A brief history of International Women’s Day: what is it and why do we celebrate it?

International Women’s Day has existed in various forms across the world for more than 100 years. Ahead of this year's event – which takes place on 8 March and has a theme of “celebrating the past, planning the future” – here's a brief guide to the history of the day...

Black and white photo of a group of women marching while holding a sign saying 'International Women's Day'

What is International Women’s Day and when does it take place?

Taking place on 8 March every year, International Women’s Day is a global celebration of women and their achievements. It is also a day that seeks to raise awareness of issues affecting women around the world, highlighting initiatives and campaigns focused on improving women’s lives and increasing gender parity (equality between men and women).

Advertisement

According to the official website, the main aims of International Women’s Day are to “celebrate achievements; raise awareness about women’s equality; lobby for accelerated gender parity and fundraise for female-focused charities”.

Every International Women’s Day since 1996 has had a theme. The first was about “celebrating the past, planning the future”. The theme for International Women’s Day 2021 is “choose to challenge”, the idea being that “a challenged world is an alert world… and from challenge comes change”.

The official colours associated with International Women’s Day harken back to the women’s suffrage movement in Britain. They are: purple, which represents justice and dignity; green, which represents hope; and white, which symbolises purity (the latter being a somewhat controversial concept due to its associations with virginity).

The Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) used these colours in their campaigning in the UK in 1908. Activist Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence (1867–1954), editor of Votes for Women, a weekly newspaper, explained the choices as follows: “Purple, as everyone knows is the royal colour, it stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette, the instinct of freedom and dignity… white stands for purity in private and public life… green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.”]

International Women's Day spread from a weekly magazine of the CGIL (Communist Italian Trade Union), c1952. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)
International Women’s Day spread from a weekly magazine of the CGIL (Communist Italian Trade Union), c1952. (Photo by Fototeca Gilardi/Getty Images)

When did International Women’s Day start?

International Women’s Day has existed in various forms across the world for more than 100 years. It developed from a range of different labour and social justice movements to eventually become an annual event recognised by the UN.

A National Woman’s Day (NWD) was marked in the United States on 28 February 1909, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the first International Women’s Day took place (with Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland taking part). In 1975, the event was made ‘official’ by through recognition by the United Nations (UN).

Who was the brains behind it all? In many ways it was a collaborative effort – the result of numerous movements and activities. But if we want to be more specific, it was a woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) who was the first to propose the idea of an International Women’s Day. At a conference in Copenhagen of more than 100 working women from different countries, she suggested that every country celebrate a women’s day on the same date each year. Her proposal was met with unanimous approval – and thus International Women’s Day as we know it today was established.

International Women’s Day hasn’t always been celebrated on 8 March. This date came about as a result of a wartime strike by women in Russia in 1917, which began on Thursday 23 February (and corresponds to 8 March in the Gregorian calendar).

Advertisement

Rachel Dinning is the digital section editor at HistoryExtra