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

A year after #MeToo and #TimesUp, International Women's Day 2019 is a reminder of where we've been and where we want to go.
Image: House Reps meet for start of 116th Congress
This year, a record 123 women won government elections, out of 276 House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates on the ballot.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters file

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), a global celebration of the economic, cultural, political and social achievements of women and, in the official organization’s own words, “a call to action for accelerating gender parity.” According to the IWD website, this year’s theme is, "Better the balance, better the world" or #BalanceforBetter, to advocate for more gender balanced lives.

The origins of this call to action run deep and radical — the premier IWD gatherings occurred on March 19, 1911 as a series of European rallies with over a million attendees strong who wanted to end discrimination against women by allowing them to work, vote and hold public office. “As it spread around the world, it (IWD) became deeply connected to women's suffrage movements and to ending employment discrimination. In the days of World War I, it was observed as a day to show solidarity in protest against the war across nations,” says KaeLyn Rich, author of “Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism, Leadership and Starting a Revolution.” It was also during World War I that IWD shifted to March 8th.

In 1975, the United Nations began celebrating IWD and has since become its primary sponsor. This year, at UN Headquarters in New York, senior officials of IWD and female thought leaders in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and design will gather and discuss the advancement of women's rights. According to, the 2019 theme is, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change,” focusing on innovative ways women can advance gender equality and empowerment in terms of “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure.”

Though the goal of gender parity remains constant, this meeting of the minds seems a far cry from IWD’s activist roots. “It belongs to the world and I think that means something in our current political climate. Having a day that focuses attention and action around gender parity is as important in 2019 as it was in 1911,” says Rich. “I think many people see IWD as part of Women's History Month, or part of a general celebration of women's accomplishments and their understanding of it stops there. At its very origins, IWD was an activist day of mass protest and collective action organized by and for women. It's hard to see that radical history today, as the official International Women's Day campaign has a website and merch you can buy and a guide to planning an IWD event.”

IWD was and is a day of protest

Rich feels it might further awareness if we also use the day to hearken back to IWD’s protest-driven roots. “Collective action builds social, political, and cultural change. Historically, IWD was and still is a day of protest against gender inequity. We have to look back at our history and our movements to learn from them, replicate their success,” says Rich. “What I'd love to do is see more action on IWD, more people in the streets, more emphasis on activism and organizing direct action as a core component of IWD.”

After all, protests that took fire like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the Women’s March have helped lead us to solid change in the form of a rush of diverse women in Congress and a bevy of female presidential candidates vying to lead our nation. Yet, concrete, structural change takes a lot of time — which is why IWD’s persistent message remains relevant.

Based on current trajectories, existing interventions will not suffice to achieve a Planet 50-50 by 2030.

Some sobering statistics: “Based on current trajectories, existing interventions will not suffice to achieve a Planet 50-50 by 2030,” reads the press release about IWD on “Innovative approaches that disrupt ‘business as usual’ are central to removing structural barriers and ensuring that no woman and no girl is left behind.”

More Work Needs to Be Done to Break Down the Barriers

Removing those structural barriers, or the societal constructs that oppress women by, among other things, paying them less than men, is the only way forward. “Historically, IWD is about women speaking up and demanding not only equal pay, but equal pay for work of equal value. I think that is sort of the big leap we aren’t even close to in this country,” says Amy Richards who runs Soapbox, Inc. a lecture agency that books feminist speakers and works with organizations to deepen their feminist practices. “Industries that are dominated by women, nursing, for instance, are paid less than industries of comparable schooling, physician’s assistants or EMTs, which are dominated by men. The recognition is born on the dollars we are giving to each gender, but it’s more this larger question of how are women valued in society and how are men valued in society.”

The way to move people is not in the grand scale of days like this, but it’s the minutiae.

Amy Richards

Both experts agree that everyday has to be IWD for us to make greater strides toward gender parity — and those strides begin just outside our front door. “The way to move people is not in the grand scale of days like this, but it’s the minutiae,” says Richards. “What is your job? What is your community? What is your family? What change would you like to see? The way to push through is to make it incredibly personal — what is the change you want to see in your own life and how can this global movement help you to make that change?”

You jump ahead 50 years and women are finishing at 2 hours and 20 minutes, so women have gained two hours. Men are finishing at 2 hours and 13 minutes — they’ve gained 2 minutes.

And, as Richards so colorfully illustrates, we have to bear in mind that the push for equality requires yet even more obscene amounts of patience. “I always tell the story of Kathrine Switzer, the first documented woman to run the Boston Marathon. She ran in 1967 and her time was 4 hours and 20 minutes. The man who finished that year was 2 hours and 15 minutes. You jump ahead 50 years and women are finishing at 2 hours and 20 minutes, so women have gained two hours. Men are finishing at 2 hours and 13 minutes — they’ve gained 2 minutes. I use that example because it shows how the push for equality has been entirely on the part of women. The next leap is going to require not only empowering women, but challenging the masculine superiority that we have tolerated for too long.”

What can you do to close the gap? Here are 5 areas to focus on in 2019

At home

If you are in a heterosexual cisgender relationship, women have to stop taking on the lion’s share of domestic and unpaid emotional labor — and making excuses for the men who don’t. “Women at home have to stop tolerating it,” says Richards. “I see a lot of women who are sort of like, ‘Oh yes, but he works so hard,’ and ‘Oh, he has a tough job,’ and I’m not contesting any of that. But I do think that we have to push back and say, ‘Is it any tougher than my job?’” Then, as we reported in another article, we have to call out the imbalance, make all of the ‘invisible’ labor visible by writing it all down and divvy up the responsibilities, fair and square.

In government

This year, a record 123 women won government elections, out of 276 House, Senate, and gubernatorial candidates on the ballot. Put quite simply, to achieve more gender balance in government, we have to keep electing women who share our views to office. Be on the lookout for female candidates in special elections and vote them in if they back your causes; back campaigns for female candidates you believe in and, above all and most importantly, show up to vote. It’s the only way to make your voice heard.

At work

“We can’t just talk about equal pay by raising salaries, we also have to challenge the salaries at the top that are dominated by men,” says Richards, citing IKEA as an example of a global company that made a commitment to pay equality because women were at a disadvantaged—IKEA even publishes a yearly report in order to be transparent about their pay gap. “What they found was that if two people in a similar position experienced more than a $10K pay gap, somebody was in the position that they weren’t meant to be in — one of them should’ve been either promoted or demoted. Once they realized pay equality was for everyone, not just for women, they got such a buy in and were able to achieve equality so much faster because it wasn’t perceived as a woman’s issue.” This is why it’s super important to advocate for ourselves by asking for raises when we know we deserve them — you level the playing field for your female colleagues, too.

With money

We recently reported that when it comes to finances, the deck is stacked against women — not only because of the wage gap — but there’s also because of an investing gap. When it comes to money, knowledge = power. By making it our business to tend to our financial futures, we can set ourselves up for greater autonomy and success.

Our health

When it comes to healthcare, women have disadvantages —according the CDC, because women are more likely to take care of children, elderly relatives and household needs, they are more likely to delay treatment and prevention for chronic health issues, like heart disease. And, according to the medical journal PLoS One, there’s a very real gender bias in both clinical research and authorship that “likely contributes to and supports an overall male bias of clinical medicine,” though women and men can react to illness and disease very differently. The third strike against us? How, as the New York Times reported, bias can cause doctors to downplay women’s health concerns. If we aren’t doctors, what can we do to promote gender balance when it comes to our health? For one, as they say on the airlines, we put metaphorical oxygen masks on ourselves before caring for the needs of family members by attending to our own medical needs more expediently.


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