History, importance and themes of International Women’s Day

By Dr Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*


International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The purpose behind celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) on March 8, is to promote peace with women’s rights. While every day is a women’s day, this particular day is marked to honour all the women and their achievements regardless of the divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political. Time and again, women have proved their worth by excelling in every field and bringing pride. They are powerful leaders in the economic and political domain.

Women’s Day is also a call to act for accelerating gender parity -a gender-equal society that is diverse, egalitarian, and inclusive, with diversity accepted and valued. Gender inequality and discrimination are rampant in our societies, and most of the time, women are victims of them. To fight these gender biases and to bring attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence and abuse against women, International Women’s Day is celebrated. It has become a forum to raise awareness and galvanize change in society. Significant activity is witnessed worldwide as groups come together to celebrate women’s achievements or rally for women’s equality.


The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on 28 February 1908. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against working conditions.

But the first milestone in US was much earlier – in 1848. Indignant over women being barred from speaking at an anti-slavery convention, America’s Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott congregate a few hundred people at their nation’s first women’s rights convention in New York. Together they demand civil, social, political and religious rights for women in a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions. A movement is born.

As per the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Women’s Day originated with the actions of labour organisations across North America and Europe around the beginning of the twentieth century.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has been observed since the early 1900s – a time of great expansion and turbulence in the industrialized world that saw booming population growth and the rise of radical ideologies. In 1908, great unrest and critical debate were occurring among women. Women’s oppression and inequality were spurring women to become more vocal and active in campaigning for change.

Then in 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. In 1909, In accordance with a declaration by the Socialist Party of America, the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) was observed across the United States on February 28. Women continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913.

In 1910, a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. A woman named Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands.

The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working for women’s clubs – and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament – greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.

In 1911, following the decision agreed upon at Copenhagen in Denmark, International Women’s Day was honoured for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, hold public office and end discrimination.

However less than a week later on March 25, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. This disastrous event drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the United States that became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events. 1911 also saw women’s Bread and Roses campaign.

It was, however, first celebrated on March 19, 1911, in the United States and several European countries. The idea of International Women’s Day stems from the 1908 labour movement when scores of women garment workers marched in the streets of New York with demands of better pay, lesser working hours, and voting rights.

On the eve of World War I campaigning for peace, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on February 23, the last Sunday in February. Following discussions, International Women’s Day was agreed to be marked annually on March 8 that translated in the widely adopted Gregorian calendar from February 23 – and this day has remained the global date for International Women’s Day ever since.

In 1914, further women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity. For example, in London in the United Kingdom there was a march from Bow to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage on March 8, 1914. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square.

On the last Sunday of February 2017 , Russian women began a strike for “Bread and Peace” in response to the death of over 2 million Russian soldiers in World War 1. Opposed by political leaders, the women continued to strike until four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote. The date the women’s strike commenced was Sunday February 23 on the Julian calendar then in use in Russia. This day on the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere was March 8.

The United Nations Charter became the first international accord to proclaim the idea of equality between men and women in 1945. But it got approved on March 8, 1975, during International Women’s Year, when the UN celebrated its first official International Women’s Day. Then 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 any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions.

Ultimately, after being adopted by the United Nations in 1977, International Women’s Day became an official UN holiday on March 8 to promote women’s rights and international peace across the world.

By the new millennium (i.e.,2000), there was little mainstream activity occurring for International Women’s Day in most countries. The world had moved on and, in many spheres, feminism wasn’t a popular topic. Something was needed to re-ignite International Women’s Day giving it the respect it deserves and raising awareness among the masses. There was urgent work to do – battles had not been won, and gender parity still had not been achieved. There was a strong need to engage the mainstream masses and encourage and support collective action.

Following a year of planning and collaborative conversations, the www.internationalwomensday.com platform was launched in 2001 with the specific purpose of re-energizing the day and inviting mass participation – a focus which continues to this day – by celebrating and making visible the achievements of women, while continuing the call for accelerating gender parity.

The year 2011 saw the 100-year centenary of International Women’s Day – with the first IWD event held exactly 100 years ago in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In the United States, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2011 to be “Women’s History Month”, calling Americans to mark IWD by reflecting on “the extraordinary accomplishments of women” in shaping the country’s history.

The then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, launched the “100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges”. In the United Kingdom, celebrity activist Annie Lennox lead a march across one of London’s iconic bridges raising awareness in support of global charity Women for Women International. Further charities such as Oxfam have run extensive IWD activity. Many celebrities and business leaders actively support the day. IWD was finally starting to become more mainstream and inclusive, with groups every

IWD is an official holiday in many countries including Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia. The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts. In some countries IWD has the equivalent status of Mother’s Day, where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.

A global web of rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the world ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities and networking events through to local women’s craft markets, theatrical performances, fashion parades and more. Many global corporations actively support IWD by running their own events and campaigns. For example, on March 8 search engine and media giant Google often changes its Google Doodle on its global search pages to honour IWD. Year on year, IWD is certainly a powerful moment increasing in status.


Each year IWD is given a “theme”, and “campaign them” which often relates to contemporary events, trends and struggles. In 1996 the UN announced their first annual theme “Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future” which was followed in 1997 with “Women at the Peace table”, in 1998 with “Women and Human Rights”, in 1999 with “World Free of Violence Against Women”, and so on each year until the current.

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2018 was: “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”. Global marches and online campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, which originated in the United States but became popular globally, allowed many women from different parts of the world to confront injustice and speak out on issues such as sexual harassment and assault and the gender pay gap

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2019 was: ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’. The focus of the theme was on innovative ways in which to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure

The UN theme for International Women’s Day 2020 was: ‘I am Generation Equality’: Realizing Women’s Rights’. The them for International Women’s Day 2021 was “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world,” celebrates the tremendous efforts by women and girls around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and highlights the gaps that remain. The theme for International Women’s Day 2022 was “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow”.

The theme for International Women’s Day, 8 March 2023 (IWD 2023) is, “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”. This theme is aligned with the priority theme for the upcoming 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW-67), “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”.

The Campaign themes of International Women’s Day over the years have included: TheGenderAgenda (2014), #MakeItHappen (2015), #PledgeforParity (2016), #BeBoldforChange (2017), #PressforProgress (2018), #BalanceforBetter (2019), #EachforEqual (2020), #ChooseToChallenge (2021), #BreakTheBias (2022), #EmbraceEquity (2023),

The campaign is: #EmbraceEquity. A focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society’s DNA. And it’s critical to understand the difference between equity and equality. The IWD 2023 campaign theme drives worldwide understanding of why Equal opportunities aren’t enough.


Here we have provided some Women’s Day 2023 Quotes to express the sense of equality towards women and men and to regain the lost respect of women, which you can put in your daily rules and regulations.

1)Women are the biggest reservoir of talent in the world. (2)The strongest woman in the world is the one with a voice. (3) Women should also be there where decisions are being made, that is, it should not happen that women are the exception at the place of decision. (4) Women are the real architects of society. (5) A feminist man or woman is one who recognizes the equality and humanity of women and men. (6) The greatest bravery and courage in the world is to protect a woman.


The world has witnessed a significant change and attitudinal shift in both women’s and society’s thoughts about women’s equality and emancipation. Many from a younger generation may feel that ‘all the battles have been won for women’ while many feminists from the 1970’s know only too well the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy. With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think that women have gained true equality.

The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men. However, great improvements have been made. We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices. And so each year the world inspires women and celebrates their achievements.



The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist, economist and social thinker. Email: [email protected]




DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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