My introduction to International Women’s Day started with a card I received from my long-time Russian pen pal when we were both teenagers in the late 70s. I had never heard of it prior to her greeting but I have been intrigued with this international event since I first heard about it and very recently delved into researching it in depth. In February of 1913, on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed the first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday of that month. Following discussions it was transferred to March 8th and has remained the global date ever since.
This day is celebrated all over the world these days, just as the name suggests, but its beginnings were in the Russian States back the early 1900s and was a socialist movement, originally. By 1908 the inequality for women concerning legal, business and voting rights issues were debated prolifically and active campaigning for change was accelerating internationally- regardless of party affiliations or ethnicities. That same year. 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
By 1910 a second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen and concurrently a woman named Clara Zetkin who was Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ (for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year, in every country, there should be a celebration on the same day to press for rights and demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties and working women’s clubs included the first three women elected to the Parliament of Finland and all approved Zetkin’s suggestion.
Following the unanimous decision International Women’s Day (IWD) was honored for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19th March the following year and over a million women (and men) attended the rallies campaigning for women’s rights to work for equal pay, vote, hold public office and end job discrimination. Less than a week later on the 25th of March 1911, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants. A few years later, women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express solidarity on women’s rights issues. When the Russian Czar was forced to abdicate, the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.
International Women’s Day has grown to become a global day of recognition and celebration across large and developing countries alike and has grown progressively through the years. For many years the United Nations has held an annual IWD conference to coordinate international efforts for women’s rights and participation in social, political and economic processes. From the momentum it gained through the years, 1975 was designated as ‘International Women’s Year’ by the United Nations. Women’s organizations and governments around the world have also observed IWD annually on the 8th of March by holding large-scale events honoring women’s advancement while reminding us to be vigilant and active in ensuring women’s equal rights to be maintained in all aspects of life.
The year 2000 marked the 100th anniversary date of this global observance since its earliest beginnings but two years ago marked the official 100th anniversary when it became globally accepted and also official. Third world countries had joined in the solidarity, increased awareness and aid to women in these countries and has become an honored tradition by those who have stepped up to the plate to make a difference. The new millennium has witnessed a significant change in attitude in both women’s and society’s thoughts about equality and emancipation. Those of a younger generation seem to feel that all the battles have been won for women but feminists from the 1970s remember too well the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy. With more women in boardrooms, legislative rights, and more visibility as important role models, it is supposed that women have gained true equality.
The struggle which comes to mind in more recent years was brought to light in a movie which Sally Field starred in portraying an actual person, Crystal Lee Sutton, in 1979, titled Norma Rae. In 1973, Sutton was a 33 year old mother of three earning 2.65 an hour folding towels at J.P. Stevens when a manager fired her for pro-union activity. In a final act of defiance before police hauled her out, Sutton, who had worked at the plant for 16 years, wrote UNION on a piece of cardboard and climbed onto a table on the plant floor. Other employees responded by shutting down their machines. She spent the remainder of her years as a labor organizer and quite heavily during the 70s. Eventually she became a certified nursing assistant in 1988 but by the time of her passing in 2009 she had not been able to work for several years because of illnesses. Her struggle to unionize textile plants in the South will be remembered many years from now on the strength of the type of solidarity brought to light through such organizations as IWD and others.
However, the unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally among their male counterparts. While we have increased in all the areas which would bring equality to men in our daily lives we have a long way to go before we will be found present in equal numbers in business, politics, women’s education and health. Violence against women is worse than that of men and has increased exponentially in domestic situations. We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into universities, women can work and have a family and have viable choices, culturally. Advancement has been slow considering the momentum of the Women’s Movement and it is important that we recognize that the need for solidarity and activism continue so that we can truly say we have achieved the main objective of International Women’s Day which is absolute equality in all areas of life.
In the present day, one hundred years later, the organization has become celebratory of the positive advances we have made and thousands of events are held throughout the world, on the eighth of March, to inspire women and promote achievements. A global web of rich and diverse local activity connects women from all around the world ranging from political rallies, business conferences, government activities and networking events through to local women’s craft markets, theatrical performances, fashion parades and more. Many global corporations have also started to more actively support IWD by running their own internal events and through supporting external ones. Media giant Google changes its logo on global search pages on March 8th to honor IWD which increases the status of the event. The United States designates the whole month of March as Women’s History Month and is enjoying its 24th annual celebration this year.
The website www.internationalwomensday.com was founded in 2001 as a non-profit, philanthropic venture dedicated to keeping IWD alive and growing. International Women’s Day has gained considerable momentum since 2007 due to greater media attention, events, social networking and corporate support. Now celebrated with various and wide scale activities in almost every country- many world leaders and officials support this event with official statements, announcements and activities you can become involved in and with which to participate. This year Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea will be hosting a webcast live from New York City the following Monday March 9th along with Melinda Gates titled Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality on the web site www.clintonfoundation.org At the event, No Ceilings will release the findings of The Full Participation Report, an analysis of the gains women and girls have made over the last 20 years and the gaps that remain today. In honor of International Women’s Day, this groundbreaking event will bring together global and community leaders for a compelling look into the status of gender equality since 1995, when the world spoke with one voice to declare that women’s rights are human rights. There will be an online conversation with the hashtag #NoCeilings for those who would like to put forth their views and ideas.
So make a difference, think globally and act locally !! Make everyday International Women’s Day by doing what you can to ensure the future for girls is bright, equal, safe and rewarding. Last week in the Sunday Parade newspaper supplement, a woman was mentioned in an article touting the importance of making a difference right where you are in your community. Ana Maria Chali Calan founded AMIDI (Association of Indigenous Women for Holistic Development) in her small village in the Guatemalan highlands in 2000. There were almost too many issues that affected women in her locality but she decided to improve the standard of living for women, specifically. She started with classes in organic farming, accounting and even a small egg business and then on to installing safe, fuel-efficient stoves in kitchens. Those aided by AMIDI with micro-lending projects have become leaders in women’s rights, are savvy entrepreneurs and have become advocates, themselves, in the fields of health and nutrition. This is the true meaning of solidarity when those who have been helped become beacons in the international community for women.