March 8 has been celebrated as International Women’s Day since 1975, when the United Nations designated it as such in order to honor “women’s advancement” and to ensure that the “equality” that they had worked so hard for and achieved would be maintained in all aspects of life. Advancing equal rights meant that young girls could avoid child marriages and enjoy equal access to education, women could plan their families, and pregnant women would not be in danger of losing their jobs.
It is believed that the labor strikes waged by female textile workers in 1857 and 1908 to protest poor working conditions in New York City started the movement, followed in 1909 by 30,000 shirtwaist workers who stopped work for 13 weeks for better pay and working conditions. The arrested strikers were provided bail money by the World Trade Union League.
On Feb. 28, 1910, the 2nd International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen. Clara Zetkins (a woman leader of the German Socialist Democratic Party) suggested that a particular day each year be designated to press for demands. Her suggestion was approved by 100 women from 17 countries.
March 19, 1911, was named International Women’s Day (IWD); it was marked for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The date (March 19) was chosen because on March 19,1848, the Prussian king promised many reforms, like the right to vote. A million men and women attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s right to work, vote, and be trained for public office, and an end to discrimination. The Russian revolutionary and feminist Alexandra Kollontai helped organize the meeting in Germany in small towns and villages with 30,000 street cleaners.
On March 25, 1911, the “Triangle Fire” in New York claimed the lives of 140 working women, mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants, and drew attention to the dire working conditions and lack of labor legislation in the United States. Subsequent IWD events focused on addressing these problems.
In 1913 on the eve of World War I , a campaign for peace was made. Russian women observed the first IWD on the last Friday of February in that year. IWD was moved to March 8,1914, and was marked by rallies to end the war and to express women’s solidarity. On the last Sunday of February 1917, Russian women went on strike for bread and peace in response to the death of 1 million Russian soldiers in the war. After four days, the czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. The women’s strike was on Feb. 28 in the Julian calendar in Russia, but on March 8 in the Gregorian calendar!
In the year 2000, IWD became an official holiday in 26 countries; in three countries—China, Madagascar, and Nepal—the official holiday was for women only. There are now more women in the boardroom, role models in all aspects of life, female astronauts, prime ministers, presidents (two in the Philippines). Women now have real choices. In this millennium, there have been significant changes and shifts in attitude in society and in women themselves about women’s equality and emancipation.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) 2012 Global Gender Gap rankings show that the Philippines leads Asian countries in reducing inequality between men and women. The Philippines was in the top 10 (No. 8)—along with Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark, Nicaragua and Switzerland—out of 135 countries. It is the only country in Asia that closed the gender gap in education, health and survival.
According to the WEF founder, “to develop the gender dimension is not just a question of equality, it is the entry card to succeed and prosper.” (Inquirer, 10/29,12)
Younger women nowadays feel that all the battles have been won for women. Is this the truth? The World Bank Report 2012, “Toward Gender Equality in East Asia and the Pacific,” shows that there is still gender inequality. Women in the Philippines receive lower wages than men, and they work in smaller firms, in informal sectors, and in lower-paid occupations. Only about 30 percent of medium-sized enterprises are managed by women; only 20 percent of large enterprises have female managers.
Should we celebrate IWD every year? Definitely, yes! An annual celebration reminds all of us that there is still a lot to do to achieve women’s equity, emancipation and empowerment. We will only rest when the “quality of life and liberty [becomes] similar for human beings irrespective of [their] sex identity” (Shoma Chatterjee 1988).
Corazon Yabes Almirante, MD, MSc, PhD, is president of the Pediatric and Adolescent Gynecology Society of the Philippines and chief of the Perinatal-Neonatology-Pediatric Gynecology Center of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center.