International Women's Day

March 8th commemorates women's rights and peace

by Borgna Brunner
International Women's Day montage of posters through the years

The United Nations' theme for International Women's Day in 2013 is "The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum."


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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 over 95 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.

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