For some, it’s a key date in the calendar. For others, it simply passes by unnoticed, considered an outmoded concept.
In case you aren’t familiar with it, this Wednesday, March 8, it is International Women’s Day (IWD) – recognised annually and positively celebrated in some parts of the world.
IWD has a long, proud and, at times, turbulent history. A focal point for the women’s rights movement, it seeks to highlight issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence and abuse against women.
Its origins date back to the United States of the early 1900s. Times were very different then. Rampant oppression and inequality were everywhere. In 1908, in protest against long working hours, paltry pay and the absence of voting rights, more than 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York.
The following year, America’s Socialist Party declared the last Sunday in February, National Women’s Day – and that continued until 1913.
These protests hadn’t gone unnoticed further afield, however. They inspired German delegates at the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference in
Copenhagen to propose “a special Women’s Day” that should be organised annually. In Tsarist Russia too, the seeds of discontent were also stirring amongst women protesting against war-time privation and living conditions.
The original date for this “special day” was February 23. However, the March 8 date became enshrined after 1917, when the Russians moved away from the Julian calendar and Russian women were given the vote by the Bolsheviks following the overthrow of the Tsar.
For almost the next 50 years, IWD was mainly celebrated in communist countries. Indeed, after the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the State decreed that March 8 would be an official holiday, with women given a half-day off.
During the liberated, swinging sixties, the cudgels were taken up by second-wave feminists who re-invented the day, more as an opportunity for organised activism. In Europe, for instance, it became known as the “Women’s International Day of Struggle.”
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, leftist and labour organisations teamed up with women’s groups campaigning for equality in pay, equal economic opportunity, equal legal rights, reproductive rights, subsidised childcare and the prevention of violence against women.
However, it wasn’t until 1975 that the first International Women’s Day was officially adopted by the United Nations – a significant milestone. In 1996, the UN gave IWD its first theme - “Celebrating the past. Planning for the Future.”
This was designed to mark women’s achievements, whilst raising awareness about current forms of inequality.
By the time we arrived at the millennium, however, the IWD was coming in for a fair amount of stick. Its original messages were tending to become heavily diluted and commercialised, especially in the West, where it was starting to become exploited by major corporations, who saw it as an opportunity to promote general and vague notions of equality, rather than championing ideas of social reform.
As a staunch point of support, the website, internationalwomensday.com, was established in 2001, subsequently setting out annual themes and hashtags that are used across the globe.
The 2023 campaign theme, for instance, is #EmbraceEquity, which purports to drive “worldwide understanding of why equal opportunities aren’t enough!” Indeed, the website advocates that “equity isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s a must have” and that “a focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society’s DNA.”
IWD is still an official holiday in around 30 countries worldwide, although in places like China and Madagascar, it’s for women only and in Germany, the only EU country in the mix incidentally, the holiday is solely recognised in one city - Berlin.
So why is there an International Women’s Day? Well, according to the United Nations, promoting gender equality represents one of the most critical challenges of this century.
Despite the fact that large parts of the world – perhaps most notably third world countries who still have a long way to go into addressing issues around women and their role in society – we are in a completely different place today to when those women took to the streets of New York all those years ago.
Today, women do all the jobs that men do. They are astronauts (interestingly, a female was a Commandeer on the International Space Station in 2022), fighter and airline pilots, and captains of industry.
They see combat action in theatres of war, although they are still prevented from going down coal mines!
What would the early pioneers of women’s rights - including those who lost their lives in the cause of emancipation, such as the Suffragette Emily Davison - think of their position in society today? Would they consider their work to have been largely done? Clearly, times have changed monumentally, albeit not universally - since she threw herself under the King’s horse in the Derby of 1913.
Significantly, since 1992, men have felt compounded to have their own International Men’s Day.
It is currently recognised in 58 countries. One could mischievously surmise that this has brought some level of equality to proceedings! It will be interesting to see how the two organisations evolve over the coming decades.
It is now well over a century since the seeds of IWD were first sown. One hundred years on from now, will the date of March 8 still be recognised or even have the same significance as it does today? Time will tell.
In the meantime, we trust that, building on the good work of the past, International Women’s Day 2023 is memorable for all those who choose to observe it.