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The March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day is gaining popularity as another opportunity for greetings, gifts, and flowers in the home, much like the May 1 celebration of Mother’s Day. If that’s the case, it’ll be yet another radical shift for a celebration that’s been evolving rapidly since the early 20th century.

It’s a rich history

Women’s Day was first celebrated publicly in Chicago on May 3, 1908. Approximately 1,500 women demanded economic and political equality, and the event was held on a day designated to “the female workers’ causes,” thanks to the efforts of the U.S. Socialist Party. The following year, New York hosted its celebration for women. These American socialist initiatives served as an inspiration for socialists across Europe, who quickly adopted similar policies.

German socialists Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin proposed the creation of an annual International Woman’s Day to advocate for women’s emancipation and suffrage at the International Women’s Conference that preceded the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen in August 1910. More than 100 female delegates from 17 different countries supported the proposal.

Despite appearances, this was a significant break from socialist tradition. For a long time, socialists had maintained that, despite their commitment to human equality, the only way for working-class women to improve their lives was to join working-class men in their struggle for socialism.

It was commonly believed that middle- and upper-class women who promoted feminism did so for their own class interests. Fearing that the feminist movement’s push for women’s suffrage would attract too many women to the working class, socialist leaders embraced it. They insisted, though, that the vote itself wasn’t the point.

The first celebration of International Women’s Day took place on March 18, 1911, the 45th anniversary of the Paris Commune. Women in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Denmark turned out in the millions for marches and rallies. There were over 300 demonstrations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone.

In the years that followed, incidents of a similar nature swept across Europe. Many feminists readily sided with their socialist counterparts during demonstrations for women’s rights and the right of women to vote.

The feminist movement in Europe was a major catalyst for the advancement of women’s rights in the early 20th century.