International Women’s Day: A Centenary to Celebrate

On its centenary, Jinty Nelson reflects on the genesis and achievements of International Women’s Day – and the ground still to cover.

This is the text of a talk I was invited to give at a community meeting at Havering College, Essex, on Saturday 5 March 2011, attended by some 200 local people. We were chaired by a local Chief Inspector of Police, and other speakers were the Mayor of the Borough Council, the Matron of a local hospital, a senior Probation Officer, two representatives of the local Women’s Institute, and a 17-year-old youth-group helper: each and all of them inspirational women. How better to mark IWD’s centenary?

I am very happy and honoured to have been invited to celebrate with you the Centenary of International Women’s Day. Celebrating is certainly part of what we should be doing and it’s the part I’ll begin with.

I have been studying and teaching and researching and writing about history for the past fifty years, amongst other things about the history of women and gender. I arrived in the History Department at King’s College London in 1970, the first and for a short while the only woman in the Dept. When I retired two years ago, women made up nearly half the Dept. In 1970, women staff were not allowed in the King’s Senior Common Room, spacious, comfy, with excellent coffee, all the quality newspapers, and a lovely view of the Thames: there was a separate, small, much less comfy, make-your-own cup of tea, room for ladies, where according to certain rather elderly professors there was ceaseless chatter. By 1972, after a little campaign led by a younger generation of women staff supported by some well-disposed men, the Senior Common Room’s doors were opened to women. This was followed by a notable increase in interesting conversations. Times were a-changing.

I combined work with bringing up two children, and since 2000 I have been a happy and very committed granny with now four grandchildren (Thursdays are my granny-days). Even nowadays when childcare and domestic chores are so much more shared enterprises, work and family isn’t such an easy combination to manage – (I’m sure many of you will know that from your own lives –).  But it never has been. Most women have always worked and most women have always borne children.  Circumstances differ – and in modern times, say for about the past century, in this and other western countries, things have got easier for women in some obvious ways: sanitary towels and tampons, vacuum cleaners, fridges and washing-machines, the pill,  – all actually have become widely available since the Second World War, so, during my lifetime – as well as access to higher education – where in the sixties and seventies the proportion of women undergraduates edged up to 40%. And equal pay: in the 1950s and 1960s, women in western countries were paid roughly 66% of what men were paid for the same work – a gender pay gap of 34%. That statistic hadn’t changed since there first were any statistics, which in England is the fourteenth century: women agricultural labourers got 66% of what men got for the same work.

In the UK in 1970, a Labour Government passed the Equal Pay Act – the minister responsible was Barbara Castle. And similar legislation was passed elsewhere in the western world about the same time. These are all things very much to be celebrated. And not coincidentally, in 1970 too, women’s history first took shape officially in the UK at a conference organised by History Workshop at Ruskin College Oxford. No I wasn’t there, but twenty years after, I did join the editorial collective of History Workshop, sub-titled a Journal of Feminist and Socialist Historians, where, another twenty years on, I am still proud to be (though the subtitle has gone – times change and younger colleagues preferred the shorter title).

International Women’s Day too is a twentieth-century invention. And that’s not a coincidence either. The origins of IWD are international, socialist and feminist. Why the date 8 March? Before and during the First World War, there were a series of national and international meetings which called for better working conditions for women, limits on female and child labour, and – increasingly – women’s suffrage, originally opposed by leftist men on the grounds that conservative parties were likely to benefit. Such meetings were often held in the middle of summer, in July (sometimes 14 July – a great day in the French Revolution) or August (sometimes near 15th – the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). But an alternative timing was late February/March. American Socialists organised a mass meeting on the suffrage in New York on Sunday 8 March 1908. The first National Woman’s Day (woman’s in the singular) was held on 23 Feb 1909 in the USA, and American women kept the custom of gathering on the last Sunday of February. Sundays were preferred so that people would not miss a day of work. European socialist custom commemorated the Paris Commune which started on 18 March 1871: the first European celebration of International Women’s Day (women in the plural) was on Saturday 18 March 1911.

