International Women’s Day (IWD) is celebrated on 8 March every year, both to recognise the achievements and contributions of women, and to highlight and challenge the continuing imbalance in gender rights across the world.
How did International Women’s Day come about?
Following two early attempts at celebrating a day to honour the demands of women regarding their rights across the world, IWD was celebrated for the first time in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Over a million people marked the day with rallies for women’s working rights and calling for an end to gender discimination.
In 1913, the day which was originally suggested - the last Sunday of every February, the date of which changed each year - became a fixed date of 8 March.
However, the day wasn’t celebrated by the United Nations until 1975; and it wasn’t until 1996 that they began to mark an annual theme. IWD began to be about much more than just voting and working rights - with themes like ‘Women and Human Rights’ and ‘World Free of Violence Against Women’ reflecting this.
Then, in 2001, the internationalwomensday.com website was launched, driving each year’s theme and making a big impact on fundraising for charities supporting women’s rights. In 2011, a centenary celebration took place, with the US’s then-president Barack Obama calling March of that year ‘International Women’s Month’.
Why do we celebrate IWD today?
We are now seeing women represented more widely than ever. In the media, we see more women’s stories being told - with fewer topics off-limits - and women of all backgrounds challenging gender stereotypes and advocating for change.
In the workplace, we see women being offered roles men have historically dominated - in law firms; in banks; as scientists and engineers and mathematicians. But there is still work to do. See our guide ‘Understanding key concepts in the discussion around sexism’ for more on this.
We know that globally, women are still not paid as much as men. A report from the World Economic Forum in 2021 estimated that it would take over 135 years to close the gender pay gap - in other words, to bring women’s pay in line with men’s. IWD aims to tackle divides like this by promoting women’s visibility - making sure women’s efforts and knowledge in the workplace are being seen - but also pushing to make better paid roles available to women.
We also know that, despite the progress that’s been made, women are still often outnumbered in many highly paid industries. You only have to look at TV comedy show panels, or on the first class carriage of a train, to see this in action!
Add to this the continued challenge of violence towards women, and less obvious examples of gender bias women experience every day, and IWD remains as important to celebrate as ever.
IWD is also a time to tell the stories of groups of women whose voices have historically been silenced, like women of colour; and trans women, bi women, and lesbian women. In recent years however, trans women have experienced discrimination from some groups who wish to exclude them from IWD and other female-supporting initiatives. You can read more on this from UK charity Stonewall under ‘Good stuff from elsewhere’, below.
What can we do to mark IWD?
Celebrations for IWD vary across the world. In some countries, it is celebrated in the way that days like Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day are sometimes marked, with gift giving from non-female relatives and loved ones to women in their lives as gratitude.
In many countries, from Cambodia to Georgia and Russia to Vietnam, IWD is an annual holiday (for some, this is for women only). Some people mark the day by attending rallies and marches for women’s rights. Others might mark it through cultural events like music performances and festivals - often in aid of charities supporting women and their rights.
If you’re not sure how you can make an impact, here are a few suggestions:
Got a research project coming up? Try focusing on the efforts of women contributors alone. Use Unifrog’s Read, Watch, Listen tool and filter by creator gender to get some inspiration.
- Get your teachers’ support
You could also ask your teachers to pledge to only refer to the contributions of women intellectuals and artists in the lessons taught during IWD week - or the whole month of March.
At the very least, this will draw attention to the disparity in women’s work that’s been explored in books and films, and get your teachers to see how much harder they have to work to find these resources. It could even encourage your school or college to work harder to represent the voices of their women - both teachers and students.
If there’s something which frightens you - but which you have always wanted to do - get your friends to sponsor you to face your fear. Choose a charity which supports women’s rights (see the link under Good stuff from elsewhere for ideas) and complete your challenge on 8 March. Get the word out there on social media to make sure you raise as much as possible!
If you are not a woman but want to help, ask your female friends and colleagues what you can do to support any of their initiatives. It’s important you give your friends and colleagues the opportunity to have their voices heard and their work recognised. Allies are a very important part of any cause - by showing your understanding and support, you’ll give your women friends more impetus, add numbers to their group, and encourage other non-female students to get involved too.
How can I help throughout the rest of the year?
IWD is great, but it’s just one day - here are some ways you can support women’s work and advocate for women’s rights the whole year round!
- Read, watch, and listen to more women!
Have you noticed that lots of the books you’re reading are by men? Or maybe the films you’ve been watching lately have all been directed by men? Try seeking out books or films in similar genres by female creators. Again, filtering by Gender on Unifrog’s Read, Watch, Listen tool can be a great place to start.
- Drive gender equality in your school or college
Are female students being given the same opportunities as male students in your school? You might notice a lack of female students in leadership teams like your senior students committee, or in certain sports teams. Write to your senior students, student reps or a teacher you trust to push for a change to be made.
- Get learning about gender rights
Maybe you’ve been too scared to ask someone what words like ‘feminism’ or ‘misogyny’ really mean, or you’re not sure what the suffragette movement was all about. The library at your school or college, or local community, should be able to direct you to some helpful resources. But in the meantime, the Know-how library guides ‘Understanding key concepts in the discussion around sexism’ and ‘Accessing support for sexism’ are a good place to start.
Good stuff from elsewhere
International Women’s Day website
Visit the IWD website to find out this year’s theme, and to learn more ways you can mark the day this year.
Why IWD matters for LGBTQ+ people
UK charity Stonewall explains why it’s also crucial to include the stories and experiences of lesbian, bi and trans women in IWD celebrations.