International Women’s Day: origins, past and present

8 March 2019
Celebrating women for over 100 years
International Women’s Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years. How did it originate, why was 8 March chosen as the date and how has it changed over time?

It always comes as something of a surprise for people to realize that International Women’s Day has been celebrated for more than 100 years. Of course, it has changed a lot over this period.

The idea for such a day was first proposed by the German socialist Clara Zetkin who saw it as a way to make male-dominated European socialist parties take the question of women’s rights seriously. At a socialist conference in Copenhagen in 1910. Zetkin proposed the establishment of an international working women's day to campaign for suffrage and equal rights for women and won the support of delegates from 17 countries.

The following year, on 8 March, the day chosen for this event, hundreds of meetings of working-class women were held in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark. These celebrations and demonstrations continued over many years in socialist countries and amongst socialist women in democratic countries.

In Australia, for example, the first IWD was celebrated in 1928, with a rally in Sydney's Domain, organised by the Militant Women's Group of the Communist Party.  Until the 1970s, International Women’s Day continued to be of interest primarily to women in the Communist Party.

International Women's Day rally, Melbourne 1975.

International Women's Day rally, Melbourne 1975.


A change occurred with the emergence of Women’s Liberation in the 1960s as women in many countries began to use March 8 as a day to rally and march as they demanded new rights for women. In Australia, large marches began 1972 with several thousand women rallying particularly in Sydney and Melbourne articulating the primary demands of women’s liberation: demanding equal pay, equal opportunity in work and education, free childcare, free safe contraceptives and safe legal abortion on request.

A further impetus was provided in 1975, in the year designated by the United Nations as International Women’ Year when marches and demonstrations supporting women’s rights bean to be held in many different countries around the world on this particular day. The political focus of IWD necessarily changed as the concerns of different groups of women began to be articulated.

Over the years, rallies and marches have given way to breakfasts, symposia, drinks sessions, and discussion fora as media organization, corporations, educational institutions, local councils and women’s groups all organize events that address issues and questions.

While the event is celebrated internationally, it is done differently and around many different themes. The UN Women’s theme for this year, for example is ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’, linking with the UN Commission on the Status of Women’s focus on social protection, public services and sustainable infrastructure.

For the Australian group the theme is ‘Stronger Together’ and breakfasts will be held in all capital cities to elaborate on this.  Many other themes have been articulated by different groups in Australia and elsewhere. So IWD is now a day of many different events and meanings, but it remains a day both to celebrate women’s achievements and to look at the barriers that they continue to face.

Article written by Professor Barbara Caine AM, Australian feminist historian. Professor Caine has researched, taught and written extensively on feminism. From 2011 to 2019 she was the Head of the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney. 

Image Credit: International Women’s Day rally, Melbourne, 1975, created by Australian Information Service, Canberra. Held by the National Library of Australia collection.

Professor Barbara Caine AM

Barbara Caine
Professor of History
School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry
Visit Professor Caine's academic profile

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