Women’s History Month is celebrated every March in the United States and in countries around the world. It's a time to honor the trailblazers of the past—including suffragists, politicians, inventors, and artists—as well as discuss the pressing issues women face today. To understand more about why we dedicate every March to women’s history, check out the facts below.
1. National Women’s Day started in New York.
Theresa Malkiel, an activist who served on the women’s committee of the Socialist Party of America, established the first “National Women's Day” on February 28, 1909. She was joined by a crowd of more than 2000 at a theater in Manhattan for speeches on equal rights and some spirited singing. The 1910 installment took place at the famed Carnegie Hall.
2. The first International Women’s Day debuted in Europe soon after.
The desire to celebrate women soon spread to Europe, and again, it was the socialists leading the way. At the Second International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen in 1910, a German activist named Clara Zetkin proposed naming a day to honor working women in Europe. (Current celebrations, she reasoned, were much too focused on the bourgeoisie.) The following year, on March 19, the first International Women's Day was celebrated. Eventually, March 8 was chosen as the permanent date for the festivities. The date’s selection was far from random: In addition to celebrating women, March 8 also honors the anniversary of a 1917 strike that helped spark the Russian Revolution.
3. Women’s History Month grew out of a celebration in California.
In 1978, the Sonoma, California, school district organized a “Women’s History Week” in an effort to correct the dearth of women-focused material in the existing K-12 curriculum. The week—held in March, to correspond with International Women’s Day—featured talks and an essay contest, and culminated with a parade in downtown Santa Rosa. The idea caught on, and the following year saw similar celebrations across the country.
Encouraged by their success, a group of women in Santa Rosa founded the National Women’s History Project (NWHP) two years later in order to further expand the work they’d started. Among their aims was the goal of elevating the Women’s History Week celebration to the national level. In addition to lobbying federal politicians, activists encouraged other communities to organize local celebrations and educational events. Their work quickly gained steam.
4. Jimmy Carter was the first president to recognize Women’s History Week.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared that Women’s History Week would be recognized during the week of March 8 with a statement that read, in part:
“From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength, and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”
5. Women’s History Month became a permanent fixture on the national level in 1987.
While the celebration remained just a week at the federal level (and had to be requested by Congress every year), nearly a third of U.S. states took it upon themselves to extend the recognition to a full month by 1986. As more and more states moved to create Women’s History Months of their own, the federal government followed suit. In 1987, six years after the first Women’s History Week, Congress passed PL 100-9 [PDF], officially designating Women’s History Month as a permanent event every March moving forward.
6. It’s celebrated in March partly due to the weather.
It’s no accident that Women’s History Month is celebrated in March. While the timing aligns in part with International Women’s Day, the choice was also due to a more practical set of considerations.
According to former legislative aide Susan Scanlan, Maryland Congresswoman Barbara Mikulski originally suggested the recognition take place in August in order to celebrate the anniversary of U.S. women’s suffrage. “I looked at her,” Scanlan remembered, “and I said, ‘Barbara, do you want to be outside parading on August 26 when it’s hotter than the hinges of hell?’”
To avoid roasting in the late summer heat, Scanlan pushed for March, which would mean the celebrations would occur in a season that Scanlan appropriately dubbed “marching weather.”
7. The month is a time to reflect on women’s overlooked contributions.
What exactly is Women’s History Month? Primarily, the month’s goal is to both commemorate and encourage the “study, observance, and celebration of the vital role of women in American history.” While programs and celebrations are organized around the country, they’re led at the federal level by the Library of Congress, National Archives, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
8. There are a variety of in-person and virtual events to attend.
If you’re looking for ways to celebrate Women’s History Month, you’ll have plenty to choose from. In years past, events ranged from a Women Filmmakers Festival put on by the Smithsonian Institution to author-led book talks on Eleanor Roosevelt to historical reenactments staged by the National Archives. Head to the government’s Women's History Month website for a list of 2023 activities and exhibitions.
9. Since 1995, every sitting president has issued a Women’s History Month proclamation.
In the tradition of President Carter’s inaugural Women’s History Week proclamation, presidents have issued annual proclamations for more than 25 years that honor the role of women in U.S. history. In 2021, President Joe Biden’s proclamation focused especially on COVID and on the historic election of Vice President Kamala Harris.
“In our current moment of crisis, women continue to lead. From vaccine researchers to public health officials to the countless heroines on the frontlines, women are working around the clock to defeat COVID-19,” he said. “This year has also marked an historic milestone of women’s leadership 232 years in the making, with the inauguration of America’s first woman vice president.” In 2022, President Biden’s proclamation centered on gender parity and economic equality for women following the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
10. Every Women’s History Month has a theme.
Every year, the National Women’s History Project (whose activism in the 1970s and '80s helped bring Women’s History Month to life) announces a theme for the year’s Women’s History Month. In 2022, the theme was “Providing Healing, Promoting Hope,” which paid tribute to women on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19 and reflects on women’s long-standing role as healers in society; in 2023, the theme is “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories,” which honors “women, past and present, who have been active in all forms of media and storytelling including print, radio, TV, stage, screen, blogs, podcasts, and more ... who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth, and reflecting the human condition decade after decade.”
11. Canada celebrates Women’s History Month in October.
While it’s primarily an American invention, versions of Women’s History Month are also nationally recognized in a few other countries. Canada, which has celebrated since 1992, designated the month of October in honor of the historic “persons” court case, which, on October 18, 1929, overturned the then-accepted definition of persons in Canadian law as a term that referred only to men. The ruling opened up a huge number of new opportunities for Canadian women, including the right to serve in the Senate.
12. International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world.
While places like the United Kingdom and Australia join the United States in celebrating Women’s History Month every March, International Women’s Day is more widely recognized around the globe, including in countries like Cuba, Georgia, and Armenia. The United Nations has officially sponsored the event since 1975 and describes it as a time to “recognize the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality, and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.”
13. Women’s History Month is an opportunity to draw attention to inequality.
Women’s History Month, despite its name, is as much about the future as it is about the past. Throughout the month, and particularly on International Women’s Day, activists take the opportunity to illuminate the many injustices women still face and raise awareness about gender inequality. People gather to march and protest, reminding the public about the long road we have yet to take toward equality.
A version of this story ran in 2022; it has been updated for 2023.