A Brief But Fascinating History of International Women's Day

International Women's Day, 12 March 1977. Photograph by David Bartho—Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

Thanks to a renewed focus on women’s rights in the U.S. (hat tip to the #MeToo movement), Women’s Day once again looks poised to be a national affair. This year’s theme is #PressForProgress, “a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity.”

Last year, IWD gained traction in the wake of the Women’s March, as the organizers of the demonstration channeled feminist energy into “A Day Without A Woman“—a movement that sought to highlight the role that women play in the domestic and global economy.

Before last year, however, International Women’s Day just wasn’t that big of a deal, and few Americans knew this “holiday” existed. Others who did know about it likely shrugged it off as yet another hashtag holiday (see: National Peanut Butter Day) social media marketers created to get consumers’ attention.

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While the #MeToo movement and Women’s March have helped bring greater attention to IWD, the first time it was observed was back in Feb. 28, 1908. About 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay, and the right to vote. On the same day the following year, women staged another demonstration — this time with the blessing of the Socialist Party of America. They continued to do this on the last Sunday of February each year until 1913.

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Since European women were staging their own demonstrations at different times throughout this same period, a consensus was reached in 1913 to observe IWD on March 8. It’s the day women around the world have observed ever since.

Why March 8 specifically? The chosen date commemorates the women’s march in Petrograd, Russia, that sparked the Russian Revolution in 1917. Yes, that’s worth re-stating: Women’s demands for equality sparked one of the most significant events in modern European history. Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky wrote had this to say at the time:

…We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. Revolutionary actions were foreseen but without date. But in morning, despite the orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.

Many women since have forgotten or overlooked the day’s historical significance. Russian women, despite their former revolutionary fervor, typically receive flowers and chocolates from their significant others, having traded Soviet war songs for romantic dinners in the latter part of the twentieth century.

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