The Origins of International Women’s Day

The Origins of International Women’s Day

The Origins of International Women’s Day and March for Women’s History Month in the United States


By Syd Fredrickson and Tricia Lazzar


Since the dawn of civilization, women1 around the world have played an instrumental role in furthering and sustaining every culture, through mutual aid, volunteerism, and charitable acts. They have been involved, and have often been initiators, in the nonprofit arena since the dawning of cause-driven organizations. Although men controlled most formally organized charitable groups financially and administratively, until at least the mid-20th Century, women raised funds and provided many services to those in need.


In the US, the 1819 case, Trustees of Dartmouth College Case vs. Woodward, often receives credit for the creation of the legal right of corporations to be free from state government control. This enables private enterprises to pursue charitable and business goals (McGrave 2003).2   Later, in 1867, the Peabody Education Fund was established. It is widely regarded as the first significant independent foundation, created to pool the resources of several funders to support charitable activities. Its main purpose was to integrate poor whites and ex-slaves into southern state society, further both intellectual and industrial education, and foster regional reconciliation.3


During the nineteenth century, many women began to call into question the legitimacy of laws that did not afford equal rights to women as well as men. Women assumed leadership roles in nonprofit organizations to influence society. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were two such leaders. Mott and Stanton organized the first women’s rights convention known as the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848. The movement gained the attention of other women who would collectively write the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, a document that declared women to be equal to men and openly criticized men for denying such equality to women.


The earliest Women’s Day observed in the US, called “National Woman’s Day”, was held on February 28, 1909, in New York City, organized by the Socialist Party of America. In August 1910, an International Socialist Women’s Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark where a global effort was discussed.


The following year on March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. The Americans continued for some time to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February. However, in 1914, International Women’s Day was held on March 8 in Germany, and now it is always held on March 8 in all countries.


Notably, International Women’s Day in 1917 marked the beginning of the February Revolution, which alongside the October Revolution made up the Russian 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 tsarism. About a week later, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.


In the United States, we celebrate the accomplishments and contributions women have made to our country each March. What now is a nationwide month of recognition started as “Women’s History Week” in 1978 in Santa Rosa California. The second week of the month was set aside to celebrate and honor the contributions women have made in US History. The celebration quickly took hold across the nation, leading to a Presidential Proclamation in 1980 making the week nationally recognized, to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8, and in 1987 a Presidential Proclamation extended the celebration to the entire month of March.


Each year, the National Women’s History Alliance publishes a theme for Women’s History Month. Even though the centennial of the 19th amendment was curtailed in 2020 due to COVID-19, this year there is a continuation of the theme, “Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to Be Silenced”, honoring women who fought for voting rights in the US. The 19th amendment, adopted in 1920, states, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”


March 8 is recognized all over the world as a day to learn and understand the tremendous contributions women make to fight inequity, improve opportunities and to raise our communities for the betterment of all. The 2021 theme of International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Challenge the status quo. Challenge bias. Challenge stereotypes.


Other significant dates to observe in March:


To learn more about Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, see the links provided below:


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Syd Fredrickson
Senior Strategist, Client Services & Training
Third Sector Company, Inc.


Tricia Lazzar
Senior Strategist
Third Sector Company, Inc.


[1] Gender is part of an individual’s identity and self-perception. Gender categories, like race categories, exist due to the social construction of such labels and the adoption of them by legal institutions. The authors recognize the global term “women” to include cis women, trans women and other humans who identify as womxn or femme.  Gender gets socially constructed on the basis of a person’s assigned sex, chosen for them at birth by medical professionals with heavy pressure to have infants conform to normative (binary) conceptions of gender.


[2] McGrave, Friedman. Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN: 0-521-81989-x.


[3] Orr, D. (1950). A History of Education in Georgia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press

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