International Women's Day

Updated February 26, 2021 | Borgna Brunner

March 8th commemorates women's rights and peace

International Women's Day montage of posters through the years

The United Nations' theme for International Women's Day in 2017 is "Be Bold for Change."

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In its various incarnations, ranging from a communist holiday to a U.N.-sponsored event, International Women's Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years.

Inspired by an American commemoration of working women, the German socialist Klara Zetkin organized International Women's Day (IWD) in 1911. On March 19, socialists from Germany, Austria, Denmark and other European countries held strikes and marches. Russian revolutionary and feminist Aleksandra Kollontai, who helped organize the event, described it as "one seething trembling sea of women."

Womens Rights and Peace

As the nascent annual event developed, it took on the cause of peace as well as women's rights. In 1915, Zetkin organized a demonstration in Bern, Switzerland, to urge the end of World War I. Women on both sides of the war turned out.

Russian Women and the February Revolution

Both Zetkin and Kollontai took part in the most famous International Women's Day—the March 8, 1917, strike "for bread and peace" led by Russian women in St. Petersburg. The IWD strike merged with riots that had spread through the city between March 8–12. The February Revolution, as it became known, forced the Czar Nicholas II to abdicate. (Russia switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1918, which moved the dates of the February revolution [Feb. 24–28, old style] to March.)

The "Heroic Woman Worker," Soviet Style

Kollontai, a minister in the first Soviet government, persuaded Lenin to make March 8 an official communist holiday. During the Soviet period, the holiday celebrated "the heroic woman worker." Today it is still a Russian holiday—celebrated in the fashion of Mother's Day with flowers or breakfast in bed—in which men show appreciation for the women in their lives.

International Women's Day, the U.S., and the U.N.

IWD was commemorated in the United States during the 1910s and 1920s, but then dwindled. It was revived during the women's movement in the 1960s, but without its socialist associations. In 1975, the U.N. began sponsoring International Women's Day.

International Women's Day is now an official holiday in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, Moldova, Mongolia, Russia, Tajikstan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. In addition, events are held all over the world.

Some of the issues the U.N. and International Women's Day have focused on include the following:

  • The World Economic Forum predicted in 2014 that it would take until 2095 to achieve global gender parity. Then one year later in 2015, they estimated that a slowdown in the already glacial pace of progress meant the gender gap wouldn't close entirely until 2133.
  • About 25,000 brides are burned to death each year in India because of insufficient dowries. The groom's family will set the bride on fire, presenting it as an accident or suicide. The groom is then free to remarry.
  • In a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own families to preserve the family's honor. Honor killings have been reported in Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries.
  • According to UNICEF, 100 million to 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. Today, this practice is carried out in 28 African countries, despite the fact that it is outlawed in a number of these nations.
  • Rape as a weapon of war has been used in Chiapas, Mexico, Rwanda, Kuwait, Haiti, Colombia, and elsewhere.
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