Opinion: International Working Women’s Day

Today, you can choose to frame your Facebook profile picture in pink in order to “celebrate” women. Vague (but positive) messages affirming femininity and appreciating mothers, sisters, and female significant others are filling my timelines on every form of social media. While a girl-love frenzy is certainly something that I welcome and encourage, the extreme watering-down of International Women’s Day is disturbing to me.

International Women’s Day is not supposed to be similar to Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day. It is not meant to be a day of complacent appreciation, but a day of activism and criticism of the powers that be. Originally called International Working Women’s Day, the holiday was first organized in New York by members of the Socialist Party of America in 1909. This was a protest march made up of unionized female laborers who demonstrated specifically to gain better pay and suffrage. Socialists in Europe seized upon the idea of creating a day specifically for women to hold demonstrations and strikes annually, and in 1911, women in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland rioted en masse in order to gain suffrage and the right to hold office. Women in Europe also used the holiday to protest World War I in 1913 and 1914, and Russian women workers began the Russian Revolution when they called for the end of war, better working conditions, and the abdication of Czar Nicholas II during their massive IWD demonstration in Petrograd in 1917. (Timeline here.) IWD was celebrated in communist countries thereafter as a work holiday or half workday, and the Soviet Union in particular (falsely) considered itself to be completely egalitarian after the Revolution.  At this point, the holiday lost most of its revolutionary fervor and became ossified as a celebration of complacency: by the time that it was formally adopted by the United Nations in 1977, IWD was essentially apolitical.

Though International Women’s Day began in the U.S., we have long divorced ourselves from the then-radical equality that U.S. socialists—and then European and specifically Russian socialists—called for. Today, IWD is used largely as a day of celebration and reflection; we are meant to look back upon what has been, and at what advancements have been made in the sphere of women’s rights. This practice is anti-progressive and gives people a false sense of comfort—“At least things aren’t as bad as they used to be, right?” is something that I have even found myself parroting from time to time. We need to do better, and we should choose to use this day as it was originally intended. Today is a spectacular day to draw attention to the vast inequity that persists on every level of society in every country. Celebrating women is something that should happen today and every day, and I believe that if we focus our efforts during this day upon, at the very least, beginning thoughtful and critical conversations about the status of the modern woman, perhaps some change could come about.

Women still make less than 80% of the wages that men make in the U.S.  Access to female reproductive health services is becoming more dismal all the time, and 29 out of 50 states are hostile towards abortion rights.  Worldwide, one in three women will be abused, physically or sexually, in their lifetime.  Trafficking of underage girls is rampant worldwide, even in the United States. There are so many issues that women in particular face due to institutionalized misogyny and the pervasiveness of gender norms that I couldn’t ever capture them all in one article. My point is this: instead of using today only to shout-out your favorite women, turn your attention (and the attention of anyone who will listen) towards the issues. Despite massive gains, we women still must fight and raise our voices in order to seek true and whole equality.