the last Sunday of February, under the Julian calendar still used at that time in Russia. From 1914, International Women’s Day was moved to 8 March and has been held on that day ever since. Peace remained a theme of the day.
In 1917, Russian women in St Petersburg marked the day (23 February under their Julian calendar; 8 March under the Gregorian calendar) by going on strike for “bread and peace”, protesting about food shortages and the war. Four days later, the women were still on strike and this initiated the February revolution (it was still February in Russia), forcing the tsar to abdicate. The new provisional government gave women the vote.
After the October Revolution, International Women’s Day was held each year in the USSR and it became a holiday from 1965. The day was mainly celebrated in communist countries, including China from 1922 and Spain from 1936. In China from 1949, women were given a half-day holiday to celebrate women’s day.
International Women’s Day celebrations were revitalised in the west in the 1970s. The United Nations designated 1975 as International Women’s Year, and International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8 of that year and every year since. From 1996, the UN has given International Women’s Day a different theme each year and these have included themes around peace, rights, equality and so on.
The prominence of International Women’s Day has grown steadily since the 1970s. Large celebrations and demonstrations are held in the US, Canada, Europe, UK and Australia. It is an official holiday in many Asian and African countries.