International Women’s Day has a long and colorful history.
In 1908, frustrated with the oppression and inequality that affected their everyday lives and spurred on by the momentum of the growing labor movement, 15,000 women took to the streets of New York City. They marched in protest of long workdays with low pay and no voting rights. The following year, in 1909, the United States declared 28 February National Woman’s Day.
It was in Copenhagen, at the 1910 International Conference of Working Women, that activist Clara Zetkin led the proposal for a day for women around the world to band together and “press for their demands”. According to the International Women’s Day (IWD) website, more than 100 women from 17 countries unanimously approved and thus, IWD was established.
On 19 March 1911, IWD was recognized in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In celebration, more than one million women and men attended rallies to campaign for women’s rights to employment, the vote, education and to end discrimination.
The United Nations (UN) officially recognized IWD for the first time in 1975. It’s a national holiday in 27 countries and a day of celebration in many more.
International Women’s Day today
Today, more than 100 years after that very first IWD, much has improved for women in a number of regions. In 2016, the constitutions of 184 out of 194 countries guaranteed equality between men and women, according to UN entity UN Women.
While addressing the General Assembly last month, UN Secretary-General António Guterres included the right to full gender equality on the list of priorities for 2023. “The United Nations is fighting back and standing up for the rights of women and girls everywhere,” he said, pledging support for equality efforts both within and outside of the organization.
And yet, Guterres also pointed out that at the current rate of progress, it will take a stunning 286 years for women to close gender gaps in legal protection and remove discriminatory laws against women.
In recent years, countless headlines dominating the world news cycle have spelled out distressing news for women.
In the United States, women have been stripped of autonomy over their own bodies with the Roe vs. Wade 1973 landmark ruling overturned. Women in Iran, arguably the most educated in the Middle East, are being arrested and killed alongside their allies as they protest against unfair government rulings and demand reform. Iranian girls are currently being poisoned to keep them from attending school.
Japan can be congratulated for closing just over 95 percent of its education gender gap, but it still ranks abysmally in gender equality when compared to other developed nations. The 2021 Global Gender Gap Report listed Japan as 120th out of 156 countries.
In enlightening back-to-back incidents in 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee resigned after making sexist comments. Days later, the governing Liberal Democratic Party announced a proposal to allow five women lawmakers to sit in on key meetings – as long as they didn’t speak. They would be invited to submit opinions afterward.
Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic “knocked 54 million women around the world out of work”, according to The Washington Post, creating an even wider employment gender gap.
“Gender equality is a question of power. The patriarchy, with millennia of power behind it, is reasserting itself,” said Guterres in his UN address. “Things are getting worse.”
Embracing equity as the way forward
This year’s IWD theme is #EmbraceEquity. It encourages the world to go beyond equality and look to equity – in light of each person’s different circumstances – to help global society move forward.
“Equity can be defined as giving everyone what they need to be successful,” the IWD website states. But it’s not giving everyone exactly the same thing.
On the IWD website, this is explained further: “Women often require more than a level playing field. They need to belong in a global culture that actively promotes and supports them, from education to the workplace to health.
“Policies that benefit white women, for example, may not benefit women of color due to historical or current inequalities. A shift from gender equality to the process of gender equity is required for meaningful progress.”
But women can’t make this shift alone. For change to be truly long-term and successful, all people need to alter their perspective and stand up against bias. Of course, these directives may look different and mean different things depending on, for instance, where you are in the world – but the support of allies cannot be underestimated.
Gender equality will benefit everyone, not just women, and despite the gains we have made, it remains as pressing an issue now as it was at the beginning of last century.