To my mind, a fundamental reason (though curiously it doesn’t surface in the historiography) for the triumph of a February/March date (think Lent) was its coincidence with the harshest period of food shortage in the agricultural calendar. Food shortages affected women disproportionately. War accentuated these shortages. IWD on 23 February in 1917 was marked by socialist women demonstrating in northern Italy where the price of flour had risen 88% above the pre-war level. The women’s cry was, ‘Now the food necessary for our children has begun to disappear… We must show that women can protect those who depend on them.’

In Russia in February 1917, the price of rye bread had risen 600% above the pre-war level. Revolution began on 23 February, the day of the women’s insurrection in Petrograd, when the women cried ‘Give us bread!’ and the tsar’s troops refused to fire on them. 23 February was IWD as determined by the American socialist women with whom the Russian women’s leader (Alexandra Kollontai) was in touch. But Russia still used the old Julian calendar, whereas just about everywhere else (Britain since 1752) used the Gregorian Calendar (Pope Gregory XIII’s reformed calendar of 1582) which was 11-13 days ahead (times change slowly). IWD 1917 in Western Europe was on 8 March. The Soviet regime fell into line on calendar reform in 1918. 8 March was now the Russian date of IWD. So, in 1918, IWD on 8 March became the international day of celebration.

8 March 1932 Soviet poster: ‘The 8th March is the day of rebellion of working women against kitchen slavery’… ‘Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!’

And then what happened? IWD became a Soviet monopoly. A socialist and international day became a Soviet one – celebrated by Communists in China from 1922, and by Spanish Communists from 1936. (The poster on the handout  – I snitched it, shamelessly, from Wikipedia –  is an image I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I did: new Soviet woman, in her neat red shoes, hauls old Russian woman out from under a horrible burden of domestic chores – everything including the kitchen sink.) As the interwar world split, IWD was highjacked by communist countries, abandoned by anti-communist ones. In 1965, the USSR made 8 March a public holiday to commemorate ‘the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction in the defence of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War’ [that’s the Second World War].

Until the 1970s, IWD seemed to have become a sign and symptom of the Cold War – celebrated only in Soviet bloc or Russian-influenced countries. When the thaw set in, IWD was internationalised again. Russians can still think of the merits of Russian women in war and peace, Italian men give yellow mimosas to sweethearts and mothers, Romanian children give presents to their mothers and grandmothers. This is all very nice. Thanks to the United Nations, IWD became global in the 1970s, associated with new demands to end gender inequalities in East and West, south and north and ‘to make women’s rights and participation in the political and economic process a growing reality’. And the 1970s is where I came in…

What are we to do with IWD today? My diary and my wall-calendar tell me that IWD this year coincides with Shrove Tuesday – the day Christians have traditionally confessed their sins and been shriven – i.e. promised God’s forgiveness. Lent this year starts on the 9th. I have been thinking about the ways in which women in the world today are prevented from leading full lives not only as mothers and grandmothers, aunts and great-aunts, but also having a chance really to participate as citizens whatever voting rights they nominally have. Four obstacles have proved remarkably resistant to change.

First and most basic: there’s an educational deficit.

Participation of women in higher education is growing in developed countries, but elsewhere in the world the picture is a lot less cheerful.  On 2010 figures, the literacy gap between men and women in India (with over a billion people) is well over 20%, as it also is in Egypt. In Afghanistan, 13% of women are literate compared with 43% of men. Literacy is a key variable in other kinds of empowerment: there is, for instance, a direct correlation between women’s literacy and their ability to use birth control, between literacy and employment in paid work, between literacy and being active citizens. Get girls into school and a lot else will follow.

Second, economic discrimination. Wage differentials have come up already; but many women still get no wages for the immense amount of work they do because that work is domestic. The gender pay gap in developed countries in 2008 was 17% in Australia, 15% in the EU, but 40% in Central Asia. Translate those statistics into women’s real life in many Africa countries: taking hours every day carrying water from a distance, cooking without electricity or a stove, caring for small children in inadequate sanitary conditions. How can unwaged work be valued? How can women become less economically dependent on men?

