I thought making a list of important women would be a great way to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. The list would surely have included mothers, mentors and role models. I also planned to name names … to share my own list of women of influence, strength, compassion–Oprah, Mother Theresa, women no one knows but me.
I soon realized I knew nothing about the origin, history, or significance of this day. I learned that industrialization at the turn of the twentieth century led to female factory workers protesting poor working conditions and low wages. According to Wikipedia, “in 1908, 15,000 women marched in New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.” An international women’s conference held in Copenhagen in 1910 established the first International Women’s Day (IWD). At stake was the right to vote, hold public office, the right to work, training and the end of discrimination. A tragic factory fire in New York City in March 1911 killed 140 women and led to labour legislation and improved conditions in the U.S..
Rallies were held in Europe for women to either protest World War I or express solidarity with their sisters. Russian women observed their first IWD in 1913. By 1917, 2 million Russian soldiers were dead. A strike for ‘bread and peace’ in St. Petersburg, led by feminist Alexandra Kollontai, set the stage for the Russian Revolution. Kollontai convinced Lenin to make it an official holiday to celebrate “the heroic woman worker.” Today it remains an official holiday with men expressing their love for women with flowers and gifts.
In the mid 1970s the United Nations began sponsoring the IWD. Today’s issues are less workplace related and more individual rights and freedoms based, particularly in third world countries. The UN and others are focused on stopping female genital mutilation, rape as a weapon of war, and the burning of Indian brides with dowries deemed too small. It sort of makes any of our complaints as women pale in comparison.
Canada designates March 5 through March 11 International Women’s Week with this year’s theme being “Beyond Laws: The Right to be Me.” The Status of Women website notes that despite the Canadian Human Rights Act, The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and labour laws, “a gap remains between laws and the reality of women’s lives.” Barriers like violence and poverty continue to keep certain women (aboriginals, lesbians, disabled, single parents) from reaching their full potential.
A quick scan of planned Alberta activities reveals everything from simple awareness sessions to candlelight vigils, potluck suppers to aid women in Sudan and Afghanistan, awards presentations, and supper and speaker sessions.
Let’s not let another IWD come and go without some awareness of the struggles women have had and continue to have. Let’s celebrate economic, political and social achievements while acknowledging that the fight is not over to make all women free and safe to become who they can be. We owe it to the women who came before, from where I sit.
* Reprinted with permission