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Exploring the history of International Women’s Day

group of women from diverse backgrounds posing together with their arms crossed making an X

International Women’s Day, commonly abbreviated to IWD, is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women all around the world. IWD is celebrated every year on March 8 and marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.

This year, the campaign theme for IWD is #BreakTheBias. Whether it’s deliberate or unconscious, biases, stereotypes and discrimination make it difficult for women to move ahead and be seen as equal.

While there have been significant improvements in the fight for equality since early history, International Women’s Day is still a reminder of the progress needed so women can have equal opportunity.

The history of International Women’s Day dates back to over a century.

At the start of the 20th century, women were beginning to be vocal and active in campaigning against women’s oppression and inequality. Democratic action was soon taken when 15,000 women marched through New York City in 1908, demanding shorter working hours, better pay and voting rights.

This rally led to a spiral of unparalleled events and movements for women’s rights and freedoms.

In 1909, a declaration was held by the Socialist Party of America to observe the first National Women’s Day (NWD) across the United States on February 28.

A year later in 1910, a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, Denmark.

At this conference, Clara Zetkin, leader of the “Women’s Office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, proposed the idea of an international women’s day. Clara suggested a celebration for women on the same day every year in every country to press for their rights and demands.

The conference displayed unanimous approval of her idea, thus inaugurating the first official International Women’s Day.

Following this result, IWD was recognized for the first time in 1911 in Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland on March 19. On this day, more than one million men and women attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination.

A few years later, just before the start of First World War, discussions were held and it was agreed upon that International Women’s Day would be held annually on March 8, the same day we celebrate it more than a century later.

Around this time, Canada was also making strides in the fight for women’s rights and freedoms.

In 1929, women were declared “persons” in Canada, and could therefore, be appointed to the Senate of Canada. This was a tremendous victory for Canadian women across the country.

A few decades later, Canadian women were granted the right to vote in 1960, and in 1967, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women was established. The Commission’s mandate was to “inquire into and report upon the status of women in Canada, and to recommend what steps might be taken by the federal government to ensure for women equal opportunities with men in all aspects of Canadian society.”

Fast forward to 1981, women’s rights were finally enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

IWD was celebrated for the first time by the United Nations in 1975. Shortly after this, in 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

Since the first official International Women’s Day, the world has seen significant improvements and shifts in women’s freedoms, equality and emancipation. However, there is still much work to be done.

To learn more and support the cause, visit www.internationalwomensday.com.

Published on March 5, 2022.