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 UN.org, 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 unwomen.org. “Innovative approaches that disrupt ‘business as usual’ are central to removing structural barriers and ensuring that no woman and no girl is left behind.”
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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.
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?”