Why International Women’s Day Leaves Me Feeling Like a Victim

I have such ambivalent feelings about the notion of an International Day for Women. I know that people expect someone like me, an ardent feminist, to be an enthusiastic advocate but I’m not and I’ve tried to work out why. I also know that women’s achievements rarely loom large in a world ruled by 1914 poster for IWDmen and days like this create an opportunity to honour amazing women. And yet…I hate the feeling of victim-hood I feel it implies, and I hate that companies like Clarins email me urging me to treat myself to some new make up as it’s IWD. Surely we’ve lost the point of it.

I didn’t really know where it came from so of course I Googled it. This is what I found on Wikipedia (with the usual caveats):

The first national Women’s Day was observed on 28 February 1909 in the United States following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. In August 1910, an International Women’s Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen. Inspired in part by the American socialists, German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual ‘International Woman’s Day’ (singular) and was seconded by fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin, although no date was specified at that conference.Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights, including suffrage, for women.

The following year, on 18 March 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations. In Vienna, women paraded on the Ringstrasse and carried banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Women demanded that women be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination. Americans continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February. Female members of the Australian Builders Labourers Federation march on International Women’s Day 1975 in Sydney.

In 1913 Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February (by Julian calendar then used in Russia). In 1917 demonstrations marking International Women’s Day in Saint Petersburg on the last Sunday in February (which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar) initiated the February Revolution. Following the October Revolution, the Bolshevik Alexandra Kollontai persuaded Vladimir Lenin to make it an official holiday in the Soviet Union, and it was established, but was a working day until 1965. On May 8, 1965 by the decree of the USSR Presidium of the Supreme Soviet International Women’s Day was declared a non-working day in the USSR “in commemoration of the outstanding merits of Soviet women in communistic construction, in the defense of their Fatherland during the Great Patriotic War, in their heroism and selflessness at the front and in the rear, and also marking the great contribution of women to strengthening friendship between peoples, and the struggle for peace. From its official adoption in Russia following the Soviet Revolution in 1917 the holiday was predominantly celebrated in communist and socialist countries. It was celebrated by the communists in China from 1922, and by Spanish communists from 1936.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949 the state council proclaimed on December 23 that March 8 would be made an official holiday with women in China given a half-day off, though today’s young women in college or before motherhood are increasingly reluctant to celebrate it for the suggestion of the term ‘women’ of youth ended, prettiness lost, and relational liberty restricted.

In the West, International Women’s Day was first observed as a popular event after 1977 when the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace.

Of course I am more than happy with the notion of women’s rights and world peace; however my uncomfortable feeling persists.  I can’t throw myself wholeheartedly into ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ mode. Perhaps we need an International Gender Equality day, or International Treating Everyone With Respect Day ( I know, it’s not very snappy) but the oppression of women is an affront to all humanity and all humanity needs to feel involved in fighting it; it’s not just a battle for women or a marketing opportunity. It should be a day of revolution, of trying to change the world and make it a better place. I honour all those who have done that and who continue to fight the good fight, of whatever gender, but ….

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you.

Update: Have been having quite a debate about this on Twitter. I am in a minority, very much so. General view is that even though marketeers have abused the idea it’s still a worthy cause and a day to highlight the achievements of women, and the issues we still face. I am not anti the notion, how could I be, but my ambivalence remains. I think for me it equates a bit with women only groups at work which I’ve written about here.

Update 2: Just read this phrase on the Woman Kind web site (an organisation I support via this web site)

“In no country in the world do women enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men”.

If nothing else International Women’s Day brings light to bear on organisations like these and on that brutal fact of inequality. I may be relenting…

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Photo:Scannned pic from an old book by Karl Maria Stadler 1914. Copyright expired

Posted on March 8th, 2013 by

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