International Women's Day

Women all over the world have used International Women’s Day, March the 8th, to campaign about issues relevant to their local needs – from gender equity in the workplace to ending poverty and violence against women. Last year marked 100 years of the day’s fascinating and varied history. International Women’s Day continues to celebrate the great achievements of women, and turn our attention to the problems still faced by women.
While in Australia and other Western countries International Women’s Day is usually associated with the United Nations and human rights discourse, women’s day celebrations have a more complicated history. From distinctly socialist beginnings, through expansion across communist nations, International Women’s Day has evolved alongside women’s agendas. The debate over the origin of the day illustrates an interesting balancing act of these agendas.
A long standing myth of the brutal repression of a rally of female textile workers in New York in 1857, and its commemoration in 1907, is a case in point. While it is now accepted that neither event took place, the myth has been described as a “chapter in a long-standing conflict between feminists and communists over whether women have rights beyond those they hold as workers.” Indeed, in the past events were organised by socialist groups and primarily centred on issues surrounding the basic rights of women as workers.
In February 1909, the Socialist Party of America organised a National Woman’s Day and the next year, with Marxist Clara Zetkin at the helm, an International Working Women’s conference in Copenhagen unanimously supported a plan for an international day. In the following years the day was honoured first in Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland and then throughout Europe.
During the First World War women in Russia used the day to campaign for peace. On the 8th of March in 1917 a mass International Women’s Day demonstration in Petrograd demanding ‘bread and peace’ played a crucial role in setting off the February Revolution and overthrow of the Tsar. For Russian women the abdication of the Tsar led to a provisional government which granted them suffrage, and a Soviet state which redefined their role in Russian society. The date of the demonstration became central to International Women’s Day, particularly in communist nations, and in 1949 the Chinese Government declared a half-day holiday for women.

In 1977 the United Nations 105th plenary meeting invited all states to declare a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace. Interestingly the resolution stated the day could be on any day of the year “in accordance with their historical and national traditions and customs”. This open-ended resolution was necessary in order to recognise the varied history of International Women’s Day.

In Australia, International Women’s Day had been informally celebrated since the early 1920’s and gained momentum as the Second World War approached. Activists such as Jessie Street campaigned for women’s rights as workers, as women at the time were often paid only 54% of men’s wages. During International Women’s Year in 1975, two years before the UN resolution, large marches marked International Women’s Day. The Whitlam government supported a series of events throughout the year including the controversial Women and Politics Conference in September which examined how women were represented in Australian politics. Although the first women had been elected to Parliament in 1943, in 1980 only 3% of parliamentarians in the House of Representatives, and 10.9% in the Senate, were female.

Representation of women in the Australian parliament is still a pertinent issue. Although women now hold the positions of Prime Minister and Attorney-General for the first time in Australian history, less than one-third of parliamentarians are women. As discussed in a recent Parliamentary Library publication, over the past decade Australia’s ranking has slipped from 21 to 38 in international comparisons of women in national parliaments.

Globally, political under-representation is an even larger problem. Although many countries have now adopted a quota or reserved seat system to support women in politics, only 19% of parliamentarians are women and less than 10% of the world’s leaders are women. Gender imbalance in other positions of power is even more marked; only 13 of the 500 largest corporations in the world employ a female chief executive officer.

Looking beyond the gender imbalance in these formal settings, for women living below or close to the poverty line, the issues of workload and unpaid work are more pressing. The UN reports that “when unpaid work is taken into account, women’s total work hours are longer than men’s in all regions”. In many rural settings both women and girls complete a disproportionate amount of labour, for example women in Malawi spend eight times the amount of time men spend on fetching wood and water. Poor women complete household work and are often also engaged in poorly paid, insecure employment outside the home. These tasks intrude on time spent at school and other pursuits. While significant gains have been made in increasing universal primary education and decreasing gender parity in education, women still account for “two thirds of the world’s 774 million adult illiterates – a proportion that is unchanged over the past two decades”.
International Women’s Day still covers a diverse array of agendas, from women’s rights as workers to their role as members of a family and of a society. This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty”. Events in Australia and many other nations are listed at the International Women’s Day website events page.



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