Have you ever wondered why we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8?

The commemoration stems from a major demonstration led by feminist Alexandra Kollontai that took place on February 23 in 1917. At the time, Russia used a Gregorian calendar, so the day would have been March 8 in other parts of the world. The demonstration led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the Russian Revolution. A provisional government in Russia then granted women the right to vote, the first international government to do so.

That date became set in stone by the United Nations in 1977, but its roots stem from much earlier.

The first recorded women’s rights’ demonstration took place in New York City on Sunday, February 28, 1909. Members of the Socialist Party of America organized their National Woman’s Day on a Sunday; they wanted to make sure that working women could participate.

The idea spread, particularly in Europe. On March 19, 1911, more than a million women and some men gathered to mark the first true International Women’s Day in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.

It’s not clear when Canada’s first Women’s Day demonstration took place, but at least one definitely occurred in 1918. Our National Archives collection includes a photo of an Overland Float in the Women’s Day Parade from the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto that year.

National Women’s Day demonstrations and parades continued to spread throughout the world, except for gaps during World Wars I and II.

Voting in Canada

In Canada, suffragettes held demonstrations across the country to demand the right to vote.

It worked. In 1887, Manitoba granted female rate-payers permission to vote in municipal elections. They couldn’t vote in Provincial elections yet though, even after men without property got the right to vote a year later. By 1889, women could vote in school elections and serve as school trustees in Manitoba. By January 28, 1916, all women in Manitoba could vote and serve as politicians.

Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia quickly followed suit. Ontario allowed women to vote in 1917, although they couldn’t run to serve as politicians until 1919. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick enabled the vote in 1918, although New Brunswick didn’t allow women to run for political office until 1934. Prince Edward Island extended the vote to women in 1922 and Newfoundland in 1925. Quebec remained the holdout until 1940, when women there got the vote.

Nurses serving in World War I got to vote in federal elections. By 1917, women who were British subjects or wives, widows, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers in the Canadian or British military could vote. Unfortunately, people born in foreign countries and conscientious objectors lost the vote that same year.

By March 1918, white Canadian women could vote in federal elections. Two years later, they got the right to hold elected public office.

In the 1940’s the vote was extended to most women of colour, including Chinese, East Indian and Japanese women.

Even then, Native women covered by the Indian Act still couldn’t vote anywhere, not even vote in band councils. They didn’t get that right until 1951. Their right to vote in federal elections didn’t take place until 1960. 

International Women’s Day Today

By 1975, enough countries participated that the United Nations decided to officially mark International Women’s Year. Two years later it decided to set March 8 as an annual International Women’s Day.

The Canadian government began marking the date the same year, 1977.

Recently, International Women’s Day has been marked more quietly. To celebrate international women’s day this year, consider nominating a Canadian Woman of Impact. You just have to go to the nomination page on the federal website and enter her name, category (arts, politics, human rights, STEM, trailblazer) province, and 250 words about why she deserves recognition.

Biographies about many important women already exist.

Among them are scientist and suffragist Carrie Derick, architect Esther Hill, musician Joni Mitchell, writer Margaret Atwood, journalist and politician Jeanne Sauvé, lawyer Louise Arbour and voyageur Marie-Anne Gaboury Lagimodière.

For more information, visit the Women of Impact website and read some of the fascinating biographies. Then go and nominate someone for the honour so that we can keep growing our list.


Tracey Arial

Unapologetically Canadian Tracey Arial promotes creative entrepreneurship as an author, cooperative business leader, gardener, family historian and podcaster.

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