International Women's Day: Its origins, successes & ongoing challenges

Jason Smith 8 March 2016

Here at Speakers Corner, we wanted to acknowledge this year’s International Women’s Day, by looking into its origins, its successes and its ongoing challenges. We will also hear from some of the speakers we work with on the subject, hearing later from business and diversity speaker, Miranda Brawn; ex-Olympic Rower and diplomat, Cath Bishop, and ex-England rugby international, Maggie Alphonsi.

You could be forgiven for thinking that International Women’s Day (IWD) is a western or UN-led campaign to highlight gender inequality around the world. The latter is certainly true but its origins pre-date the UN by 37 years and was born out of socialist ideology in North America no less. Celebrated every year now on the 8th March, it is a day that belongs to no single organisation or country. It continues to remain a day for all people to reflect on the progress made while highlighting the inequalities that still exist and the ongoing fight for true parity between the sexes.

Lyndon Johnson meets with ILGWU members in the 1960s

International Women’s Day was first officially observed by The Socialist Party of America in 1909, in recognition of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union strike which took place the previous year over unfair and unsanitary conditions. A 15,000-strong female force marched through New York City, which eventually resulted in a ‘protocol of peace’ which vastly improved conditions for the garment-makers with an increase in wages, reduced hours and union recognition by the clothing manufacturers.

The momentum from this historic event was quick and far-reaching, arguably informing and inspiring further discussion in Europe with another socialist organisation, Second International, tabling a motion in 1910 at an International Women’s Conference in Denmark for an IWD. The was put forward by the German politician, Luise Zietz, and seconded by communist leader Clara Zetkin. The aims of recognising the day were to promote equal rights and the right to vote for women. In the following year, in 1911, International Women's Day was celebrated for the first time on the 19th March. If anyone, at the time, questioned the need for the day - they were quickly admonished by the numbers of women who got involved. Over a million women came together Europe in approximately 300 demonstrations ensuring the IWD was here to stay.

German poster for International Women's Day, March 8th, 1914

At this stage, different countries celebrated the day on different days throughout February and March. However, in 1913, it was decided IWD would be transferred to the 8th March, starting in 1914, and that is the date it has remained ever since. It was also in that year that our own Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested during a march from Bow, in East London, to Trafalgar Square where she was on her way to speak. Meanwhile, in Germany the day was dedicated to the women’s right to vote, which actually came into effect 4 years later.

The movement continued to grow around the world and, depending on where you lived, it could range from a very strong political, human rights-led event – as seen in Europe and America – to a day akin to simply celebrating womanhood in the style of Mother’s or Valentine's Day. Thankfully, it was the former that won out and paved the way for women to finally reach equality, politically at least, in being able to vote, with most countries choosing to do so after World War I. European late adopters were France in 1944, Italy two years later, Monaco in 1962 and, remarkably, Switzerland in 1971 and Lichtenstein in 1984.

The Flag of The United Nations

It was not until 1975, some 30 years after its creation and in response to the growth in feminism in the 60s and 70s, that the United Nations celebrated the day for the first time, although the UN Charter in 1945 did affirm the principle of equality between the sexes. In 1977, the General Assembly met and adopted a resolution for member states to celebrate the day on any day according to its member state’s traditions. It took another 20 years for the UN to adopt an annual theme with the first being "Celebrating the Past, Planning for the Future" in 1996.

Since then, the UN, by its sheer size and reach, has been able to introduce themes for discussion and action including fighting for: World Free of Violence Against Women; Women in Decision Making; Equal Access to Education, and this year’s theme: Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality. This year's theme aims to end all discrimination and violence towards women and girls and ensure that all children have equal access to a high standard of primary and secondary education.  The full 2030 Agenda can be found here. 

Other organisations getting involved in the day include website , which is run by Aurora Ventures Ltd; a company focusing on female networking and events. It is currently running a successful social media campaign around hashtags: #IWD2016  and asking people to #PledgeForParity .

