Five things to know about International Women’s Day

The annual event celebrating women and defending their rights has its roots in the Russian revolution and remains a red letter day for gender justice.

The World Today Published 2 February 2024 Updated 21 March 2024 1 minute READ

International Women’s Day (IWD) is held annually around the world on 8 March. Its roots lie in a labour protest that took place in America in 1908, but it has since become an event recognized by the United Nations and an occasion to celebrate women’s achievements as well to campaign for gender justice. Recent International Women’s Days have adopted a theme – this year’s is ‘Inspire Inclusion’.

1 The Socialist Party of America organized the first National Women’s Day in 1909, inspired by 15,000 women who the year before marched through New York City demanding better conditions and pay, and the right to vote. In 1910, German activist Clara Zetkin’s idea of an International Woman’s Day was unanimously approved at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. A year later more than a million people are said to have attended events and marches on 19 March celebrating the first IWD in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

2 On 8 March, 1917, thousands of women in Russia heralded the start of the Russian revolution by going on strike to demand bread and in protest at the toll of Russian lives in the First World War. Within days the Tsar had abdicated, and women were given the vote. IWD has been celebrated on 8 March ever since.

3 The UN adopted IWD in 1975, which it declared the Year of Women. Today, 8 March is a national holiday in Nepal, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan. Many women in China are able to take a half-day holiday to mark it.

4 Although IWD is sometimes seen as an opportunity for corporate promotion – McDonald’s inverted its ‘golden arches’ sign to resemble a ‘W’ in 2018 – the day remains true to its radical roots. In Spain in 2019 and 2020 and Mexico in 2021, the day saw protests condemning violence against women.

5 Organizers say purple, green and white are the colours of IWD, in memory of the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain that adopted them in 1908. Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence, one the union’s organizers, said at the time: ‘Purple stands for the royal blood that flows in the veins of every suffragette … white stands for purity in private and public life … green is the colour of hope and the emblem of spring.’