March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day that marks the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Not just a celebration, International Women’s Day is a call to action for all the work that remains to be done. At a time when recent reports reveal that Canadian women earn only 72% of men’s wages for similar work, it is important to reflect on the labour roots of International Women’s Day and the struggles that remain for working women in Canada and around the world.

History of International Women’s Day

The origins of International Women’s Day can be traced back to the early 1900s. At that time, work was increasingly industrialized, leading to dangerous and unfair working conditions. In response, women began organizing to demand better working conditions, including shorter working hours and better pay. In 1908, 15,000 female garment workers marched through New York City to call for these improvements. This march would inspire the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union to stage a strike to protest working conditions in the city’s sweatshops. Although this initial strike was short-lived, it led to a General Strike, which lasted for three months and brought important gains for many workers.

In 1909, the Socialist Party of America, a social-democratic political party in the United States, designated February 28 as National Women’s Day in honour of the garment workers’ strike.

At the same time, European women were struggling to achieve greater fairness and protections in the workplace. In 1910, a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen, with over 100 women from 17 countries in attendance, including union leaders and the first 3 women elected to the Finnish Parliament. At this Conference, Clara Zetkin, leader of the Women’s Office of the German Social Democratic Party, tabled a proposal for an annual woman’s day – a day for women to collectively raise their demands for better working conditions, suffrage and political representation. The proposal was unanimously approved.

As a result of Zetkin’s efforts, the first International Women’s Day was observed on March 19, 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. More than one million women and men attended rallies to mark the day, raising awareness of issues of women’s rights to work, to vocational training and discrimination in the workplace, as well as the right to vote and hold political office. Sadly, only a week after the first International Women’s Day, a deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City killed more than 140 working women. This tragedy brought greater attention to the issues of workplace conditions that the garment workers had protested in 1908.

International Women’s Day became increasingly prominent in Europe and became a vehicle for the peace movement during World War I. Protesting the war, Russian women observed the day for the first time in 1913. In 1914, women around Europe held solidarity rallies on March 8. In 1917, Russian women selected March 8 as a day of protest and held a strike for “Bread and Peace”. The women continued to strike for 4 days and were joined by other protests and strikes, contributing to the forced abdication of Czar Nicholas II. The Provisional Government then granted Russian women the right to vote. March 8 was later declared a national Soviet holiday by Lenin.

In 1975, International Women’s Year, the United Nations officially sanctioned International Women’s Day and began celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 of every year. International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in many countries around the world.

International Women’s Day – Today and in the Future

Nowadays, International Women’s Day is a day for celebrating the achievements of women. The history of International Women’s Day reminds us that these achievements include the role of women in advancing the rights of workers around the world. Women have played a significant role in the labour movement, and the radical action of working women has led to important social change.

March 8th is also a day to reflect on the work yet to be done. In the workplace alone, issues of pay inequity, the disproportionate burden of childcare, gender-based job discrimination, and sexual harassment continue to impact Canadian women. Globally, women face significant inequalities in all areas of their lives. For example, harkening back to the roots of International Women’s Day in the activism of New York’s garment workers in 1908, the day was marked in Bangladesh this year by garment workers protesting for safe working conditions, equal pay and an end to violence against women.

All workers, women and men, in Canada and abroad, should use this day to reflect on the ways in which women’s rights and workers’ rights intersect, and how both movements can work in concert to advance the cause of equality.

[This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice, which cannot be given without consideration of your individual circumstances.]