International Women’s Day (IWD) takes place on 8 March each year and is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.
What is International Women’s Day?
The earliest known celebration of women was on 28 February 1909 in New York City and was called ‘National Women’s Day.’ Two years later, in 1911, the first IWD gathering was supported by over a million people. The same year Emmeline Pankhurst called on women to boycott the census, urging passive protest against the government‘s reluctance to give women the vote.
The first form of protest was that women who were at home on census night should refuse to complete the return (and risk a £5 fine or a month’s imprisonment), spoiling the census form by either refusing to provide any information or by scribbling comments on it along the lines of ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’ or ‘No vote – No census’. The second method was to avoid being at home that night. Women hid or kept moving from place to place throughout the night to avoid being recorded. Emily Davison, who famously lost her life at the Derby two years later, hid in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament for 46 hours. She was arrested and released without charge but was recorded in the census as ‘found hiding in the Crypt of Westminster Hall’.
Historians write that while women have always been 50% of the population, they only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history but if you look at figurines made between about 40,000 BC, until around 5,000 BC, around 90% of these are of women. At the birth of civilised society, women had status, property rights and owned land but the new civilisations wanted to expand and when that happened, society became more militarised and the balance of power shifted.
More recently, the UK census should be a good source of information, however it was not until 1851 that household heads were ‘instructed’ to record married women’s occupations and only then, ‘if they were deemed to be regularly employed’. Actually, most working class women at the time had no choice but to work, in addition to the unpaid work they did at home but this was often not recorded, so the census returns show a blank space in the occupation column against women’s names.
Ordinary women, extraordinary lives
Women have achieved some wonderful things throughout history, below are some of my favourite stories.
During the 1930’s, Hazel Hill, a 13 year old girl, figured out the precise mathematical calculations to enable improvements to be made to Spitfires, increasing the number of guns to eight from four and helping to win the war. A 30 minute documentary about Hazel can be viewed below.
Mary Ellis joined the Air Transport Auxiliary after hearing an advertisement for women pilots on BBC radio and was responsible for delivering Spitfires and bombers to the front line.
In the 1940s, a group of female scientists were the human computers behind the biggest advances in aeronautics, breaking down gender and racial barriers at the same time.
The Mercury 13
On 9 April 1959, NASA announced that seven men, who would become known as the Mercury 7, would go into space. At the same time, thirteen women, enrolled on a privately funded programme and successfully underwent the same physiological screening tests. The women never went to space.
Rosalind Franklin took the X-ray crystallography photograph known as ‘Photograph 51’, which led to the creation of a model that would change all scientists’ understanding of DNA. One year later, when scientists James Watson and Francis Crick made history by publishing a new model of the DNA code, including the crystallography photograph and Franklin’s research, Rosalind Franklin was not credited for her contribution. It wasn’t until 1968, when Watson published his memoir, that it was revealed Rosalind Franklin was the scientist who contributed the crucial X-ray crystallography photograph. However, while the other men were awarded the Nobel Prize, Rosalind Franklin never received this.
Hedy Lamarr was an actress famous for films such as Samson and Delilah and White Cargo. She was also an inventor who pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis for today’s WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems.
Billie Jean king
In 1973 Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in straight sets during a tennis match dubbed ‘The Battle of The Sexes’. The match was broadcast on primetime TV, drawing 90 million viewers.
- Billie Jean King: Battle of the sexes
Striking female machinists at the Ford Motor company
On 29 May 1970, two years after going on strike, 187 women working at a factory in East London witnessed their hard work pay off when the Equal Pay Act received royal assent. Coming into force five years later, the Act sought to ‘prevent discrimination, as regards terms and conditions of employment, between men and women’. This meant that it was required for men and women ‘in the same employment to be treated equally, in terms of their pay and conditions of work.
- How a women’s strike at a factory in Dagenham led to the Equal Pay Act
- Made in Dagenham (official trailer)
The 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women
In 1973 a group of female office workers started talking about how they were treated at work. They talked about how men made more money than they did for the same job. They talked about how their male co-workers could get away with making passes at them and worse. They talked about how when their children got sick they couldn’t get time off without endangering their jobs. Then they decided enough was enough. Feisty, empowered and fed up, they decided to fight for fair pay and equal treatment and started the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women. Forty years on from the release of the film 9 to 5, the themes of the film, inspired by the association, are still relevant today.
Break the bias
This year the International Women’s Day campaign theme is ‘Break The Bias’ with IWD asking everyone to imagine a gender equal world; a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination; a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive and a world where difference is valued and celebrated.
You may be wondering why we need to celebrate International Women’s Day. Well, that’s because although a lot has changed for women, there is still more work to be done. We need the day to celebrate women’s achievements, ensure we continue moving forwards not backwards and to remember the rights of women around the globe are not all the same. What can you do to break the bias?
Sources and further information
- International Women’s Day
- BBC: International Women’s Day 2022 – History, marches and celebrations
- BBC Bitesize: International Women’s Day – why do we still need it
- English Heritage: why are women written out of history
- Historic England: Women’s history
- Inclusive Employers: Everything you need to know about International Women’s Day 2022
- National Women’s History Museum
© Toni Louise Abram at Izzy Wizzy. All Rights Reserved.