Over the past century, International Women’s Day has evolved from radical protests for women’s political, economic and social rights to a day for celebrating women’s achievements. In Canada, nowadays, at celebratory luncheons and evening award galas, it is not unusual for organizations to cheer prominent women who have reached the heights of success in such areas as sports, volunteerism and business. Has International Women’s Day become merely a time to reflect on how far (some) women have come?
The first National Women’s Day was observed by the Socialist Party of America on February 28, 1909, as a commemoration of the 15,000 women who demanded shorter work hours, higher wages and voting rights in the garment workers’ strike in New York City. One year later, the International Conference of Socialist Women gathered in Copenhagen, where Clara Zetkin, a prominent activist in German politics, submitted a proposal that detailed why women throughout the world should designate an annual day for voicing their demands. The proposal passed unanimously and, in 1911, more than a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland took to the streets on the first International Women’s Day to demand universal suffrage. The theme was “Bread and Roses,” a recognition that we need both sustenance and beauty in our lives.
Then, on March 26, 1911, in New York City, 141 women and men died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, locked inside the building. Most burned or suffocated; some jumped to their deaths from windows. The carnage mobilized opposition to sweatshop conditions and lax work-safety policies, and IWD became a focus for political demands for safe work conditions for women.
Since then, the day has served to draw attention to gender injustice throughout the world. Women globally have drafted declarations of equality, questioned socially constructed gender roles and, among other things, have successfully pressured governments to enact anti-sexist legislation. With all that, however, the female population continues to be disproportionately responsible for unpaid work, underrepresented in parliaments, overrepresented in poverty and outrageously susceptible to rape, sexual harassment and violence.
In Canada, women are not achieving elected office at anything near parity. Parties seem unwilling to recruit women as candidates in winnable ridings, preferring the old stale pale male formula, which represents winnability. Marilyn Waring, the internationally famous New Zealand feminist and economist, argues that every state signatory to the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights and on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, has obligations in international law to guarantee equal political representation. Reform of the electoral process and the culture of political parties are preconditions for women’s equality.
In 2006, Canadian women are still disproportionately liable to be poor, ill, underpaid and underemployed, assaulted, raped and disrespected. These indicators are typically worse for women in much of the rest of the world. Patriarchy still works well with capitalism to constrain and exploit women, and political cultures still celebrate machismo and other forms of sexism. IWD is a very slight measure of acknowledgement of the need for change. Marketing the day for commercial gain cheapens its political significance.
We need to do far more than salute women once a year to erase the poverty, violence, racism and sexism that mar too many women’s lives. We need to challenge the systems of oppression—and also our own complicity in relations of dominance and subordination. It’s time to stand with the sisters—and, sometimes, to stand aside for the sisters.
This article appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Canadian Dimension (Women Speaking Out).