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What Exactly Is International Women’s Day? A Quick Primer

Maybe you’ve seen the hashtag on social media posts. Perhaps you heard a speech referencing it. You’re likely familiar — at least on a surface level — with International Women’s Day. You may be less familiar, though, with what the special occasion stands for and why it’s held each year on March 8. In short, it’s exactly as it seems… a day devoted to women everywhere.

Of course, that’s a simplified definition. International Women’s Day is a dynamic holiday dedicated to lifting up the social, economic, cultural and political accomplishments of women. It is also rooted in raising awareness of the issues women face across the spectrum and, accordingly, advocating for gender parity.

Considering the first International Women’s Day took place in February, you may be wondering why it’s now held on March 8. But before we get into that, let’s look back in time at the day’s humble beginnings.

On Feb. 28, 1908, roughly 15,000 women (largely garment workers) took to the streets of New York City to demand the rights and respect they were owed. They rallied for things like shorter work hours, pay equity and even suffrage. “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood… [but] home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state,” attendee Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of The Yellow Wallpaper, told the crowd. Hear! Hear!

The following year, women marched on the same day — albeit backed at that point by the Socialist Party of America. But by 1910, the momentum had truly gone global. At the second International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen that year, an activist by the name of Clara Zetkin proposed there should be a date of significance on which women from all over the world could celebrate (or demonstrate) in solidarity each year.

In an incredible showing, more than 100 women from 17 countries agreed unanimously to start International Women’s Day. Got goose bumps yet? If not, you will soon — the next year, in 1911, more than 1 million women and men in Europe marched and attended International Women’s Day rallies or demonstrations.

On March 8, 1917, in correlation with these rallies, women in Russia took a stand for Bread and Peace in the midst of war. When the czar abdicated four days later and women were granted suffrage, the demonstrators were given credit for sparking the Russian Revolution.

It’s no surprise, then, that in 1975, the United Nations chose March 8 to serve as the official International Women’s Day holiday in honor of the women from Petrograd who set a revolution into motion.

Today, International Women’s Day is recognized in more than 100 countries all over the globe. Although women’s visibility has undoubtedly increased since International Women’s Day began, there is still much work to do. Recent movements such as #MeToo, Time’s Up and the Women’s March all highlight the need for International Women’s Day.

In fact, International Women’s Day has a theme each year, and in recent years, those themes speak directly to the importance of pushing forward. The IWD theme for 2016 was Pledge for Parity. In 2017, it was Be Bold for Change. In 2018, the IWD theme was Press for Progress and in 2019 it was is Think Equal, Build Smart, Innovate for Change. This year, it’s “#BreakTheBias”

According to their website, the 2022 theme aims to create “A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated.”

If you want to celebrate the holiday with your own community, you can search for events happening near you on the International Women’s Day website.

A version of this article was originally published March 2018. 

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