The Fight for Women's Rights: A Short "Herstory" of International Women's Day

international women's day history

( One month out of 12 in a year, we see a sudden surge of profile features on women entrepreneurs or women scientists, promos and perks dedicated to women, and other things that celebrate women. It's the month of March, which means it's Women's History Month—a time when we highlight the contributions of women to events in history (Or "herstory," as other people would say). March 8 marks International Women's Day, which is an important day in the women's rights movement.

The women's rights movements have accomplished so much all over the world. Women were finally allowed to vote after decades of protesting, have the right to control their own money and property, and take custody of their kids following a divorce. Employers were prohibited from firing women on the basis of their pregnancy, discrimination on the basis of sex was banned in public schools, and women's studies programs were created in tertiary education. 


While these are things we take for granted today, there was a time when women were not even allowed to learn how to read and write. And thanks to those who came before us, you are now reading this article because you can.

Of course, there are still other countries and societies, including the Philippines', where women's rights—especially trans women's rights—have yet to improve.

Also read: 10 Protests That Changed the World in the 21st Century

History of International Women's Day

Based on historian Temma Kaplan's On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day, which was published in 1985, the first National Woman's Day (then with the singular 'woman') was observed on February 28, 1909, in the United States. It was conceived by labor activist Theresa Malkiel and organized by the Socialist Party of America, who made sure that it was held on a Sunday so that working women could participate.

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On this day, Writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman addressed a Brooklyn crowd in Parkside Church and said: "It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood…[but] home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state."

In August 1910, an International Socialist Women's Conference was held preceding the general meeting of the Socialist Second International. About 100 women, all representatives of unions, socialist parties, and working women's clubs, from 17 countries participated in this event. As suggested by communist activist Clara Zetkin, the group proposed to hold an International Women's Day for the following year as a way to promote women's right to vote, though no date was set yet for the celebration.

Finally, on March 19, 1911, the first International Women's Day was celebrated with demonstrations in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. The day coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Paris Commune, and women in Vienna carried banners to honor the martyrs of this French revolutionary government.


About a week later, on March 25, 1911, New York City witnessed the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where more than a hundred Italian and Jewish immigrant women perished. This incident highlighted the need to fight for women's labor rights in the next International Women's Day celebrations.

Women-fueled demonstrations and women's solidarity marches continued in the following years: the 1912 Lawrence textile strike that called against pay cuts and advocated for double pay for overtime work, war-time campaigning from 1914 to 1916, and protests against worsening living conditions in Russia in 1917.

On February 23, 1917 (from the Julian calendar), which is actually March 8 on the Gregorian calendar, women textile workers began a demonstration in Petrograd, Russia. Revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote of this day: "23 February (8th March) was International Woman's Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this 'Women's Day' would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without a date. But in the morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for the support of the strike… which led to mass strike... all went out into the streets." Russian revolutionaries Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin made International Women's Day an official holiday in the Soviet Union.


Women's marches continued, including one in Madrid in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War and another in Guangzhou in 1927. The State Council of the People's Republic of China declared on December 23, 1949, that March 8 would become an official holiday.

The '70s and '80s saw a rise in second-wave feminism as women's groups joined calls for equal pay, reproductive rights, equal work opportunities, equal legal rights, and the prevention of violence against women. By 1975, the United Nations began celebrating International Women's Day. Then by 1977, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 8 as an official United Nations holiday for women's rights. Since then, a particular theme or issue within women's rights is observed annually.

For 2023, the United Nations celebrates under the theme DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality. This is a call for the government and private sectors to push for a safer, more inclusive, and more equitable digital world.


Also read:
10 Essential Filipina Writers for Your Reading List
10 Modern-Day Heroines Who Help Save Mother Earth

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