by Sheree King
 The Origins of International Women’s Day

As we head off to the races today or gather for luncheons to celebrate International Women’s Day (IWD) – a day that traces its roots back to the early 20th century – let’s remember this was time marked by widespread social and political upheaval. Among the key figures involved were Clara Zetkin, a German socialist and feminist, and Rosa Luxemburg, a Marxist theorist and activist. These women, alongside others from various countries, played pivotal roles in shaping the early feminist movement and laying the groundwork for IWD.

During this era, women faced horrible working conditions in factories and sweatshops. They toiled for long hours in hazardous environments, often receiving nominal wages compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, women lacked basic rights such as the right to vote and access to education. Their voices were silenced, and their contributions to society were undervalued and overlooked.

IWD was established to commemorate the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, where thousands of women marched through the streets of New York City demanding better working conditions and voting rights. The first official IWD was observed on February 28, 1909, in the United States, following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America.

Inspired by this event, women’s rights activists across Europe adopted the idea of an annual day of solidarity and action for women’s rights. The date was eventually shifted to March 8th, in honour of a strike by female textile workers in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) on March 8, 1917, which marked the beginning of the Russian Revolution and ultimately led to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime.

Thus, IWD was born out of the collective struggle of women from diverse backgrounds and nationalities, united in their fight for equality, justice, and dignity in the workplace and beyond. Their courageous efforts paved the way for future generations of women to continue the fight for gender equality and social justice.

IWD Comes Back in a Big Way in the Early 2000s

The early 2000s proved to be a pivotal moment for IWD, witnessing a revitalisation in its significance amid intensified discussions surrounding gender and workplace equality. Despite strides made in preceding decades, women continued to confront systemic hurdles and discrimination across diverse industries, igniting a global push for change.

Persisting disparities in the workplace, including unequal pay, limited career progression, and harassment, underscored the imperative for concerted action to address gender imbalances. Recognising this, some companies and organisations seized upon IWD as a catalyst for dialogue, policy reform, and awareness initiatives aimed at fostering gender parity.

The launch of the platform in 2001 marked a significant turning point, aiming to re-energise IWD and foster mass participation. In a pre-social media landscape, the website emerged as a collaborative hub, providing space for local IWD events, sharing information about the day and gender issues, and celebrating women’s achievements.

Advocates leveraged IWD as a platform to amplify their calls for equal pay, opportunities, and an end to workplace discrimination, sparking global conversations. Government interventions, such as pay transparency measures and anti-discrimination laws, complemented these efforts, driving progress towards gender equality. Awareness campaigns, aligned with IWD, played a pivotal role in challenging stereotypes and promoting women’s empowerment, contributing to a shift in societal norms.

Equal Pay Day serves as a significant reminder of the gender pay gap, highlighting how much longer the average woman must work into the following year to earn what her male counterpart did in the previous year. Although the date changes each year, the fundamental message remains the same. For example, in Australia, women labour an additional 56 days from January 1st to February 26th to bridge this gap. This underscores the ongoing necessity for collective action to address and rectify income inequality between genders.

The Modern IWD: What Do The Cupcakes Achieve?

In contemporary Australia, IWD is celebrated with unprecedented enthusiasm, as workplaces and communities alike host a plethora of events ranging from morning teas to panel discussions and race days. Yet, amidst the sea of cupcakes and luncheons, a pressing question arises: have these celebrations become mere tokenistic gestures, a superficial nod to gender equality without substantive action?

The proliferation of IWD events suggests a growing awareness of gender issues in society. However, there is a danger that these events may inadvertently trivialize the core objectives of IWD, reducing it to a once-a-year spectacle rather than a catalyst for meaningful change.

Are workplaces simply ticking the box by distributing cupcakes and holding a luncheon, or are they actively working towards dismantling systemic barriers and promoting gender equality in tangible ways?

At the heart of this debate lies the question of what IWD is fighting for now. In an era marked by unprecedented social and technological advancements, the struggles faced by women have evolved, but the underlying principles remain the same. Women continue to grapple with issues such as the gender pay gap, workplace discrimination, lack of representation in leadership roles, and gender-based violence.

While some businesses boast a 0% equal pay gap as a measure of success, it’s crucial to recognise that they may still have a gender pay gap. So, what sets them apart?

The gender pay gap quantifies the difference in total earnings between women and men. It disregards factors such as job nature, level, or location. Expressed as a percentage of men’s average earnings, negative values indicate higher earnings for women, while positive values suggest the opposite. Notably, the gender pay gap does not compare similar roles.

In contrast, equal pay ensures that women and men receive identical compensation for performing the same job or different work of equal or comparable value, contingent upon performance. It’s essential to emphasise that gender pay gaps do not directly compare similar roles. While addressing the equal pay gap is important, it’s imperative to understand that the journey doesn’t end there. We must not only tackle the equal pay gap but also address the gender pay gap.

In the spirit of Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg, who championed the rights of women in the early 20th century, there is a need for modern-day activists to confront these challenges head-on. Where are the voices calling for substantive policy changes to address gender inequality in the workplace? Where are the leaders advocating for intersectional feminism, recognising the unique struggles faced by women of colour, LGBTQIA+ individuals, and other marginalised groups?

IWD must serve as more than just a day of symbolic gestures – it must be a call to action, a rallying cry for systemic change. It is a day to honour the legacies of past trailblazers and amplify the voices of those who continue to fight for gender equality in all its forms. It is a day to challenge the status quo, disrupt the narrative, and push for progress towards a more inclusive and equitable society.

As we commemorate IWD each year, let us not lose sight of its true purpose. Let us move beyond tokenistic gestures and commit ourselves to meaningful action. Let us honour the spirit of Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg by continuing their fight for justice, equality, and dignity for all women, not just on March 8th, but every day.