International Women’s Day

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By the end of the 20th century, March 8th was globally celebrated as International Women’s Day or IWD. This recognition has slowly become more than a doff of the hat to the world’s women. It now serves as an inspirational call for sisterhood in action. Its origins date to 1910 when an International Women’s Conference associated with the Second Socialist International endorsed a special day of global recognition (following up a 1909 claim for a national day by the Socialist Party of America). Unlike Mothers’ Day, which originated in the United States in the mid-19th century to honour one aspect of women’s lives (though with the important but all too forgotten associated political message of peace), early IWD emphasized paid work. It too, however, likewise raised the possibility of a global sisterhood especially committed to non-violence. While sentimentalism and hypocrisy dog both days, all the more so as cultures have become increasingly commercialized, the call for ‘bread and roses’ supplies a permanent reminder of the necessity of both material support and individual respect. Early socialist champions such as the German Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) trusted that celebration would help ensure that specific tragedies such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York City in 1911 and pervasive unfair wages, unhealthy work environments, and lack of recognition and opportunity would not be forgotten. When, after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, IWD became an official holiday in both countries, even if both largely failed to offer full equality, liberal democracies, not to mention dictatorships, shied away. To affirm women as workers and as global citizens seemed a radical step too far. The need for public recognition of women’s worth was not, however, forgotten. The rise of the second great feminist wave beginning in the 1960s brought demands for renewal. The United Nations, like the League of Nations before it, provided a critical site for assertions of women’s rights (notably the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1952, the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women in 1957, and the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages in 1962). Under UN auspices, Mexico City hosted the first World Conference on Women in 1975 and inaugurated International Women’s Year and the International Decade of Women (1976-85). The all-important Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW (1979) was a direct result. Nor was IWD forgotten. In 1977 the UN encouraged members to proclaim March 8th ‘the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace’ (Wikipedia). The continuing linkage of women and peace suggests the persisting strength of the 19th century western views of female nature. (These of course co-exist along side older views of the Christian Church fathers, among others, which have been far more likely to credit women, all potential ‘Eves’, with particular capacity for violence rather than harmony.) For all the dangers of cultural ‘baggage’ that insists upon women’s special responsibility (nicely letting others off the hook) for ending conflict and human survival, IWD offers a critical moment to pause and reflect on justice and democracy, not to mention to celebrate the possibility of a sisterhood that acknowledges the differences of class, race, sexuality, and ability. No wonder, and all the more so in times of deepening exploitation and violence, the modern women’s movements and their allies embrace IWD for its promise of a fair deal and good times for all.

 

Resources

Chatterjee, Choi, Celebrating Women. Gender, Festival Culture, and Bolshevik Ideology, 1910-1939. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002.

“Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” Division for the Advancement of Women, United Nations, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/history.htm

Fauré, Christine, ed., Political and Historical Encyclopedia of Women, N.Y.: Routledge, 2003.

“International Women’s Day,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Women’s_Day

Kramarae, Cheris and Dale Spender, eds., Routledge International Encyclopedia of Women: Global Women’s Issues and Knowledge. V. 3. N.Y.: Routledge, 2000.

Mackie, Vera. “Motherhood and Pacifism in Japan 1900-1937,” Hecate, v. 14. iss. 2, 1988, 28-49.

Noonan, Norma Corigliano and Carol Nechemias, eds., Encyclopedia of Russian Women’s Movements, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.

Offen, Karen, European Feminisms, 1700-1950. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Schultz, Jeffrey D. and Laura van Assendelft, eds., Encyclopedia of Women in American Politics, Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx, 1999.

Tryggestad, Torunn L., “Trick or Treat? the UN and Implementation of Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security,” Global Governance v. 15, iss. 4, 2009, 539-557.

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."

This article was written by: Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."