Happy International Women’s Day: A Look Back At Over A Century Of The Global Fight For Justice And Equality

From New York to Beijing, women have been demanding their rights on 8 March since 1908. Much remains to be done, say activists, but there is reason for celebration

A woman taking part in the 2022 International Women’s Day Protest in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The event’s origins date back to 1908. Photo: Cris Faga/REX/Shutterstock

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Happy International Women’s Day: a look back at over a century of the global fight for justice and equality” was written by Sarah Johnson, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 8th March 2023 12.00 UTC

In India, a mural painted by women is being revealed at a metro station. In Mexico, protesters will be on the streets, demanding women’s rights. Jamaica will see the first all-female sitting of parliament. And in China, men will present the women in their lives with gifts. Happy International Women’s Day.

For years, women have marked the now-annual event on 8 March in different ways, but mostly to build momentum on issues that matter to them, and to inspire change.

Members of the Women’s Trade Union League of New York pose with a banner calling for the eight-hour day in 1910.
Members of the Women’s Trade Union League of New York pose with a banner calling for the eight-hour day in 1910. Photograph: Courtesy the The Kheel Center

The day’s origins date back to the beginning of the 20th century: in 1908, thousands of women marched through New York City, demanding better working hours and pay. A year later, the Socialist Party of America declared a Women’s Day.

The idea of an international day came from Clara Zetkin, leader of the “women’s office” for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, while she was at a conference in Copenhagen in 1910. She proposed a celebration on the same day every year to press for demands.

This poster by Karl Maria Stadler calls for a public gathering of women on 8 March 1914. The text reads: “Give Us Women’s Suffrage
This German poster by Karl Maria Stadler calls for a public gathering of women on 8 March 1914. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

London saw a march in support of women’s suffrage on 8 March 1914, and thousands of women in Russia protested to demand bread and peace on 8 March 1917 (23 February in the Julian calendar in use in Russia at the time), heralding the start of the Russian revolution. Four days later, the tsar was forced to abdicate, and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

“International Women’s Day comes out of revolutionary movements among working-class women as well as [their] supporters,” says Temma Kaplan, an activist and retired professor of history at Rutgers University in the US. “It had an intellectual and public face because mobilisation was part of early socialist women’s and suffragist movements.”

Textile workers in Petrograd march towards the town hall to ask for the increase in bread rations to the soldiers’ families in 1917.
Textile workers in Petrograd march towards the town hall to ask for the increase in bread rations to the soldiers’ families in 1917. This event gave way to the most massive protests which later resulted in the Russian revolution. Photograph: Fototeca Storica Nazionale/Getty Images

The UN adopted the day in 1975, which it had declared international women’s year, and uses it to promote a particular issue, campaign or theme. IWD is now a public holiday in countries including Nepal, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Kyrgyzstan. In China, women get a half-day holiday.

The annual day has drawn criticism from feminists who say it risks becoming little more than a corporate Valentine’s Day, with companies using the occasion to “pinkwash” their brands rather than promote women’s equality.

In South Africa, which has its own National Women’s Day in August, alcohol companies use feminist messaging in their advertising campaigns to coincide with the date, says Laurine Platzky, an academic activist in Cape Town. “The alcohol industry has identified Africa as a new growth market. The adverts use the feminist narrative. It’s been so abused. It really freaks me out.”

Women marching down 5th Avenue in New York City on International Women’s Day 1975.
Women marching down 5th Avenue in New York City on International Women’s Day 1975. Photograph: Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy

But IWD has retained its radical roots, providing a rallying point to fight attempts to roll back women’s rights and inaction over gender-based violence. Some recent demonstrations have been large and violent. On 8 March 2021 in Mexico, where at least 10 women are murdered each day, police used rubber bullets and teargas during clashes that erupted between protesters and the police.

Macarena Sáez, the executive director of the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch, says protests across Latin America have brought issues to the fore and put pressure on authorities to change laws. “Argentina, Colombia and Mexico are great examples of [countries where there has been progress] achieved by women,” she says. “Gains in reproductive rights in Argentina have been considerable. It’s the same in Colombia. It’s because of the fight and positions women have taken that [led to] one of the most progressive decisions on reproductive rights.”

Women try to take down the fences placed outside the National Palace during a protest on International Women’s Day in Mexico City, Mexico in 2021.
Women try to take down the fences placed outside the National Palace during a protest on International Women’s Day in Mexico City, Mexico in 2021. Photograph: Mahé Elipe/Reuters

In Spain, record crowds came out on 8 March 2019 and 2020 to protest against violence against women. In April 2018, five men had been acquitted of rape in what became known as the “wolf pack” case. The outcome galvanised the country’s feminist movement and spurred calls for an overhaul of the country’s sexual offences legislation.

In South Korea, on IWD in 2018, hundreds rallied in central Seoul holding #MeToo signs as part of the movement that saw several high-profile South Korean men resign from positions of power.

That this is able to happen at all is a sign of progress, according to Sáez. “The issue of women’s rights is now mainstream, where for many years it was marginalised,” she says. “A day to commemorate the gains of women’s rights is in itself the triggering of change. As with any movement, mobilisations do matter. Of course, it’s never enough, but at the same time it’s a space that is recognised.”

Kaplan adds that the media’s coverage of IWD helps. “International Women’s Day became one of the leading ways movements could get attention from the press and larger society and make arguments in a public forum.”

Performers dance during a gathering attended by Chinese women from various circles and foreign diplomats ahead of International Women’s Day in Beijing
Performers dance during a gathering attended by Chinese women from various circles and foreign diplomats ahead of International Women’s Day in Beijing. Photograph: Xinhua/Alamy

However, all that is under threat, says Reem Alsalem, the UN special rapporteur on violence against women and girls. “We are seeing an increased crackdown on women’s attempts to organise rallies and mark International Women’s Day,” she says. “It goes to show how politicised the women’s rights agenda has become, and also the backlash against gender equality we are witnessing in many parts of the world.”

Some situations facing women don’t make the headlines, she says. And even if they do – as in Afghanistan and Iran – Alsalem questions how much action is taken by governments and the international community. “There is now a tendency to identify the one group we believe is at risk, hone in on that and deprioritise the rest.

A woman holding a sign saying ‘Dear patriarchy’ and then a drawing of a hand holding up a middle finger
People participate in the International Women’s Day “A Day Without a Woman” anti-Trump protest in Los Angeles in 2017. Photograph: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

“The other women go into oblivion and become invisible. Some are eventually able to mobilise and get attention, including media attention, to tell their stories. Let’s face it, however, a vast majority will not.”

Despite this, IWD is an annual reminder of the fight that women face as well as the achievements they have made, says Julie Gottlieb, a professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield. “What we’ve found about International Women’s Day is its fluidity and the way it adapts to present day concerns.

“It’s very adaptive. We’re not celebrating the same thing every year – we’re dealing with the existing challenges that women face.”

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