How Women’s History Month came to be celebrated internationally

colour illustration with three women's faces in profile.

From Women’s Day to a women’s month recognition

Marijke Everts (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

Women’s History Month is an annual celebration every March of the achievement of women throughout history and around the world. It’s a moment to showcase women’s often under-recognised, silenced and important achievements from history.

Let's take a look at how Women's History Month developed.

black and white photograph, Clara Zetkin in a dark dress, her hair pulled back. She stands in front of a fence covered in plants with her hands behind her back.

Before Women’s History Month, there was International Women’s Day. According to Britannica and CNRS News, International Women’s Day was first formed at a women’s conference in 1910.

Who proposed the first International Women's Day?

At the second International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen, German activist Clara Zetkin proposed that International Women’s Day be recognised as an official holiday.

Clara Zetkin, in old age with white grey hair, looking at the camera. She is seated wearing a light coloured shawl with big spread out motifs.

Early feminists of the time were already fighting for equal rights. Clara Zetkin believed that the feminist movement consisted of upper and middle class women who had their own agenda at heart. She did not believe they were working towards the interests of working class women.

In her view, ‘bourgeois feminism’ aimed to minimise sexism but preserved class divisions. She felt that the socialist movement was the only way to end oppression of women and so set out to create a space outside of mainstream feminism for working women.

A button with an illustration of a woman appearing in front of two black open gates with white doves flying around her legs. She holds on to a white ribbon that says 'vote for women' in green.

When was the first International Women's Day celebrated?

On 19 March 1911, several European countries officially celebrated International Women’s Day.

Over 1 million activists from Austria, Poland, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Denmark took part in demonstrations. In Austria-Hungary alone, there were 300 demonstrations. Across Europe, women demanded the right to vote, hold public office and protested against employment discrimination.

black and white photograph, people demonstrating with a Russian sign in the background.

International Women’s Day began to be celebrated in late February or early March in different countries, with no set date for almost a decade.

In 1921, Zetkin proposed that 8 March be International Women’s Day. This was in honour of the 1917 worker’s strike in Petrograd on that day which had marked the beginning of the Russian revolution. As a result, a new tradition was created which brought on an opportunity for communist parties to mobilise women.

The idea of having a day to celebrate women workers spread in Europe.

Colourful drawing of two women's head (one big and one small) over a red tulip and words '8. märts' ('March 8').

What were the origins of Women's History Day?

However, the most popular story behind the origins of Women’s History Day tells a different story.

One version says that the day started on 8 March 1857 or 1908 (depending on the story), as women from multiple factories in New York City organised strikes to protest working conditions and child labour.

black and white photograph, many women sitting at desks in a factory.

French historian Françoise Picq argues that this strike is a myth.

It was fabricated and mentioned for the first time in 1955 in the French daily newspaper L’Humanité. There was no mention of a strike in the US newspapers in 1857, nor was it brought up by the leaders of the International Socialist Women’s Movement who founded International Women’s Day.

Picq believes that the then-leader of the largest French trade-union Madeleine Colin brought the story to the attention of L’Humanité, as she might have wanted to separate International Women’s Day celebrations from its communist origins.

Believing that the celebration had become too traditional and conservative, Colin wanted the celebration in France to be independent of the dominant French Union of French Women and the Communist Party. The story about the US workers would shed a different light on the struggle of women workers and also make it more accepted by U.S feminists who would have had concerns over the holiday’s communist origins.

How did International Women's Day expand?

turquoise and blue badge with the words 'write women back into history'.

With increased popularity in America, in 1970, US feminists turned International Women’s Day into Women’s History Week in order to increase women’s history education in schools.

By 1975, the United Nations formally sponsored the annual celebration of International Women’s Day. More groups around the world began to mark the full Women's History Week. In 1980, the US president Jimmy Carter nominated the first National Women’s History Week, which included 8 March.

Women’s history observations grew from there. By 1986, fourteen states in the US recognised March as Women’s History Month.

The following year, the U.S. Congress established Women’s History Month as an annual federally-recognised observance. This was an effort that was led by the National Women’s History Alliance with thousands of individuals and women’s organisations.

blue badge with words 'March is Women's History Month'.

National Women’s History Month is now recognised throughout the world. Women’s History Month is now celebrated in March in the US, UK and Australia, in August in South Africa and in October in Canada.

Every year at Europeana, we celebrate Women’s History Month with cultural heritage institutions and women’s organisations across Europe and beyond by sharing stories and movements honouring women from the past and present.