On Tuesday, countries, organizations, and people around the world will celebrate International Women's Day. They'll praise the progress that has been made and advocate for the change that's yet to come with regard to gender equality and women's rights. In doing so, they'll act on a tradition that was started more than a century ago, when the first International Women's Day occurred on a smaller, but still meaningful, scale.
Although it may now lag behind in some aspects of gender equality, the United States actually blazed the trail that would make way for International Women's Day. On March 8, 1908, thousands of women marched through the streets of New York City to publicly call for better working conditions, higher pay, and the right to vote. It was reminiscent of an earlier march, which happened on March 8, 1857. Clearly, the date had become symbolic.
The following year, the U.S. recognized its first National Women's Day on March 8, 1909. Just a year later, women around the world came together in Denmark for the second International Conference of Working Women, where the idea for International Women's Day was proposed. As a result, the first international celebration occurred the very next year in 1911.
In its first year, International Women's Day was recognized only in a few countries. Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland celebrated for the first time that year on March 19. Meanwhile, the U.S. continued to recognize its National Women's Day on March 8.
Although small in scale from the start, International Women's Day has never been truly small in participation. In the first year it was celebrated in 1911, more than one million people — women and men — participated in rallies and events in the European countries where it was recognized. The annual celebration grew quickly from there. In 1913, Russia celebrated International Women's Day for the first time. Also in 1913, the date was standardized to March 8 around the world, and the U.S. replaced its National Women's Day with the international title.
This year, International Women's Day will be celebrated around the world under a single theme, Pledge for Parity, which calls for complete gender equality and the closing of the gender gap in social, economic, political, and other situations. Currently, International Women's Day is observed as an official holiday in countries as far-reaching as Afghanistan and China, where women have either a full or half-day off in celebration of the event. Sure, a day off from work doesn't necessarily constitute a commitment to women's rights (Afghanistan's celebration may not actually be doing anything for women, as some have noted), but the growth of International Women's Day has helped to create a worldwide conversation about the status of women's rights.