Women’s History Month: International Women’s Day

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Top image: Women’s History Month is celebrated each March in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. This year’s theme in the United States, selected by the National Women’s History Project, is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” The 2017 poster for Women’s History Month depicts “Rosie the Riveter,” a symbol of the contributions of women to the Allied military manufacturing effort during World War II (1939-1945).
Credit: © National Women’s History Project

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), and in honor of Women’s History Month, we look at this global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. In recent years, the day has also become a call to action for accelerating gender parity. IWD is celebrated around the world with arts performances, conferences, marches, rallies, talks, and networking events.

Begun in Europe in the early 1900’s, today IWD is celebrated in more than 100 countries, including Australia, Canada, India, Japan, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Africa, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is also an official holiday in many countries, including Afghanistan, Armenia,China (for women only), Cuba, Russia, Uganda, Ukraine, Vietnam, and Zambia, as well as in the region of Palestine.

The first national Women’s Day observance was on Feb. 28, 1909, in New York City. It was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union, in which women protested against working conditions. The first IWD was on March 19, 1911, and was observed by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. Women participated in hundreds of demonstrations and demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against sex discrimination in employment. IWD was held on March 8 for the first time in Germany in 1914. The day was intended to promote suffrage (the right to vote) for German women. After that, many countries began observing IWD on March 8.

In 1975, as part of International Women’s Year, the United Nations (UN) began officially recognizing and sponsoring IWD on March 8 and it became a national holiday in even more nations. Each year, the UN designates an official campaign theme for IWD. The theme for IWD 2017 is “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030.” Also known by the Twitter hashtag #BeBoldForChange, the campaign encourages people to take bold action to help form a more gender-inclusive world. Participating countries may also choose their own themes.

A group celebrates International Women’s Day in 2009 at the statue of “La Pola” in the Candelaria district of Bogotá, Colombia. Policarpa Salavarrieta, known as “La Pola,” was a heroine of the Colombian Independence Movement of the early 1800's. Credit: Alex Torrenegra (licensed under CC BY 2.0)

Recognition of IWD in March led to the entire month being declared Women’s History Month in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. It is a time to recognize women’s achievements and contributions to society. Women’s History Month traces its beginnings to an effort begun by a school district in Sonoma County, California, in 1978. Earlier in that decade, women historians in the United States had begun to increase their focus on the contributions of women throughout history. In 1978, the school district organized a Women’s History Week to promote the teaching of women’s history. School officials chose the week of March 8 to include IWD. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the first national Women’s History Week for March 2-8. Women’s History Week was so popular that in 1981, the U.S. Congress passed a joint resolution requesting the president to make the week a country-wide celebration beginning in 1982.

Over the next five years, Congress continued to pass joint resolutions designating a week in March as Women’s History Week. In the meantime, a number of states began their own efforts. By 1986, 14 states had declared March as Women’s History Month. Finally, in 1987, after receiving a petition from the National Women’s History Project, Congress passed a public law that designated the month of March 1987 as Women’s History Month. From 1988 to 1994, Congress passed additional resolutions authorizing the president to proclaim March of each year Women’s History Month. Since 1995, each U.S. president has issued annual proclamations to that effect.

Each year, Women’s History Month in the United States also celebrates a different theme. This year’s theme, selected by the National Women’s History Project, is “Honoring Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.” The theme honors “women who have successfully challenged the role of women in both business and the paid labor force. Women have always worked, but often their work has been undervalued and unpaid.”

Women’s History Month has been celebrated in March in Australia since 2000, and in the United Kingdom since 2011.

In Canada, Women’s History Month has been celebrated in October since 1992. It coincides with a commemoration of the Persons Case. The case involved a legal decision on Oct. 18, 1929, that changed the political status of Canadian women. Some other countries celebrate a similar month dedicated to women’s achievements. For example, the Philippines celebrates Women’s Month in March. South Africa commemorates a women’s protest march that took place in August 1956 with Women’s Day on August 9 and Women’s Month in August each year.


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