What is International Women's Day, and why does it matter?

Image from 8tracks.com/morrisonkj/uterus-power


Every year on the 8th of March people around the world celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) – but what exactly is it?

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women and gender diverse folk. It is an opportunity for feminists to come together and make a clarion call for gender equality. According to the IWDA, It is a day embracing “intersections of faith, race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, or disability”. 

In some countries like Afghanistan, Vietnam and Russia, IWD is an official holiday where men honour the women in their lives by giving gifts, while in others there is more focus on taking feminist action. There is a different theme every year, and the theme for 2023 is Cracking the Code: Innovation for a gender equal future’.

Who is International Women’s Day for?

Conversations around International Women’s Day can alienate some who deserve to have their voices heard on this day, particularly First Nations women, Women of Colour and LGBTQIA+ folk. In light of this, it is important to uplift culturally diverse and marginalised women, and to clarify that IWD invites all women (cis or trans), as well as gender non-conforming folk aligned with feminist concerns such as misogyny, patriarchal violence and inequality to get involved. By embracing intersectionality, we can celebrate a more inclusive IWD.

So what’s the history behind March 8th?

International Women’s Day began in 1908 when thousands of garment workers, who were mostly women, marched through New York City demanding better pay and working conditions. In 1910, European feminists came together for a conference in Copenhagen, Denmark where German Socialist Clara Zetkin proposed the idea of an “International Women’s Day” to promote equal rights for women, including the right to vote. In 1911, 8 March was celebrated in various countries such as Denmark and Germany as International Women’s Day for the first time. 

While pioneers of mainstream feminism in the West made admirable progress in areas such as work conditions and suffrage throughout the twentieth century, it’s important to acknowledge that these movements have historically excluded non-white women. For writer and historian Edna Bonhomme, IWD “is a reminder of the erasure of Black feminist struggles”. This erasure is not due to Black women’s lack of participation in feminist protest, but rather the anti-Blackness of white feminist movements. 

In Australia, mainstream feminism has also lacked an intersectional perspective — an issue which unfortunately continues to this day. Suffragists in the early twentieth century were almost exclusively concerned with the rights of white women, where they won the right to vote in 1902, but First Nations women only gained this right 60 years later.

A Russian IWD poster from 1932 which says, “8th of March is the day of rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery” and “Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!”

Until the 1970s, IWD was mainly celebrated in communist and socialist countries due to its base in the workers movement. This rebellion against traditional gender roles on 8 March was later mirrored by second wave feminists in Australia, who marched in the nation’s first IWD rally in 1975, held in Naarm/Melbourne. 

This rally took place during the Women’s Liberation Movement (1965-1975), which called for action on matters including equal pay, reproductive rights and an end to sexual violence. However, First Nations women continued to face inequalities compared to white women and faced racist attitudes within this movement. Check out the film Brazen Hussies, which tells the story of this chapter in Australian history. You can also check out this gender equality timeline for a more detailed outline of Australia’s history of progress in gender equality. 

After decades of grassroots recognition instigated by socialist movements, IWD was officially adopted by the United Nations in 1975.

Why is IWD still relevant today?

IWD has become an opportunity to celebrate the amazing achievements of feminists around the world, as well as a day to spread awareness about the ongoing struggle for gender equality. 

There are still many issues that must be addressed to gain equal rights for all women and gender diverse folk in our society. The gender pay gap is still widespread in Australia — a 2021 study found that men earn an average of $255.30 more than women per week. First Nations women and Women of Colour are further disadvantaged, as evidenced by a 2017 study that found that women from migrant backgrounds are nearly 11.9% less likely to be employed than white women, while a 2016 report shows that First Nations women earn $349 less a week than non-First Nations men.

In 2022, the Four Corners report How Many More? shed light on the rates of First Nations women missing and murdered in this country. First Nations women are disproportionately victims of violence due to the intersection of racism and misogyny in our society, particularly within the police institution and justice system. 

Violence against women is still pervasive in our society, with 1 in 3 women experiencing physical violence since the age of 15, and 1 in 5 experiencing sexual violence. Alarmingly, a sexual health survey for trans and gender diverse people in 2018 found that 53% of respondents had experienced sexual violence or coercion.

After decades of protest, abortion has become legal in all Australian states with limitations in WA. However, the decision to overturn Roe vs Wade signifies a major setback in global abortion rights. The rise of the Me Too Movement has also shown that sexual assault and harassment remain persists at unacceptable levels across society.

These are just some of the facts that show us why spreading awareness about feminist issues, fighting for intersectionality, and taking action on IWD and every day of the year is so important. 

How can I get involved in IWD? 

There are many things you can do to celebrate and take action on IWD. You can join an IWD rally like this one in Naarm/Melbourne, attend an IWD event, start conversations among family and friends about IWD and more! 

This article was originally written by Rosie co-creator Georgie Proud in 2015, updated by Maddy Crehan in 2018, and updated by Maki Morita in 2023. 

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