Try this quick experiment with your kids: Without any context, ask them to name a handful of historic figures they’ve learned about recently in school.
If they listed George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr. — but nary a woman — it’s time to honor International Women’s Day as a family on March 8, says Melinda C. Hall who holds her doctorate in philosophy and is an associate professor and chair of philosophy and director of gender studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.
“Women have always been movers of history, culture, politics and world-historical events,” explains Hall. “The problem is, we don’t celebrate women’s achievements; their labor is made invisible or, sometimes, simply ignored.”
Findings from the 2021 Women in the Workplace report from LeanIn.org and McKinsey & Company found that women — and particularly women of color — are still hugely underrepresented in high-paying jobs, accounting for the large bulk of low-paying or “invisible” work (which essentially means work that’s strenuous and/or worthy of compensation, like caring for a senior relative or a child, but pays very little or nothing).
In other words, the vast majority of labor that women execute can be categorized as achievements that aren’t splashed over the cover of Fortune magazine or celebrated hundreds of years later in school textbooks.
This, as Hall notes, is the primary reason why this holiday can’t be ignored (or delegated to something only adults honor).
Here, a brief explainer on why we celebrate International Women’s Day, why it’s important to bring kids into the conversation and the best ways to do it.
What is International Women’s Day?
According to the official International Women’s Day website, the holiday — which falls annually during Women’s History Month — is meant to celebrate “the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.” The site notes that the day is an official reminder for all folks to celebrate the achievements of women, raise awareness about women’s equality and lobby for gender parity, as well as fundraise for charities that focus on women.
Although National Women’s Day was celebrated in the U.S. beginning on February 28, 1909, the international version of the event didn’t take off until a year later when Clara Zetkin (leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day — a Women’s Day — to press for their demands.
On March 19, 1911, International Women’s Day was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. And just a matter of days later, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York City killed 147 women, who were mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, and were subject to poor and dangerous working conditions, which raised awareness around the need for legislation that would protect workers. A couple of years later, the global community settled on March 8 for the official date of International Women’s Day.
Each year, the holiday is defined by a particular theme. For 2023, it’s #EmbraceEquity. Those celebrating International Women’s Day are encouraged to take and share images of themselves and loved ones crossing their arms over their chest, a symbol meant to nod to active eschewing of either the deliberate or unconscious bias that bars women from getting ahead.
How to explain International Women’s Day to kids and ways to celebrate
How you’ll start the conversation on International Women’s Day depends on your child’s age, points out Hall. For those younger than five, keep it simple: “Today is a reminder that little girls can grow up to do amazing things, and, in fact, little girls are already very important people!”
For elementary school-aged children, Hall recommends giving some context — and weight — behind the celebration: “Today is a reminder that girls and women matter, and they have always been — and will always be — an important part of world history. We might not always remember that, because sometimes it feels like we only talk about leaders that look or act a certain way. Do you feel that way too? Remember, your achievements do not depend on your gender identity or expression.”
Here are a handful of ways to honor International Women’s Day, according to Hall and proud parents of young feminists.
Rewrite history books together
One of the most impactful ways parents can honor the holiday is to push kids to think deeper about their understanding of women’s experiences, explains Halls. “Parents can ask their children what women or girls they are learning about in school or who their favorite women from books are,” she says. “If kids struggle to answer, ask, ‘Why do you think it’s hard to answer that question?’”
For mom of two Megan Ayala, answers like Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep are common. But she encourages her children to dig deeper.
“[I explain to them] that there have been many instances in history when women have made a significant impact on the world, and that it’s crucial to celebrate them as much as we celebrate the achievements of their male counterparts,” says Ayala.
For example, there’s a fairly good chance your kids (at least older ones) will recognize the name Steve Jobs or know that he’s synonymous with Apple computers. Often forgotten, though, is his counterpart Susan Kare, a graphic designer credited with creating some trademark Mac features — like the Command key and trash can — that ultimately made the equipment more user-friendly (and popular).
Here’s another example that most grade school-aged kiddos can find context in: the discovery of caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis, one of Hall’s favorite examples of a monumental discovery credited solely to a woman: Maria Sibylla Merian who was an artist and an insect collector in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.
“Several aspects of her story are interesting — the discovery of science through art, the fact that she taught for money and raised children and the fact that she needed to learn Latin in order to have her ideas heard,” says Hall.
Another one of Hall’s favorite figures? Caster Semenya, an Olympic runner who was told that she couldn’t compete with other women due to a genetic condition which elevates the levels of testosterone in her body.
