It happened almost 165 years ago, on 8 March 1857.
In one of the first organized actions by working women anywhere in the world, hundreds of women workers in garment and textile factories in New York City staged a strike against low wages, long working hours and inhumane working conditions. Fifty-three years later, in August 1910, at a meeting in Copenhagen, the Women's Socialist International decided to commemorate the strike by observing an annual International Women's Day.
In 1975, during International Women's Year, the United Nations began celebrating 8 March as International Women's Day. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace to be observed on a date to be chosen by each Member State.
Why dedicate a day exclusively to the celebration of the world's women? In adopting its resolution on the observance of Women's Day, the General Assembly cited two reasons: to recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security. For the women of the world, the Day's symbolism has a wider meaning: It is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, network and mobilize for meaningful change.
In recent decades, the world's women have made tremendous progress towards achieving equality with men. Women's access to education and proper health care has increased; their participation in the paid labour force has grown; and legislation that promises equal opportunities for women and respect for their human rights has been adopted in many countries. The world now has a growing number of women as policy-makers, with a record 10 women as heads of State or Government in 1994.
However, nowhere in the world can women claim to have the same rights and opportunities as men. They continue to be among the poorest: the majority of the world's 1.3 billion absolute poor are women. Three-quarters of the women over 25 in much of Asia and Africa are illiterate. On the average, women receive between 30 and 40 per cent less pay than men earn for the same work. Everywhere women continue to be victims of violence, with rape and domestic violence listed as significant causes of disability and death among women of reproductive age worldwide.
At the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, representatives of 189 countries unanimously agreed that inequalities between women and men persist and major obstacles remain, with serious consequences for the well-being of all people.
"The advancement of women and the achievement of equality between women and men are a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and should not be seen in isolation as a women's issue," according to the Platform for Action, the final document of the Conference. "They are the only way to build a sustainable, just and developed society."
Addressing the problems faced by women is at the heart of a global agenda promoted by the United Nations. By adopting international laws and treaties, the United Nations has established a common standard for societies to achieve equality between men and women. Through policy formulation and institutional development, and by encouraging political commitment, the Organization has helped promote new values, new attitudes, and new priorities at the national and international levels. Over 150 countries have so far ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, legally committing themselves to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.
The United Nations has also served as a catalyst for a growing movement of civil society. Using the United Nations as a forum, women from around the world have joined together to raise awareness of women's rights. This was demonstrated once again at the 1995 Women's Conference in Beijing. Over 47,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them women, were present at the Conference and a parallel NGO Forum and helped adopt a new global blueprint for women's advancement.
Until the rights and full potential of women are achieved, lasting solutions to the world's most serious social, economic and political problems are unlikely to be solved. In his message marking International Women's Day in 1995, the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, stressed that efforts to improve the lives of women offer in many cases the most immediately efficacious means of changing entire societies for the better.
"In the global effort for peace and enduring progress, the promotion and protection of women's rights are central. Success in these tasks means progress for everyone: young and old, men, women and children," the Secretary-General said.
8 March: The birth of an international observance
International Women's Day commemorates ordinary women and their struggle for equal rights.
Here is a brief chronology of how this observance came about:
1857: On 8 March, women garment and textile workers in New York City stage a protest against inhumane working conditions, the 12-hour workday and low wages. The marchers are attacked and dispersed by police. Two years later, again in March, these women form their first union.
1908: On 8 March, 15,000 women march through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They adopt the slogan "Bread and Roses", with bread symbolizing economic security and roses a better quality of life. In May, the Socialist Party of America designates the last Sunday in February for the observance of National Women's Day.
1909: The first National Women's Day is observed across the United States on 28 February. Soon, women in Europe begin celebrating Women's Day on the last Sunday of February.
1910: Clara Zetkin, a German Socialist, proposes that an International Women's Day be observed to mark the strike of garment workers in the USA. The proposal is accepted by the Women's Socialist International at its meeting in Copenhagen but no specific day is fixed.
1911: On 25 March, more than 140 working girls, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, die in the tragic Triangle Fire, an event that will have a far-reaching effect on labour legislation in the USA.
1917: Russian women call for a strike on 23 February for "bread and peace", protesting against poor living conditions and food shortages. This date, the last Sunday of the month according to the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, falls on 8 March on the Georgian calendar, widely used in most European countries.
1977: In December, the General Assembly adopts the 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. For the United Nations, International Women's Day has been observed on 8 March since 1975. The Day is traditionally marked with a message from the Secretary-General.
International Women's Day
International Women's Day (8 March) is an occasion marked by women's groups around the world. This date is also commemorated at the United Nations and is designated in many countries as a national holiday. When women on all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate their Day, they can look back to a tradition that represents at least nine decades of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.
International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata initiated a sexual strike against men in order to end war; during the French Revolution, Parisian women calling for "liberty, equality, fraternity" marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage.
The idea of an International Women's Day first arose at the turn of the century, which in the industrialized world was a period of expansion and turbulence, booming population growth and radical ideologies. Following is a brief chronology of the most important events:
© Peterborough and District Labour Council