causes for celebration

International Women’s Day Is Not a Hallmark Holiday

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International Women’s Day has come again and with it, the classic misguided notion that it — like Take Your Friend’s Kid’s Son to Work Day and National Gluten-Free Grilled-Cheese Day — is a holiday created by marketing brain trusts at major brands to promote capitalism. Contrary to popular belief, the noted men at Tampax did not sit around and brainstorm a new national holiday on which to promote their products. Why bother with all the kerfuffle and misguided hashtag attempts — we already have one. And it’s been around since the early 1900s.

Though we now fondly know March 8 every year to be the day we celebrate International Women’s Day, it’s not always been that way. In 1908, amid early discussions about women’s poorly paid labor, long hours, and lack of voting rights (hahahahaha, sound familiar?), the first Women’s Day marches took place. The very first was in 1908, when 15,000 women (in New York City, baby!) took to the streets to protest. Only a year later and the inaugural national Women’s Day was born on February 28, 1909, in conjunction with the Socialist Party of America. Were the first Bernie Bros actually women? It really makes you think.

This tradition of celebrating National Women’s Day continued for five years in the States, while Germans Louise Zietz and Clara Zetkin were floating a larger idea internationally. Taking inspiration from Zietz, Zetkin, a Marxist and advocate or women’s rights, brought the idea of having an International Women’s Day to the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen in 1910. Her idea was appreciated so much by the hundreds of women in attendance — socialists, workers, and union laborers alike — that they all decreed that it must happen the following year. On March 19, 1911, Europe saw its first-ever International Women’s Day. The date was subsequently changed to March 8 two years later, and stuck. It’s been that way ever since. 

The holiday continued steadily on every year and was finally acknowledged by the U.N. in 1975, who decided to officially sanction and recognize the holiday on a yearly basis. The day began receiving yearly themes in 1996, and has since been celebrated with themes like World Free of Violence Against Women, Investing in Women and Girls, and this year’s Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality, though many of the recognized themes are just as evergreen as the need to celebrate the day itself.

The hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day took place in 2011, an entire century after over a million Europeans in several countries came together to campaign for women’s rights. The day was celebrated by President Barack Obama when he inaugurated March 2011 as Women’s History Month, which is nationally celebrated every year now.

International Women’s Day is a national holiday and day off in the following countries — Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macedonia (for women only), Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia — but not the United States. Maybe next year?

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Workers of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) ride in horse-drawn carts during a Labor Day parade in New York City.

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A protest on International Women’s Day in St. Petersburg, Russia, in February 1917.

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Clara Zetkin, Marxist and founder of International Women’s Day, in 1928.

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A poster for International Women’s Day in 1934 that reads, “Long live the March 8!”

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Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Soong May-ling) gave a speech in front of 10,000 Chinese women at International Women’s Day in 1939.

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International Women’s Day in 1945 in the United Kingdom.

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Delegates meet in London to celebrate International Women’s Day in 1947. From left to right, Marie Campbell (Jamaica), Miss Hazeley (Sierra Leone), Miss Inyang (Nigeria), and Miss Ikpeme (Nigeria).

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An International Women’s Day Feminist Demonstration in Trafalgar Square in London in 1973.

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French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing delivers a speech during the inauguration of International Women’s Day on March 1, 1975, at the Palais des Congrès in Paris.

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A group of feminist demonstrators marching under the banner of the Movement for the Liberation of Women (MLF) on International Women’s Day, 1981.

International Women’s Day Is Not a Fake Holiday