A History of International Women's Day
in words and images

First IWD

The first IWD was held on March 19, 1911 in Germany, Austria, Denmark and some other European countries. This date was chosen by German women because, on that date in 1848, the Prussian king, faced with an armed uprising, had promised many reforms, including an unfulfilled one of votes for women. A million leaflets calling for action on the right to vote were distributed throughout Germany before IWD in 1911.

Russian revolutionary and feminist, Alexandra Kollontai, in Germany at the time, helped to organise the day, and wrote that it:

exceeded all expectations. Germany and Austria .... was one seething trembling sea of women. Meetings were organised everywhere…..in the small towns and even in the villages, halls were packed so full that they had to ask (male) workers to give up their places for the women.

Men stayed home with their children for a change and their wives, the captive housewives, went to meetings. During the largest street demonstrations, in which 30,000 were taking part, the police decided to remove the demonstrators' banners: the women workers made a stand. In the scuffle that followed, bloodshed was averted only with the help of the socialist deputies in Parliament.2

Undoubtedly, the most memorable IWD was held in Petrograd (now Leningrad) in March 1917. Although women textile workers had been urged by the communists to refrain from striking on IWD

when workers were locked out of the Putilov armaments plant on March 7 the women of Petrograd began to storm the streets. The wives, daughters and mothers of soldiers, previously as downtrodden and oppressed as prostitutes, demanded an end to their humiliation and angrily denounced all the hungry suffering of the past three years. Gathering strength and passion as they swept through the city over the next few days in food riots, political strikes and demonstrations, these women launched the first revolution in 1917. 3

Since that time, IWD has experienced many ebbs and flows as a day that helps to push women's issues onto the political agenda.

On the 50th anniversary of IWD in 1960, 729 delegates from 73 countries, including Queenslander Doris Webb from the Union of Australian Women, met in a conference in Copenhagen. It adopted a general declaration of support for the political, economic and social rights of women.

During International Women's Year in 1975, IWD was given official recognition by the United Nations and was taken up by many governments who had not previously known of its existence.

In Cuba, where IWD already had government recognition, IWD 1975 was chosen to announce a campaign against deeply entrenched macho male attitudes and practices. A new marriage code which made housework the responsibility of men and women was part of this.

In Australia, Prime Minister Whitlam chose IWD 1974 as the time to announce that the government was preparing an official program for International Women's Year Ten years later, in 1984, the French Women's Rights Minister announced a new anti sexist law aimed at the press and advertising industries.

Over the years, IWD has been host to conferences galore, and alongside activity organised by the women's movement, some government bodies sponsor of official IWD receptions in the tradition of respectable public ceremonies. Such events have helped both to popularise the day and obscure its radical beginnings, a fact that sometimes gives rise to conflict over how or whether to support IWD.

Yet many women continue to see IWD as an important occasion for reviewing restating and occasionally acting on the political, economic and social rights of women. Though much of the turbulence that surrounded its early days is gone, in 1982 women in Iran did courageously discard their veils on IWD and, as we will see a little later, militancy has not entirely disappeared in Australia.

The first Australian IWD rally took place in the Sydney Domain on March 25, 1928. It was organised by the Militant Women's Movement and called for equal pay for equal work; an 8 hour day for shop girls; no piece work; the basic wage for the unemployed and annual holidays on full pay.

Against a background of increasing unemployment, which reached a peak of over half a million in 1932, and a number of intense industrial disputes sparked off by wage cuts and reduced working conditions, the Militant Women saw their IWD activity as part of the small but militant socialist movement.

In 1929, in addition to a social and dance in Brisbane and a Sydney Domain rally, the militant women also organised an IWD rally in Sydney's Belmore Park in support of the wives and families of striking timber workers, where men were far more prominent than women in the audience.


Meeting organised in Belmore Park, Sydney on IWD, 1929 in support of the wives of striking timber workers. It was organised by the Militant Women's Group whose activists included Jean Thompson (speaker), Joy Higgins (who also spoke), Edna Ryan, Hetty Weitzel (Ross), Mary Lamm (Wright), Edna Cavanagh and Alice McConville

1931 saw the first IWD marches in Sydney and Melbourne. In Sydney about 60 women headed a march of 3-400 people with many slogans and banners demanding equal pay for equal work and other special women's demands, as well as more general issues such as resistance to wage cuts, opposition to the Arbitration courts and solidarity with the Soviet Union.

In Melbourne, 50 women led a march of 150 from the corner of Victoria and Russell Streets, with a lead banner declaring ''Long Live International Women's Day'', and others similar to the Sydney march.

Meetings took place in Kurri, Broken Hill, Cessnock, Newcastle in New South Wales, as well as the Sydney suburbs of Newtown Rockdale Granville, Lidcombe and Pyrmont. Most of these meetings were organised by women's groups or activists within the Unemployed Workers Movement (UWM) and, in some places, such as Collingwood in Victoria and Wollongong in New South Wales, IWD was featured as part of other meetings organised by the UWM.

The above photo of the 1931 IWD march in Melbourne was taken by Grace de La Lande using a small box camera. Grace, along with Jean Young and Susan McComb were militant activists in the developing unemployed movement and they organised this first IWD march in Melbourne. The March went form Russell Street to the Yarra Bank were Grace spoke from the platform on the need to organise women politically

During the following years, small IWD meetings or working women's conferences were held in Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne, Newcastle, Sydney and Hobart where about 50 women and children led a march of about 200 through the city to the Hobart Domain in 1932. Banners at this march declared "Fight or Starve" and "Demand More Dole".

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