The earliest Women's Day observance was held on February 28, 1909 in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America. It has been claimed that the event was commemorating a strike, but researchers have found no evidence of this, though the New York shirtwaist strike of 1909 began later that year. The story that the day originated in a protest by women garment workers in New York on March 8, 1857, has been described as a myth.
In August 1910, an International Women's Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired in part by the American socialists, German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual International Woman's Day (singular) and was seconded by fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin, although no date was specified at that conference. Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. The following year on March 19, 1911 IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations. In Vienna, women paraded on the Ringstrasse and carried banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination. Americans continued to celebrate National Women's Day on the last Sunday in February.
In 1913 Russian women observed their first International Women's Day on the last Saturday in February (by the Julian calendar then used in Russia).
Although there were some women-led strikes, marches, and other protests in the years leading up to 1914, none of them happened on March 8. In 1914 International Women's Day was held on March 8, possibly because that day was a Sunday, and now it is always held on March 8 in all countries. The 1914 observance of the Day in Germany was dedicated to women's right to vote, which German women did not win until 1918.
In London 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.
In 1917 demonstrations marking International Women's Day in Petrograd, Russia, on the last Thursday in February (which fell on March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) initiated the February Revolution. Women in Saint Petersburg went on strike that day for "Bread and Peace" – demanding the end of World War I, an end to Russian food shortages, and the end of czarism. Leon Trotsky wrote, "23 February (8th March) was International Woman's Day and meetings and actions were foreseen. But we did not imagine that this 'Women's Day' would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike... all went out into the streets."
Following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai and Vladimir Lenin made it an official holiday in the Soviet Union, but it was a working day until 1965. On May 8, 1965 by the decree of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet International Women's Day was declared a non-working day in the USSR "in commemoration of the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War, in their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also marking the great contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples, and the struggle for peace. But still, women's day must be celebrated as are other holidays."
From its official adoption in Soviet Russia following the Revolution in 1917 the holiday was predominantly celebrated in communist countries and by the communist movement worldwide. It was celebrated by the communists in China from 1922. After the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949 the State Council proclaimed on December 23 that March 8 would be made an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off.
Communist leader Dolores Ibárruri led a women's march in Madrid in 1936 on the eve of the Spanish Civil War.
The United Nations began celebrating in International Women's Day in the International Women's Year, 1975. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for women's rights and world peace.
On the occasion of 2010 International Women's Day the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) drew attention to the hardships displaced women endure. The displacement of populations is one of the gravest consequences of today's armed conflicts. It affects women in a host of ways.
Events took place in more than 100 countries on March 8, 2011 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. 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. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the "100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges", on the eve of IWD. In the run-up to 2011 International Women's Day, the Red Cross called on States and other entities not to relent in their efforts to prevent rape and other forms of sexual violence that harm the lives and dignity of countless women in conflict zones around the world every year. In Pakistan, the Punjab Government Project Gender Reform Action Plan (GRAP), Gujranwala District celebrated this day at the GIFT University Gujranwala. Shazia Ashfaq Mattu, MPA and GRAP officer Yasir Nawaz Manj organized the events.
Australia issued an IWD 100th anniversary commemorative 20-cent coin.
In Egypt, however, the day was a step back for women. In Egypt's Tahrir Square, hundreds of men came out not in support, but to harass the women who came out to stand up for their rights as the police and military stood by watching the events unfold in front of them. "The women – some in headscarves and flowing robes, others in jeans – had marched to Cairo's central Tahrir Square to celebrate International Women's Day. But crowds of men soon outnumbered them and chased them out", wrote Hadeel Al-Shalchi for The Associated Press (AP).
The UN theme for International Women's Day 2012 was Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty. In that year, Oxfam America invited people to celebrate inspiring women in their lives by sending a free International Women's Day e-Card or honoring a woman whose efforts had made a difference in the fight against hunger and poverty with Oxfam's International Women's Day award.
On the occasion of International Women's Day 2012, the ICRC called for more action to help the mothers and wives of people who have gone missing during armed conflict. The vast majority of people who go missing in connection with conflict are men. As well as the anguish of not knowing what has happened to the missing husband or son, many of these women face economic and practical difficulties. The ICRC underlined the duty of parties to a conflict to search for the missing and provide information to the families.
The Google Doodle for March 8, 2012, had an International Women's Day theme.
The UN theme for International Women's Day 2013 was "A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women", while International Women's Day 2013 declared the year's theme as The Gender Agenda: Gaining Momentum.
The 2013 International Women's Day, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) draw attention to the plight of women in prison.
The UN theme for International Women's Day 2014 is "Equality for Women is Progress for All".
The Google Doodle on the eve of IWD 2014 (March 7, 2014) featured an International Women's day doodle video, showing images and videos of women from around the world, with music by Zap Mama.
American singer Beyoncé also posted an International Women's Day video to her YouTube account. Throughout the video, her song "***Flawless" plays, which includes a portion of the "We Should All Be Feminists" speech given by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Beyoncé is a feminist.
The UN theme for International Women's Day 2015 is "Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!". Governments and activists around the world will commemorate the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, an historic roadmap that sets the agenda for realizing women's rights.
