7 March 2009

International Women's Day

By Nicola Pratt

Around the world, including in this country, thousands of events are taking place to celebrate International Women's Day on 8 March - including fundraisers, networking events, debates and public rallies, aimed at celebrating women’s achievements and promoting support for women's progress.

In 1909, the first women's day was declared by the Socialist Party of America on 28 February, and, in the following year, the International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen, decided upon an international women's day so that women of all countries could unite to voice their demands for women's rights to work, vote and to hold public office and for an end to discrimination. Leading up to the First World War, more and more women, as well as men, became involved in campaigning for better pay and conditions for working women, women's right to vote and against war in Europe. On 8 March 1917, Russian women led strikes of over half a million workers protesting the deterioration in living conditions as a result of the war and thus helped to bring down the autocratic Czar. The newly installed provisional government granted women the right to vote. From then on, 8 March became the international date for women's day.

Today, the radical and progressive origins of International Women's Day (IWD) are rarely discussed. This is surprising because although women have achieved many of the original demands that formed the spark for IWD, there is still much to be desired. More than 80 years since the Equal Franchise Act, only one in five British parliamentarians are women and the UK parliament rates 69th in the world league table of women in parliament. Nearly 40 years since the Equal Pay Act, women working full time across the UK still earn on average 17% less an hour than men working full time and for women working part-time, the gap is 36%. The glass ceiling continues to exist, with only 11% of directors of the UK's top 100 companies being women.

Women still carry out the bulk of unpaid work in the home, whether they have children or not and women in full-time employment spend nearly 30% more time on childcare than men in full-time employment. This 'double burden' creates a vicious circle, making it more difficult for women to achieve equality in the job market. Reflecting this unequal status, women continue to be vulnerable to violence. Over two women per week are killed by current or ex-partners and one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.

Some people argue that it takes time for societal attitudes towards women to change. Yet, societal attitudes towards the highly addictive habit of smoking have been revolutionized in a matter of a few decades. As a result of repeated public health campaigns and changes in legislation over the years, the number of smokers has halved since 1974 and it is predicted that less than 10% of British will smoke in 45 years. Meanwhile, it is predicted that it will take 150 years at the present rate of progress for the pay gap between men and women to disappear!

Some other people argue that it is 'women's nature' to shun the rat race and take responsibility for childcare. However, it is not possible to talk about 'natural desires' until women have a real choice about whether to combine work and motherhood. In a context where glass ceilings, unequal pay and double burdens continue to exist, it is rational for women to want to dedicate themselves to homemaking. This is why the ideas behind International Women's Day still remain relevant and why we should not abandon the struggle for equality between men and women.

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