In the News

International Women's Day - Why is it so important?

Vicki Woolven

8th March 2023

International Women's Day (IWD) has been observed for over 100 years - but what is it and why is it still important?

What sparked International Women's Day?

The early 1900s was a time of expansion and turbulence - the global population boomed, but so did radical ideologies. Part of this was the recognition of women's oppression and inequality - which spurred women to vocalise their dissatisfaction and start to actively campaign for change, particularly around working pay and conditions, and of course, the right to vote.

1908 saw the first big organised event when 15,000 women marched through New York to make their voices heard. A year later the first National Women's Day was observed across the USA.

In 1910, at the International Conference of Working Women, it was suggested that there should be an International Women's Day, to celebrate women's achievements and to help them press for their demands. Over 100 women from 17 countries were present. They voted unanimously in favour and so International Women's Day was born.

The following year more than one million people attended rallies across Western Europe on that day, campaigning for women's rights to vote, to be trained, to hold public office, and to bring an end to gender discrimination. However a week later a huge fire ripped through a factory in New York, killing more than 140 working women. This disaster meant that for the next few years working conditions and labour legalisation would be the main focus of International Women's Day events.

In 1914 it was agreed that International Women's Day was important enough to be marked on a specific date - 8th March. This has remained the global date for the event ever since. Prior to that International Women's Day was observed on the last Sunday in February. On 8th March 1914 women marched across Europe to campaign against the war, and in London marches took place for women's suffrage.

1917 saw a huge leap forward for women's rights. In response to the death of more than 2 million Russian soldiers in WW1, Russian women began a strike for 'Bread and Peace'. Despite opposition they continued to strike for four days, which led to the abdication of the Czar, along with provision rights to vote for women.

However, it wasn't until 1975 that International Women's Day was marked by the United Nations.

More recently...

Every year International Women's Day has a theme - this year it is 'DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality', which hopes to recognise and celebrate the contribution that females make to technology and online education, as well as exploring the impact of digital gender inequality, with millions of women unable to access the internet in low-income and middle-income countries.

The United Nations announced the idea of themed days in 1996 and started off with 'Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future'. Other themes include 'Women and Human Rights' and 'World Free of Violence Against Women'.

However by 2000, there was little support for International Women's Day - feminism had waned in popularity despite the fact that gender inequality was still a huge issue, even across developing nations, but critics argued that the day had become too commercialised and therefore diluted the important issues that the day had been established for.

Despite this criticism, the IWD website was set up with the purpose of 're-energising the day and inviting mass participation' - with two focuses: to celebrate the achievements of women, and to call for gender parity, still using the annual themes. In the years since, social media has played a vital role in galvanising collective action with various hashtag campaigns, supported by celebrities and business leaders, and many charities have embraced International Women's Day with projects aimed specifically at gender equality. This 'rebrand' has been increased the inclusivity of the day, and has made it more mainstream.

Is International Women's Day still really needed?

Of course it is! Yes, we have seen significant progress in terms of gender equality, particularly within developing nations, but that was down to the sheer determination and stubbornness of those women who wouldn't take no as an answer during the first and second waves of feminism.

We have the vote. We have female CEOs. We have female heads of state. We have sent women into space. And we have countless amazing female role models to aspire to.

But even in developed nations, women still face discrimination in the workplace, with the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling. Women are still experiencing #everydaysexism, and women are still extremely vulnerable to the abuse of power by men, particularly in terms of sexual violence.

And we know that if we start looking at developing nations, the situation for women and girls is far worse. There are too many examples to list of all the ways that women suffer gender discrimination, but some of the big stories under the media spotlight recently include the Taliban gaining control of Afghanistan and immediately suspending education for girls; and the death of Mahsa Amini following her arrest in Iran for having some of her hair visible under her hijab, which contravened Iranian law, which states that women have to cover their head and wear long, loose-fitting clothing to disguise their figures. The argument here being women who are not dressed properly might provoke men and come to harm.

But are women just sitting back and accepting this gender inequality? Absolutely not! Women and girls have taken to the streets in Afghanistan to protest for their right to be allowed to return to school, whilst at the same time accessing all sorts of remote education initiatives to ensure that they get the education that they are entitled too. And across Iran, women ripped off their headscarves and set them on fire in an act of defiance, with many also cutting their hair in public (long hair is considered to be a sign of beauty in Iran).

So yes, International Women's Day is very much still relevant and needed!

And of course at some point you'll hear the tediously predictable 'Uh, why isn't there International Men's Day? It's not fair!' - well, there is! It's 19th November. A celebration of the positive value men bring to the world, promoting male role models, focusing on health and well-being and to highlight discrimination in terms of attitudes around masculinity. This year's theme is 'Zero Male Suicide'.

The difference here is that the role of International Men's Day is more about support, whereas International Women's Day is all about change. And whilst gender inequality is still such an issue in many countries, International Women's Day will still be an important global day.

Here are a small selection of amazing speeches that are worth a listen...

Vicki Woolven

Vicki Woolven is Subject Lead for Key Stage 4 Humanities at tutor2u. Vicki previously worked as a Head of Geography and Sociology for many years, leading her department to be one of the GA's first Centres of Excellent, and has been a content writer, senior examiner and local authority Key Practitioner for Humanities.

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