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How it all began: A history of Women's Day in Germany

How it all began: A history of Women's Day in Germany

International Women’s Day - which falls on March 8 - has long been recognised as a public holiday in various countries, and recently both Berlin and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern joined the list, officially sanctioning Frauentag (Women's Day) as a day off work.  

While this may seem novel, Women's Day actually has a long history in Germany, stretching all the way back to the beginning of the 20th century, long before the UN officially recognised the day. 

Women protesting International Women's day protest

Background to International Women's Day

Women’s Day celebrations came into being in 1911 after German socialist activists Luise Ziets and Clara Zetkin proposed an International Women’s Day at the Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1910. 

Although they didn’t propose an official date, Clara Zetkin suggested that every country should have a day to celebrate women, for them to demonstrate their grievances and demand change. She was inspired by the American Socialist Party, who in 1908 had decided to initiate a national day of protest to demand votes for women.  

The following year, on March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day was officially celebrated in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Denmark, with over a million people taking part.

As well as demanding the right to vote, the participants protested against gender discrimination in the workplace. Their actions were advocated by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who saw that allowing women to vote would mean an increase in their support. They were the only party to do so at the time.

Gradually, the idea began to spread to other parts of the world. In Petrograd in Russia, on March 8, 1917, women textile workers went on strike for "Bread and Peace", sparking the beginning of the Russian Revolution. The day was also commemorated by communists in China from 1922.

Clara Zetkin International Women's Day Germany

Image: Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, 1910 (Public Domain - BArchiv, BildY 10-RL4-1183-68)

The Weimar Republic & Women's rights

In its day, the Weimar Republic was one of the most progressive states in Europe in terms of women’s rights, giving them the right to vote and equal rights with men in civic matters and marriage - but German women still demanded reduced working hours without wage deductions, lower food prices, regular school meals and the right to abortion. 

After the First World War, the German Communist Party (KPD) seized control of International Women's Day, pushing it as a day of agitation for socialist women. Divided from the communists on ideological grounds, the SPD introduced their own version. From 1926 onwards, therefore, there were two Women's Days: a communist one on March 8 and a social democratic one with no fixed date. 

Women's Day during Nazi Germany

Under Adolf Hitler, conditions for women in Germany went from being the most progressive in Europe to among the least, despite the fact that it was through the support of women that Hitler had successfully come to power. 

The Nazi regime created a new doctrine, according to which a pure-blood Aryan woman should not have a career, but instead be responsible for housekeeping and taking care of the children. In 1933, there was a change in the school syllabus for girls, and the five years of Latin and three years of science were replaced by German language courses and domestic skills training.

During this period, Women’s Day was banned, and Mother's Day was promoted instead, since it more closely represented the Nazi ideal of women and mothers. Women’s Day celebrations did, however, continue in secret. Individuals could indicate their support by "airing out" red items from windows and clotheslines, or laying out illegal leaflets. 

Women's Day in post-war Germany (West & East Germany)

After World War II and the end of Nazi rule, the ban on Women’s Day celebrations was lifted. In the east, a day of official celebration was reinstated almost as soon as the new German Democratic Republic (GDR) was founded in 1947.

March 8 was designated as a special day for celebrating women and their achievements. It was common for women to receive red carnations, while in the workplace top female employees would be honoured by a (usually male) member of the management. Each year, the government awarded a Clara Zetkin Medal to women and organisations who had supported feminist and socialist causes.   

berlin internationale frauentag

In West Germany, meanwhile, the day continued to be marked by socialists but the government - presumably wanting to distance themselves from an "East German tradition" - did not officially reinstate the day or any festivities. It gradually diminished in importance until being officially recognised by the UN in 1975. 

Women's Day from 1990 onwards

The UN has sponsored International Women's Day every year since 1975. From 1996 onwards, they have also designated a special theme for each year's celebrations. 

Women’s Day was created to shine a light on women's grievances and promote gender equality, an objective yet to be fulfilled. According to the World Economic Forum, it will take another 100 years just for the gender gap in salary to close. Furthermore, women’s health and education have revealed to be worse than that of men.

Women’s Day therefore continues to be an occasion to recognise these inequalities, and advocate the taking of action to reduce it.

Women's day parade Germany

Why is International Women's Day celebrated on March 8?

The 1914 International Women's Day was held on March 8 in Germany - most likely because it was a Sunday - and is now always marked on March 8 in other countries across the world. 

A possible reason for March 8 being chosen as the official date can be attributed to the women’s protest in Russia that took place on the last Sunday of February in 1917 (according to the Julian calendar); in the Gregorian calendar, which Russia later adopted, this is March 8. 

Thumb image: Poster for Women's Day, March 8, 1914 (Public Domain)

Naina Pottamkulam

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Naina Pottamkulam

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