Third, discrimination in basic nutrition and healthcare. Amartya Sen, Nobel prize-winning economist, in research done in late 1980s and 1990s, established a baseline sex-ratio of 102 women: 100 men (this was in sub-Saharan Africa where there’s little evidence for sex-discrimination in nutrition or health), and compared it to actual sex ratios of populations in various countries. Sen found huge numbers of ‘missing women’, dead because of systematic food-deprivation and reduced health care. You get 40m missing women in China, 36m in India, Pakistan 5.2m. (N.B. this is discounting the emotive question of female infanticide.)

Many NGOs, the UN and its agencies, all the world religions, governments, experts, are making efforts on so many fronts to counter these forms of discrimination. They are slowly but surely paying off. But I will end with a fourth and final discrimination: a deficit of women elected to political leadership and a final form of action to counter that: having more women’s political representation, more women involved in politics. Don’t expect speedy or effective results… Women having the vote, and getting relatively high numbers of women into parliaments, even having a woman leader: none of these things necessarily change much. But there are some women in politics who do make you feel hopeful – I’ll mention two near home –one in Ireland, former President of the Republic Mary Robinson, now a very active campaigner for human rights, one in England, Caroline Lucas, Green Party leader and MP for Brighton, a woman active in conflict-resolution and peace-building in Europe and far beyond.

These are in my thoughts today and will be on 8 March – IWD itself, along with the sweethearts and wives with their bouquets of mimosa, and the teachers, and the mothers and grannies graced with the gifts of children. But in my thoughts as well are, and will be, those women who in 1917 left the bread-queues to join huge processions, defying the guns of the soldiery, demanding bread for their hungry little ones; and the ‘missing women’ who ought to be with us and aren’t, and finally those women in 2011 who are very much with us, demanding not just bread but schools and schoolbooks, clean water, healthcare and decently paid jobs. There are things to celebrate, yes, absolutely – but also things, and thoughts, from far distant places and from past times, to kickstart our own selves into action in the here and now.

Short bibliography for International Women’s Day

In History Workshop Journal 39 (Spring 1995), pp. iii-iv, ‘Change and Continuity’, the editors for that issue, Felix Driver and Raphael Samuel, explained, a shade defensively, why ‘a journal of socialist and feminist historians’ was henceforth to be dropped as a subtitle.

On the early history of IWD: T. Kaplan, ‘On the socialist origins of International Women’s Day’, Feminist Studies 11 (1985), pp. 163-71.

The Wikipedia article, ‘International Women’s Day’, has further references.

For various forms of deficit and discrimination, see:

  • Sen, ‘Gender and Cooperative Conflicts’, in I. Tinker ed, Persistent Inequalities (Oxford, 1990), pp. 123-49.
  • Drèze and A. Sen, Hunger and Public Action (Oxford, 1989)
  • Sen  and M. C. Nussbaum eds, The Quality of Life (Oxford, 1993)
  • M. C. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford, 1999)
  • Sen, The Idea of Justice (London, 2009)
  • R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett, The Spirit Level (London, 2009)

Jinty Nelson, emeritus professor, Department of History, King’s College London, is a member of the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal.


  1. Jinty, thanks – that’s fascinating (he said, not a shade defensively…!). There are some interesting links from this blog celebrating the centenary.

  2. Havering College is in London, not Essex.
    In fact, Havering is the name of the London Borough that the college is in.

  3. Thank you so much for this little history of International Women’s Day. It was barely noticed where I live, in the state of Indiana, USA (certainly not by any of elected officials, Trump supporters all). So I was glad to receive the link to this elegant and dignified history from Sanja Perovic in London. Must keep hope, year after year. Thank you again for the hope and reminder.

  4. In 1917, the Gregorian calendar in the West was exactly 13 days ahead of the Julian calendar in Russia. 23 of February and 8 of March can not be put in any connection from this approach.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *