Holidays Around the World: International Women’s Day

Source: Credit: Nithi Anand,

My first exposure to International Women’s Day (IWD), March 8, was in Romania in 1978. That was one year after the United Nations began observing it as a holiday, but Romanians had been celebrating the holiday for longer as the origins go back much further.

International Women’s Day is one of two international celebrations that has its roots in events that took place in the United States but where observations in this country didn’t take hold, at least not until recently, and not to the same degree as elsewhere in the world. The other is Labor Day on May 1, International Workers’ Day, which the Marxist International Socialist Congress fixed as May 1 in 1889. The first parade in the US in September to honor the role of workers in this country was in 1887.

My suspicion is that support for these holidays in this country waned as the socialist and communist parties worldwide took up the causes of workers. In the case of Labor Day, in 1894 we established our own version of Labor Day in observation of that 1887 September parade, perhaps in reaction to the Socialist Congress’s May 1 observation, giving us the excuse that we didn’t need a second Labor Day.

The usually cited event that prompted IWD occurred back in 1908, when women who worked in the garment industry in New York went on strike to protest their working conditions. The next year, the Socialist Party of America observed Women’s Day on February 28, 1909. The movement became international when observing it took on life in Europe. In Russia International Women’s Day was established in 1913. It gained traction throughout eastern Europe after the Russian Revolution in 1917 when a protest by women on February 23, brought attention to the lack of foodstuffs and other privations during WWI. The hardliners in Russia were unhappy that women protested their poor working conditions in February since they expected the women to wait until May 1, International Labor Day, to march and protest in the streets. The date March 8 became the generally observed date because it is the Western equivalent of February 23 on the Russian calendar.

I suspect that’s why I first encountered International Women’s Day in a country under the influence of the Soviet Union. My next experience of the day was 15 years later, in 1993 in Moldova, one of the newly independent states created from what had been the Soviet Union. There its observance was big. Businesses and schools closed for the day.

IWD fell on a Monday in 1993. In that year, a group from Washington planned to arrive that weekend. Flights from the west arrived only once a week, on Saturday evening. They insisted they must leave on Tuesday morning, leaving only Monday, March 8, for a meeting with the many local companies that might be involved in the renovation of the US Embassy in the capital on that day.

As our local staff began making calls to arrange for a meeting, they began hearing objections to being asked to give up the day they were used to spending with their families for a meeting about a project that still seemed far in the future. Some of the Moldovan businessmen arrived with bouquets of flowers for the women at the embassy as their recognition of the unusual meeting date.

Recently, observation of International Women’s Day has become more common in the US, or at least the marketing of it has. My inbox contains a number of email newsletters that mention International Women’s Day as a reason for a sale of something, even if the something is simply a greeting card.

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