A Brief History of International Women’s Day
by Maria Perica
On March 8, 1857, thousands of women working in textile factories took to the streets of New York City to protest inhumane working conditions, low wages, and long hours. This was the first recorded event in history of an organized group of women workers fighting for their rights. However, there is still some debate as to whether this event actually took place. Some attribute the earliest organization of protesters in New York City to be fifty-one years later on March 8, 1908.
While the actual origins of International Women’s Day are unclear, the holiday’s roots come out of the women involved in the Socialist Party of America, who organized an observance of the 1908 strike one year later. These women proposed a day to fight for women’s rights and honor those women who fought before them. Many of these protests were originally focused on women’s suffrage, but wages, working conditions, and social equality were among the issues brought up. The idea of having a day dedicated to advancing the status of women in society quickly spread overseas, and the first official proposal of an International Women’s Day came out of a socialist congress in Denmark. For many years, this holiday was celebrated on the last Sunday of February in the United States and in many socialist and communist European countries.
In 1913, March 8th was designated the official date to commemorate the previous socialist demonstrations in the United States, but also to fight for women’s rights across the whole world. Following the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that claimed over 140 lives, most of whom were European immigrant women, the focus of International Women’s Day shifted to the poor working conditions that many women endured.
Since then, the holiday’s socialist roots have been somewhat blurred. Many countries now celebrate the day as an appreciation for ordinary women. Gifts, such as flowers, are often given as small tokens of admiration. In 1975, the United Nations began celebrating the holiday with a new theme every year that refocuses the holiday on its original mission of advancing women’s rights and status. The theme for 2016 is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” The “Step It Up” initiative, run by UN Women, aims to give all women across the world equal opportunities and rights by 2030. This March, take some time to thank the women who fought for women’s rights in the past and the ones who continue to do so everywhere you look.