Let’s start with the name of the day. The UN refers to International Women’s Day (this is the official title), whereas France tends to favour International Women’s Rights Day. Of course, the difference is not insignificant and we let everyone position themselves according to their preferences. We have chosen to keep the name of the United Nations, but we are not making it a political position or a casus belli with the most virulent activists…
A unique date in the world
International Women’s Day is celebrated on 8 March each year by women’s groups around the world. It is also celebrated at the United Nations and in many countries it is a national holiday. When women from all continents, often divided by national boundaries and by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences, come together to celebrate the Day, they can see, if they look back, that it is a tradition representing at least 90 years of struggle for equality, justice, peace and development.
Women who made history
International Women’s Day is the story of ordinary women making history. It has its roots in women’s centuries-long struggle to participate in society on an equal footing with men. In ancient Greece, Lysistrata launched a « sex strike » against men to end the war. During the French Revolution, Parisian women demanding « liberty, equality, fraternity » marched on Versailles to demand women’s right to vote.
The idea of an International Women’s Day emerged at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a period characterized in the industrialized world by expansion and effervescence, explosive population growth and the emergence of radical ideologies.
1909 – In accordance with a statement by the American Socialist Party, the first National Women’s Day was celebrated throughout the United States on February 28. Women continued to celebrate this day on the last Sunday in February until 1913.
1910 – The Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen established an international Women’s Day to pay tribute to the women’s rights movement and to help achieve universal women’s suffrage. The proposal was unanimously approved by the conference, which included more than 100 women from 17 countries, including the first three women elected to the Finnish Parliament. No specific date has been set for the celebration.
1911 – Following the decision taken in Copenhagen the previous year, International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time on 19 March in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland, where more than a million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work, to vocational training, and the cessation of discrimination in the workplace.
Less than a week later, on 25 March, the tragic fire at the Triangle workshop in New York City claimed the lives of more than 140 women workers, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women. The event had a strong influence on labour legislation in the United States, and the working conditions that led to the disaster were discussed during subsequent celebrations of International Women’s Day.
1913-1914 – As part of the peace movement that was fermenting on the eve of World War I, Russian women celebrated their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday of February 1913. In other European countries, on March 8 or one or two days before that date, women held rallies either to protest against the war or to express solidarity with their sisters.
1917 – With two million Russian soldiers killed in the war, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for « bread and peace ». Political leaders spoke out against the date chosen for this strike, but the women ignored it. The rest is in the history books: four days later, the czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. This historic Sunday fell on 23 February in the Julian calendar then in use in Russia, but on 8 March in the Georgian calendar used elsewhere.
Since those years, International Women’s Day has taken on a new global dimension in both developed and developing countries. The burgeoning women’s movement, which had been strengthened by four UN-sponsored world conferences on women, had helped to make the observance of the Day a rallying point for coordinated efforts to demand the realization of women’s rights and their participation in the political and economic process. Increasingly, International Women’s Day is an ideal time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate the acts of courage and determination of ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of women’s rights.
The role of the United Nations
Few causes promoted by the United Nations have attracted more intense and broader support than the campaign to promote and protect women’s equal rights. The Charter of the United Nations, signed in San Francisco in 1945, was the first international instrument to proclaim gender equality as a fundamental human right. Since then, the Organization has helped to create a historic legacy of internationally agreed strategies, standards, programmes and goals to improve the status of women around the world.
Over the years, the United Nations work for the advancement of women has taken four specific directions: promotion of legal measures; mobilization of public opinion and international action; training and research, including the compilation of sex-disaggregated statistics; and direct assistance to disadvantaged groups. Today, one of the central organizing principles of the work of the United Nations is that no lasting solution to society’s most pressing social, economic and political problems can be found without the full participation and empowerment of women throughout the world.