International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on March 8 every year. It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.
While the first observance of a Women’s Day was held on February 28, 1909 in New York, March 8 was suggested by the 1910 International Woman’s Conference to become an “International Woman’s Day.” After women gained suffrage in Soviet Russia in 1917, March 8 became a national holiday there. The day was then predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.
Women’s demonstration for bread and peace – March the 8th, 1917, Petrograd, Russia
Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburgin January 1910
The earliest Women’s Day observance, called “National Woman’s Day,”  was held on February 28, 1909 in New York, organized by the Socialist Party of America at the suggestion of Theresa Malkiel. Though there have been claims that the day was commemorating a protest by women garment workers in New York on March 8, 1857, researchers have described this as a myth.
In August 1910, an International Socialist Women’s Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired in part by the American socialists, German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual Women’s Day and was seconded by fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin, supported by Käte Duncker, although no date was specified at that conference. Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. The following year on March 19, 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations. In Vienna, women paraded on the Ringstrasse and carried banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination. The Americans continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February.
Female members of the Australian Builders Labourers Federation march on International Women’s Day 1975 in Sydney
In 1913 Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Saturday in February (by the Julian calendar then used in Russia).
Although there were some women-led strikes, marches, and other protests in the years leading up to 1914, none of them happened on March 8. In 1914 International Women’s Day was held on March 8, possibly because that day was a Sunday, and now it is always held on March 8 in all countries. The 1914 observance of the Day in Germany was dedicated to women’s right to vote, which German women did not win until 1918.
In London there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.
On March 8, 1917, on the Gregorian calendar, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, women textile workers began a demonstration, covering the whole city. This marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution. Women in Saint Petersburg went on strike that day for “Bread and Peace” – demanding the end of World War I, an end to Russian food shortages, and the end of czarism. Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in the morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.” Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.
Following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin made it an official holiday in the Soviet Union, but it was a working day until 1965. On May 8, 1965 by the decree of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet International Women’s Day was declared a non-working day in the USSR “in commemoration of the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War, in their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also marking the great contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples, and the struggle for peace. But still, women’s day must be celebrated as are other holidays.”
From its official adoption in Soviet Russia following the Revolution in 1917, the holiday was predominantly celebrated in communist countries and by the communist movement worldwide. It was celebrated by the communists in China from 1922. After the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 the State Council proclaimed on December 23 that March 8 would be made an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.
Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri led a women’s march in Madrid in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War.
The United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day in the International Women’s Year, 1975. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace.