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Weltfrauentag: a history of International Women's Day in Germany

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Monday will mark the 110th anniversary of International Women’s Day ("Weltfrauentag") in Germany. The annual event was an idea originally proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin, a German Socialist campaigner at an International Women’s conference in Copenhagen, dedicated to female workers. She had been inspired by a ‘Women’s Day’ event organised by the Socialist Party of America the previous year. Over 100 women from 17 different countries gave their unanimous support for the idea of an annual celebration.

On 19th March 1911, the first “Frauentag” was marked by protests across Germany for women’s rights, as well as in the former Austro-Hungarian empire, Denmark and Switzerland. Over one million people took part in these demonstrations, which were dedicated to the struggle for female suffrage. On 8th March 1913, the date of International Women’s Day was changed in Germany from the original 19th, and the new date has prevailed to the present day.

Two other significant figures in the campaign for universal voting rights were Anita Augspurg and her partner Lida Gustava Heymann, who had founded a “Verein für Frauenstimmrecht” (Association for Female Voting Rights) in 1902. Having studied law in Switzerland, Augspurg became the first female doctor of law in the German Empire in 1897. Since women were not allowed to practise law in Germany until 1922, however, she instead used her legal qualifications to fight for reforms in the Reichstag.

Five years later, on 12th November 1918, it was written into law that all citizens in Germany were eligible to vote from the age of twenty. (This is in contrast with the 1918 UK legislation, which only allowed suffrage to women aged thirty or over who owned property, whereas all men were eligible to vote from the age of twenty-one.)

A poster for "Frauentag" from 1914, demanding voting rights for women. Photo: Karl Maria Stadler via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

In the elections for the Weimar Republic, just under 90% of all women eligible to vote participated in the 1919 elections and 37 women were elected into positions in parliament (just over 10% of all elected officials). At this point, this was the highest quota of women represented in parliament worldwide.

In January 2019, the city of Berlin approved a bill to make International Women’s Day (“Weltfrauentag”) a public holiday, with the legislature voting 87 to 60 in favour of the measure. The capital is the only city in Germany where this is the case, but a recent study has shown that 'half of Germans' think the holiday should be extended nationwide.

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