Afe for Vanguard

March 27, 2024

International Women’s Day: A day of celebration, by Afe Babalola 

Afe Babalola

EVERY year on March 8, the world comes together to celebrate International Women’s Day, IWD, a day dedicated to honouring the achievements of women across the globe and advocating for gender equality. This special day not only commemorates the historical strides women have made in society but also shines a light on the ongoing struggles they face in the quest for equality. The origins of International Women’s Day are deeply rooted in the early 20th Century movements for women’s rights, which sought to address issues of suffrage, labour rights, and discrimination.

IWD is a testament to the enduring spirit and resilience of women who have led the charge against injustice and inequality. It serves as a reminder of how far we have come and how much further we still need to go to achieve gender parity.

Celebrated worldwide through marches, conferences, and cultural events, International Women’s Day provides an opportunity for reflection, advocacy, and action towards a more inclusive and equitable world.

The rich history of International Women’s Day can be traced to its origins from the labour movements of the early 1900s to its recognition by the United Nations and its significance in the modern era. This article will highlight the importance of International Women’s Day promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls everywhere. 

Origins of International Women’s Day

The origins of International Women’s Day trace back to a confluence of social movements and historical events at the turn of the 20th century, during a period marked by rapid industrialisation, economic expansion, and growing political unrest. Women were at the forefront of advocating for their rights, seeking not only the right to vote but also fair employment practices, better working conditions, and equality. 

Early calls for women’s rights

The fight for women’s rights gained momentum throughout the 19th century, with various movements advocating for women’s suffrage, labour rights, and educational opportunities. However, it was in the early 20th century that these efforts coalesced into the establishment of an international day to highlight women’s demands.

The First National Women’s Day

The origins of IWD can be traced back to the United States, where the Socialist Party of America organised the first National Woman’s Day on February 28, 1909. This event was held in New York City and was aimed at advocating for equal rights for women, including suffrage. It was a response to the growing discontent among women, particularly those working in the garment industry, who were subjected to harsh working conditions, low wages, and discrimination.

The internationalisation of Women’s Day

The idea to make the day international came from Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and advocate for women’s rights. In August 1910, at the International Socialist Women’s Conference held in Copenhagen, Zetkin proposed the establishment of an International Women’s Day. Her proposal was met with unanimous approval from the over 100 women from 17 countries present at the conference, representing unions, socialist parties, and working women’s clubs. Zetkin’s proposal did not specify a date, but the idea was to promote equal rights, including suffrage, for women worldwide.

The First International Women’s Day

The first International Women’s Day was observed on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, with rallies and organised meetings that attracted thousands of women. These events focused on women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office, and end discrimination. Notably, less than a week after the first IWD, the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City brought further attention to the critical need for labour reforms and safety standards in the United States, highlighting the dire conditions many working women faced.

The date becomes official

In 1913 and 1914, International Women’s Day began to be observed on March 8, a date that has been officially maintained since. The choice of March 8 has various explanations, but it is widely recognised for its association with women’s activism in Russia in 1917, when women striking for “bread and peace” in response to World War I initiated a series of events that led to the abdication of the Tsar and the granting of the right to vote to Russian women.

The origins of International Women’s Day are rooted in the struggle for women’s rights and labour rights, reflecting a broader movement for social justice and equality. Over the years, IWD has evolved from a day of protest and demand for the franchise to a global celebration of women’s achievements and a continuing call for gender equality.

IWD in the early years

The early years of International Women’s Day are marked by a blend of activism, struggle, and the burgeoning movement towards gender equality and women’s rights. Following its establishment, IWD became a focal point for women around the world to unite in their demands for fair treatment, the right to vote, better working conditions, and equality. This period was characterised by significant events and milestones that laid the groundwork for future advancements in women’s rights.

Early 20th Century activism

In the years following its first observance, International Women’s Day was closely tied to the labour movements sweeping across Europe and North America. Women labourers were at the forefront, advocating for shorter work hours, better pay, and the right to unionise. The textile and garment industries, in particular, saw significant participation from women, who often worked in poor conditions for minimal wages.

The 1911 tragedy that galvanised the movement

A pivotal moment in the history of IWD occurred on March 25, 1911, with the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. This disaster, which claimed the lives of 146 garment workers, the majority of whom were young immigrant women, highlighted the dire working conditions and lack of safety standards. The public outcry that followed served as a catalyst for labour legislation in the United States and fuelled further activism for women’s labor rights globally.

The role of World War I

The outbreak of World War I in 1914 brought about significant changes to the societal roles of women. With men drafted into military service, women stepped into roles that were previously unavailable to them, including industrial work, clerical jobs, and positions in public service. This shift not only demonstrated women’s capability in the workforce but also reinforced the argument for women’s suffrage and equal rights. The end of the war in 1918 saw many countries granting women the right to vote, a monumental achievement partly attributed to their contributions during the war.

IWD gains international recognition

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, International Women’s Day grew in prominence and was celebrated by an increasing number of countries. It became a day not only to advocate for labour rights but also to push for women’s suffrage, education, and the right to hold public office. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 saw women gaining unprecedented rights, and March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia, further elevating the day’s significance.

The interwar years

The period between World War I and World War II saw continued efforts for women’s rights, with IWD serving as a platform for these demands. However, progress was uneven and faced many setbacks, including the rise of fascist regimes in Europe that curtailed women’s freedoms. Despite these challenges, IWD remained an important symbol of resistance and the ongoing fight for gender equality.

The United Nations’ involvement

The involvement of the United Nations, UN, marked a significant milestone in the history of International Women’s Day, amplifying its global reach and impact. The UN’s engagement with IWD began in earnest in the mid-20th century, as part of its broader commitment to promoting human rights and equality. This phase in the history of IWD underscores the increasing recognition of women’s rights as an integral part of the global agenda for peace and development.

Formal recognition and global advocacy

In 1975, during the International Women’s Year, the United Nations officially celebrated International Women’s Day for the first time. This recognition was a pivotal moment, providing IWD with a formal status within the international community and elevating the importance of gender equality and women’s empowerment on the global stage. It was a call to action for countries around the world to focus on the plight and contributions of women, integrating these concerns into their national and international policies.

To be concluded 

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