The International Women's Day theme for 2016 was "Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality". An independent campaign, separate from the UN, is being run by financial firm Ernst & Young (EY) with other corporate partners, organizing events around a #PledgeForParity hashtag.
The President of India, Shri Pranab Mukherjee, in his message issued on the eve of International Women's Day said: "On the occasion of International Womens Day, I extend warm greetings and good wishes to the women of India and thank them for their contributions over the years in the building of our nation."
The ministry of women and child development announced the setting up of four more one-stop crisis centers on March 8, in addition to the eight already functioning across the country. Ahead of Women's Day, the national carrier Air India operated what it claimed to be the world's longest non-stop flight where the entire flight operations were handled by women, as part of International Women's Day celebrations. The flight, from Delhi to San Francisco, covered a distance of around 14,500 kilometers in around 17 hours.
The Google Doodle of IWD 2016 (March 8, 2016) featured an International Women's day campaign, #OneDayIWill. Google users were able to watch a short video in which some women are seen sharing their aspirations, completing the sentence “One day I will…” by clicking on the play button on the Google Doodle.
The theme for International Women's Day 2017 is "Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030". EY is promoting the theme as #BeBoldForChange.
In a message in support of International Women's Day, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres commented on how women's rights were being "reduced, restricted and reversed". With men still in leadership positions and a widening economic gender gap, he called for change "by empowering women at all levels, enabling their voices to be heard and giving them control over their own lives and over the future of our world".
The day is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macedonia (for women only), Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.
In some countries, such as Cameroon, Croatia, Romania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Bulgaria and Chile, the day is not a public holiday, but is widely observed nonetheless. On this day it is customary for men to give the women in their lives – friends, mothers, wives, girlfriends, daughters, colleagues, etc. – flowers and small gifts. In some countries (such as Bulgaria and Romania) it is also observed as an equivalent of Mother's Day, where children also give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.
In many countries, such as in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Croatia, Colombia, Estonia, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine the custom of giving women flowers still prevails. Women also sometimes receive gifts from their employers. Schoolchildren often bring gifts for their female teachers, too.
In Armenia, after the collapse of the Soviet Union celebrations of IWD were abandoned. Instead, April 7 was introduced as state holiday of 'Beauty and Motherhood'. The new holiday immediately became popular among Armenians, as it commemorates one of the main holidays of the Armenian Church, the Annunciation. However, people still kept celebrating IWD on March 8 as well. Public discussion held on the topic of two 'Women's Days' in Armenia resulted in the recognition of the so-called 'Women's Month' which is the period between March 8 and April 7.
In the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, huge Soviet-style celebrations were held annually. After the fall of Communism, the holiday, generally considered to be one of the major symbols of the old regime, fell into obscurity. International Women's Day was re-established as an official "important day" by the Parliament of the Czech Republic in 2004 on the proposal of the Social Democrats and Communists. This has provoked some controversy as a large part of the public as well as the political right see the holiday as a relic of the nation's Communist past. In 2008, the Christian conservative Czechoslovak People's Party's deputies unsuccessfully proposed the abolition of the holiday. However, some non-government organizations consider the official recognition of International Women's Day as an important reminder of women's role in the society.
International Women's Day sparked violence in Tehran, Iran on March 4, 2007, when police beat hundreds of men and women who were planning a rally. (A previous rally for the occasion was held in Tehran in 2003.) Police arrested dozens of women and some were released after several days of solitary confinement and interrogation. Shadi Sadr, Mahbubeh Abbasgholizadeh and several more community activists were released on March 19, 2007, ending a fifteen-day hunger strike.
In Italy, to celebrate the day, men give yellow mimosas to women. Communist politician Teresa Mattei chose the mimosa in 1946 as the symbol of IWD in Italy because she felt that the French symbols of the day, violets and lily-of-the-valley, were too scarce and expensive to be used effectively in Italy. Yellow mimosas and chocolate are also one of the most common March 8 presents in Russia and Albania.
In countries like Portugal and Italy groups of women usually celebrate on the night of March 8 in "women-only" dinners and parties.
In Pakistan, working women in formal and informal sectors celebrate International Women's Day every year to commemorate their ongoing struggle for due rights, despite facing many cultural and religious restrictions. Some women working for change in society use IWD to help the movement for women's rights. In Poland, for instance, every IWD includes large feminist demonstrations in major cities.
In the United States, actress and human rights activist Beata Pozniak worked with the Mayor of Los Angeles and the Governor of California to lobby members of the U.S. Congress to propose official recognition of the holiday. In February 1994, H. J. Res. 316 was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters, along with 79 cosponsors, in an attempt to officially recognize March 8 of that year as International Women's Day. The bill was subsequently referred to, and remained in, the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. No vote of either house of Congress was achieved on this piece of legislation.
The 2005 Congress (conference) of the British Trades Union Congress overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for IWD to be designated a public holiday in the United Kingdom.
Since 2005, IWD has been celebrated in Montevideo, either on the principal street, 18 de Julio, or alternatively through one of its neighbourhoods. The event has attracted much publicity due to a group of female drummers, La Melaza, who have performed each year.
The Scottish Women's Convention (SWD) celebrates IWD on the Saturday nearest to 8 March. Over the past 10 years, women from throughout Scotland have met in the Scottish Parliament in a celebratory event organised by the SWC.