“Indeed, her status as a woman was questioned due to a complex blend of racism and sexism,” Hall explains. “Her achievements are amazing and deserve to be celebrated. Parents can choose, based on age, what parts of her story to focus on. But it would be a great conversation starter about the complexity of racism and sexism.”
Watch a movie with female protagonists
Here’s a celebration idea that’s simple and can easily convey a message to about any age group: checking out a female-driven flick.
“When I first explained International Women’s Day to my kids, they were too young to understand anything other than it’s a day to celebrate women and their achievements,” says Colleen Colodany, owner of KidsWiki. “Every year, I add to their understanding by giving them examples of strong, powerful women from their lives and history.”
Her favorites to share with her children:
- “Mulan” (1998) – Streaming now on Disney+.
- “Frozen” (2013) – Streaming now on Disney+.
- “Moana” (2016) – Streaming now on Disney+.
- “Matilda the Musical” (2022) – Streaming now on Netflix.
Elizabeth Hicks, cofounder of Parenting Nerd, shares that same sentiment. “I partake in [International Women’s Day] by watching films with female leads to help my kids understand the significance of this day,” she explains. “Kids love superhero movies, which is why I choose to introduce them to ‘Captain Marvel’ and ‘Wonder Woman.’ These women break stereotypes and take on the world with their unmatched tenacity.”
Check film ratings and reviews to make sure they’re appropriate for your viewing party.
Read about inspiring heroes
While movies are a great way to push female power to the forefront, books surrounding heroic women can offer a quieter, more reflective way to honor the holiday.
”Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls” is Hall’s favorite for reading with children ages 6 and over. “It draws together a wide variety of stories about women from all over the world and celebrates who they were, or who they are,” she says, adding that the book focuses on large-scale achievements but also on the daily ways that women and girls matter. “It also nuances gender expression questions and does not assume that women, or women’s achievements, must look a certain way.”
Here are a handful of other book recommendations from parents:
- “Ada Twist, Scientist”: “It follows the story of Ada, a young girl who loves solving problems like scientist Marie Curie and mathematician Ada Lovelace.” – Colodany
- “101 Awesome Women Who Changed Our World”: “[I teach my children that] this day is an important day dedicated to honoring all of the strong, powerful women in their lives and they take time to identify who these women are.” – Keren Sachs, CEO and founder of The Luupe and mother-of-two
- “Little People, Big Dreams”: “I read my children books about the ways women have made a big impact in the world. This one is a great example.” – Lacy Reason, blogger for EarlyMotherhoodGuide.com
Encourage them to celebrate the women in their lives
Although looking to fictional characters or historical figures is a good place to start when illustrating the importance of International Women’s Day, chances are, there are plenty of inspiring women your children know already.
Parents can prepare their own bedtime story about an important woman in their own life, says Hall. It could be someone from a past generation of their community or family.
Father of one Brent Hale, a chief content strategist at Tech Guided, encourages his son to write letters to the important women in their lives each International Women’s Day. He says it helps them “recognize the importance of the women in their life and how they can treat them equally and equitably.”
Leyla Preston, mother to two boys and girls, and owner of Motherhood Diaries, tries to give her children a better understanding of their heritage. “I pay homage to my mum who came from a poor village in North Cyprus to London when she was just 17 years old,” explains Preston. “She fought for the right to an education in the U.K. and is now a biomedical scientist at a top hospital.”
Preston continues, “After all the hardship she’s faced, it has taught me how to be an independent woman who makes her own luck.” She says she often tells her daughters that women gone through a lot in history to get where we are now, which is why it’s so important to celebrate what it means to be a woman.
Donate to an organization that propels women forward
If you have the means, donating money to an organization that aims to advance women is an impactful way to celebrate International Women’s Day. The official site for the holiday lists a handful of organizations to consider contributing to, including the World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts (which supports millions of young girls across the globe) and Catalyst, which aims to advance women in workplaces.
Another idea: Throughout the month of March, aim to support only (or as often as you can) women-owned businesses. We Are Women Owned offers a directory of female-led organizations for a place to start.
Attend an International Women’s Day event
Similar to charitable organizations, the official International Women’s Day website offers a tool that can connect you with nearby events that celebrate the holiday.
No matter how you opt to mark the day, International Women’s Day can be a brilliant opportunity to shed light on women’s contributions and wins. As Hall points out, “As long as patriarchal norms remain, which hide and obscure women’s work and the significance of women’s achievements, days like International Women’s Day remain key for setting the record straight.”