In the spirit of this pursuit of parity, we wanted to garner thoughts about IWD from some of the great speakers we work with.

Business & Diversity Speaker, Miranda Brawn

Miranda Brawn is an investment banker and lawyer whose career, in industries not known for easily embracing diversity or equality, has gone from strength to strength. Miranda uses this success to inspire others to achieve by providing young people from BAME backgrounds (black, Asian and minority ethnic) with opportunities and incentives to become future leaders. We got in touch with Miranda last week to ask what parity meant to her and she came back to say ‘Achieving gender parity requires the engagement and responsibility of everyone (male and female) for economic prosperity’. In a recent blog, she wrote for Speakers Corner,  Why Diversity Matters to Britain , Miranda elaborated on the ‘prosperity’ point by saying that ‘Companies that champion and promote diversity…within their organisation reap very real rewards from their efforts. The benefits include enhanced business performance, reputational strength, a more innovative and collaborative culture, and the ability to attract talent’.

Performance & Leadership Speaker, Cath Bishop

An ex-Olympic silver medallist rower and international diplomat in Iraq and Bosnia, Cath Bishop  has a rather unique background. Despite the apparent disparities between sport and international relations, she manages to pull out some fascinating parallels between the two. For Cath, parity is ‘a no-brainer - as a believer in high-performance principles, in getting the best out of ourselves, in breaking barriers through collaboration and innovation, and supporting everyone around us to reach their potential, parity is the only way’.

Leadership & Sport Speaker, Maggie Alphonsi

With women making in-roads into once heavily male-dominated sports, we hear from ex-England rugby international, Maggie Alphonsi, who, after her retirement from the sport in 2014, is now turning her attention to being in front of the camera while continuing to coach and promote female participation and coaching in sport. When we caught up with Maggie, she had this to say on the subject: 'International Women’s Day is important to me because it recognises the work being done to give parity to women across the world, and give a voice to those who may be without one'.

You would be hard pushed to find any woman who would speak against parity but - even after 100 years of campaigning - still needs to be said. This week, singer and campaigner Annie Lennox urged women and men to help stamp out gender equality at IWD Care International event in London. Helen Pankhurst, who is the great-granddaughter of Suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and granddaughter to the previously mentioned Sylvia, joined Annie on stage. Annie took to the mic asking women and men to continue the fight started by the Suffragettes who sacrificed ‘themselves for us ... to have access to the democratic vote, to education, to job opportunities - the fight continues… The problem is in our country we have amnesia. We forget that people sacrifice so much to give us the things we take for granted’.

Singer & Campaigner, Annie Lennox

What Annie’s speech highlights, along with other associated IWD campaigns, is that equality for women, despite the extraordinary successes, has unfortunately still some way to go. This is in no way a reflection of the women, and men, who have dedicated their lives to the cause, but is more about a pervasive and silent resistance that exists in all cultures around the world. It would be too easy to point the finger at men but not all men, are sexist. In fact, a question once directed at women: are you a feminist? Is now directed at men enabling them to join the conversation and, by doing so, overcome any misconceptions that feminists hate them.

It would be interesting to hear what Zietz, Zetkin and Pankhurst would make of the discussion today. Would they be encouraged we’ve got this far, or discouraged by how long it has taken? The goal is clear - from the UN’s Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality, along with the #PledgeForParity campaign - but the road to equal opportunity has some distance to go with just not one area, or group of people, having to change. The ideological shift needed for parity may be generational, and gender stereotypes need to be continually challenged - for men too with the recent archaic ‘man up’ saying increasing in use - but what the above shows, and what is at the very heart of International Women’s Day, is that the goal of parity is one that both women and men need to strive for equally.

For more information on Maggie Alphonsi, please call or email  the office.

All pictures courtesy of Wikipedia & Wikimedia Commons with the lead image showing a woman at the International women's day in Egypt in 2011.

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