Herstory Now: Celebrating International Women’s Day
Today we celebrate International Women’s Day which is celebrated globally on March 8th March every year. On this day we celebrate women’s social, economic, cultural, and political achievements. The day also serves as a call to action to accelerate gender equality and the empowerment of women. Today is also a day to celebrate progress, raise awareness of gender inequality, and inspire people to act toward achieving gender equality.
The roots of International Women’s Day can be traced back to the early 1900s when women began to agitate for better working conditions, equal pay, and the right to vote. “The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on 28 February. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honor of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested working conditions. But the first milestone in the US was much earlier – in 1848. Indignant over women being barred from speaking at an anti-slavery convention, Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott congregate a few hundred people at their nation’s first women’s rights convention in New York. Together they demand civil, social, political, and religious rights for women in a Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions.”[i] A movement is born. From these events, the first National Women’s Day was observed in the United States on February 28, 1909, in honor of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested working conditions in the textile industry.
“Originally known as International Working Women’s Day, its roots lie in the socialist, rather than feminist, struggle of the early 20th century. Although national days had been celebrated prior to 1911, the 18 March of that year marked the first international day, following a proposal from German communist Clara Zetkin.”[ii] She proposed the idea of an International Women’s Day at the International Socialist Women’s Conference in Copenhagen. The proposal was met with unanimous approval, and the first International Women’s Day was celebrated in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. More than a million people attended rallies in support of women’s rights, including the right to vote, hold public office, and the right to work.
Throughout the years, International Women’s Day has been a platform for women to raise their voices, share their stories, and demand change. In 2011, the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day was celebrated with the theme “Equal access to education, training, and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women.” In 2021, the theme was “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.”
However, we cannot simply celebrate this holiday and not be critical of it. As with anything, we must break down what it is and, in this case, has become. One of the primary criticisms of International Women’s Day is that it has become too commercialized and lost sight of its origins. As stated above, “a favorite of the capitalist corporate world, IWD was started by Marxist feminists and socialists over 100 years ago…It grew from grassroots activism. It’s entwined with the worker’s rights movement and the struggles of the working class.”[iii] Many businesses and corporations use the day to market products and services for women, often without any real commitment to advancing women’s rights. This has led some to argue that International Women’s Day has lost its original meaning and has become another opportunity for companies to profit off women. Not only do companies use this day to profit from women’s advocacy, but it is also used by companies to highlight women and use the moment as a media opportunity. “I’ve observed that while many organizations are willing to celebrating the achievements of individual women (as long as they can use it as a photo opp), they are unwilling to integrate policies and practices that would improve gender equality in their workplaces. Organizations will champion ‘women’s empowerment’ but fail to address the very power dynamics which create a need for the empowerment of women.”[iv] Catchy titles and staged photos are used to make these organizations as transformative and progressive but know this is far from the truth.
Another issue with International Women’s Day is that it often ignores the experiences of women who are marginalized and oppressed in different ways. Over and over, we see women of color, transgendered women, and others in the margins being erased. For example, women of color, trans women, and women living in poverty face unique challenges that are often overlooked by mainstream feminist movements. “Race and racism create specific, unique challenges for women of color that are too easily ignored with broad platitudes that seek to advance women’s representation without questioning which women are most likely to benefit.”[v] By focusing solely on the experiences of middle-class white women, International Women’s Day can inadvertently exclude and marginalize other groups of women. When we say women, we need to start meaning all women. Further, International Women’s Day needs to go back to its radical origins, taking the focus on symbolic gestures and empty rhetoric away. Women of color, transgendered women, and others in the margins needed to be talked about and included.
When discussing International Women’s Day there is also the issue of tokenism. While it is important to celebrate the achievements of women, it can be problematic when women are used as tokens to prove a company or organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. This can lead to women being hired or promoted solely because of their gender, rather than their qualifications or merit. “Despite women’s hard work, their value is still undermined by the systems and institutional behaviors, bias and injustice they face. …Organizations perhaps naively assume that an offer of a platform in exchange for a few social media posts or the chance to ‘have your voice heard’ is a gift to women. It isn’t – it’s exploitative. Exposure does not pay the bills.”[vi] Women aren’t here to help show how progressive you are, but instead should help you make a change.
International Women’s Day is a celebration of women’s achievements and a call to action to accelerate gender equality. It has a rich history that dates back over a century, and it continues to inspire people around the world to work toward a more just and equal society for all. However, while International Women’s Day has undoubtedly played an important role in raising awareness about women’s issues, it is not without its problems. It is important to recognize the commercialization, exclusion, symbolic gestures, and tokenism that can accompany the day, and work towards addressing these issues to create a more inclusive and effective movement for women’s rights.
[i] UN. History of Women’s Day, UN Website. https://www.un.org/en/observances/womens-day/background.
[ii] Reed, Betsy. International Women’s Day: Who Was Cara Zetkin. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/from-the-archive-blog/2012/mar/08/clara-zetkin-international-womens-day.
[iii] Breen, Ebony. LinkedIn. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/corporate-problem-international-womens-day-ebony-breen/?trk=articles_directory.
[iv] Bordignon, Siena. Women’s Agenda. https://womensagenda.com.au/latest/soapbox/why-international-womens-day-isnt-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/.
[v] Wingfield, Adia Harvey. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/essay/women-are-advancing-in-the-workplace-but-women-of-color-still-lag-behind/.
[vi] Pankhurst, Caroline. Campaign UK. https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/say-no-tokenistic-panels-international-womens-day/1674727.
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