International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on 8 March around the world. Serving as a focal point for in the movement for women’s rights, it’s a day when women receive the recognition they are often denied for their achievements without regard to their differences, whether these may be national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political.
This year, women have been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, serving as health care workers, innovators, community organisers, caregivers, and as some of the most exemplary and effective national leaders in combating the virus. The crisis has served to shine a light on both the importance of women’s contributions as well as the disproportionate burdens they carry.
A brief history
The very first Women’s Day observance was called “National Woman’s Day“. Held in New York City on 28 February 1909, the march was organised by the Socialist Party of America. After that, Women’s Day was celebrated on the last Sunday in February in the United States. Sunday was chosen because organisers wanted to make sure that working women would be able to attend.
An International Socialist Women’s Conference was held in August 1910, just before the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. There, a proposal for an annual “Women’s Day” was made, although no specific date was established.
The following year on 19 March 1911, International Women’s Day (IWD) was celebrated for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Women demanded that they be given the right to vote and to hold public office while protesting against employment sex discrimination. Worldwide, over one million people took part.
In 1914, International Women’s Day was held on 8 March in Germany, possibly because that day was a Sunday. The theme was women’s right to vote, which German women did not gain until 1918.
In London, there was a march to Trafalgar Square planned in support of women’s suffrage on 8 March 1914. The suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested on her way to speak there. As in Germany, women did not receive the right to vote in the United Kingdom until 1918.
On 8 March 1917, women textile workers began a demonstration and strike in Petrograd, the capital of the Russian Empire, demanding peace and bread. The protest eventually spread across the city, igniting the February Revolution, which – together with the October Revolution – made up the Russian Revolution.
After it was officially adopted as a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1922, Women’s Day was mainly celebrated in Soviet bloc countries.
The day remained predominantly a Soviet-bloc holiday until about 1967 when it was rediscovered by second-wave feminists and the daughters of American Communists who remembered having heard of the holiday. The day was revitalised and brought back as a day of activism. In the 1970s and 1980s, women’s rights group were joined by leftists and labour organisations in calling for equal pay, equal economic opportunity, equal legal rights, reproductive rights, subsidised childcare, and the prevention of violence against girls and women.
This year, the UN theme for International Women’s Day is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world”, highlighting the impact that girls and women worldwide had as health care workers, caregivers, innovators and community organizers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This year’s hashtags are #IWD2021 and #ChoosetoChallenge.
Historically, purple has been associated with efforts to achieve gender equality. Purple, green and white were the colours used by the Women’s Social and Political Union, the organisation that led Britain’s women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century. For the suffragettes fighting for the right to vote, purple represented loyalty and dignity, green stood for hope, and white for purity. In the 1960s and 1970s, feminists brought back the use of purple to represent the women’s movement as a tribute to the suffragettes.
Why it’s important, and not just for women
Over the past century, women have gained many rights, including the right to vote, the right to serve in public office, and more. Despite this overall progress – and exceptional progress made towards gender equality, such as Iceland Gender equality has not yet been achieved in any nation on the planet. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020 rankings, the ten countries with the least gender gap are Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Nicaragua, New Zealand (which was, incidentally, the first self-governing nation to give women the right to vote, in 1893!), Ireland, Spain, Rwanda and Germany.
Nevertheless, the same report finds that none of us will see gender parity in our lifetimes, and nor likely will many of our children. According to the report, at the current rate of progress, gender parity will not be attained for 99.5 years.
Women’s human rights are fundamental rights, and they cannot be subordinated to cultural, religious or political considerations. Gender equality is essential for the achievement of human rights for all people.
Laws in many countries continue to institutionalize second class status for women and girls with regard to nationality and citizenship, health, education, marital rights, employment rights, parental rights, inheritance and property rights. All of these forms of discrimination against women are entirely incompatible with the empowerment of women.
In the past fifty years, humankind has achieved extraordinary feats, including landing on the moon, discovering new human ancestors and photographing a black hole for the first time.
In the meantime, 2.7 billion women are prevented from accessing the same choice of jobs as men due to legal restrictions, less than 25 percent of parliamentarians were women, and 1 in 3 women still experience gender-based violence.
The COVID-19 epidemic has exacerbated this disparity: Women play a disproportionate role in responding to the virus, including as frontline healthcare workers and carers at home. School closures and the increased needs of older people have meant that women’s unpaid care work has increased significantly. Because women disproportionally work in insecure labour markets, they are also harder hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19. And because nearly 60 percent of women work in the informal economy, they are at increased risk of falling into poverty.
What we can do to celebrate today and every day on the path to equality
We must not allow these facts and figures to discourage us. Women and women’s rights have come a long way since those early marches more than a century ago. There are many actions that we can take – not just on Women’s Day, but every day – to continue to empower women. Here are a few:
Support women-owned businesses. By supporting businesses owned by women, you are helping to contribute to equal economic empowerment, representative products and services and a stronger economy overall.
Advocate for gender equality in your workplace. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to lose their jobs than men. Progress toward gender equality means creating inclusive environments.
Start a book club with your friends or co-workers. Focus on women’s empowerment and other issues that relate to women’s challenges and achievements.
Host an online watch party with films with strong women leads.
Consider donating to a women’s charity, whether local or international. There are many programmes focused on providing education and healthcare to girls and women.
Share your thoughts. While the pandemic has prevented marches and gatherings, there are other ways to share that love and energy. Making a bright poster for your window, recommending a favourite female artist or singer to a friend, or reading a women-centred book to a child are all positive actions designed to raise awareness.
Use the hashtags are #IWD2021 and #ChoosetoChallenge on your social media posts.
International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and set future goals, and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. Today, and every day, we must continue to press for gender equality, and not just because it benefits women. The fact is that equality benefits all, regardless of their gender. Join us as we celebrate International Women’s Day and the path to equality and empowerment for women across the globe.