February 28, 1909 was the first National Working Women’s Day, celebrated in the United States after 150,000 women marched in New York City the year before for labour reforms. They wanted to be recognized as valued workers, demanded shorter hours and sanitary working conditions. IWD is a time to reflect on, celebrate and demand the rights of women. Women have fought for this recognition throughout the suffrage movements in the 1900s, where they struggled to gain the right to vote.
Though first instated by the Socialist Party of America, International Women’s Day (IWD) was the product of a 1910 Copenhagen conference of working women. 100 women attended from 17 different countries, activists and union leaders, who agreed unanimously to the day.
It was celebrated for the first time in Austria, Denmark Germany and Switzerland on March 19, 1911. More than one million women and men attended rallies and celebrations. A week later, a fire in Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City drew further attention to the inhumane working conditions women were forced to endure. Many immigrant women and women of colour were injured in the incident.
As war became a reality, socialism fell out of style in North America and IWD was observed for the last time in 1913. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 8 the new IWD standard for all member countries and the day was resumed.
During the War, European women protested for peace. In many cities IWD is a full blown holiday where men are encouraged to appreciate the women in their lives, as almost a blend between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. However, in other places it is a highly political time to address sexism and global inequity.
In 2011 events commemorating the day took place in more than 100 countries. President Barack Obama declared March “Women’s History Month.” The theme for 2012 for Canadian events is the economic prosperity of women in rural, remote and Nothren regions.
Women in Canada make up roughly half the population but they are still more likely to live in poverty. A 2011 Statistics Canada report found 51% of single mothers live in poverty, 42% single or widowed women over the age of 65 live in poverty and 44% of indigenous women living off reserves experience poverty. Women still only make 71 cents on every male dollar.