5 Reasons International Women’s Day Still Needed


Today is International Women’s Day.  Happy, happy!  There are tweets and memes and Facebook messages gleefully extolling the day as if it were the next best day to, ah, well… Valentine’s Day?

Admittedly, my moniker among friends and family is scrooge  — I’m not big on holidays.

But International Women’s Day?  Is there an International Men’s Day? Indeed, there is!  Founded in Trinidad and Tobago in 1999, and recognized by UNESCO, its origins seem rooted in the tradition of old sibling rivalry: they have it, so why can’t we?

So what were the origins of the women’s commemorative celebration?

clara_zetkinAt the dawn of the 20th century, German activist Clara Zetkin was a leading voice for women’s equality.  She had gained such popularity and was such a threat to the male-driven establishment — not to mention the German monarchy — that the press called her ugly and unrefined (she was anything but), as if to explain the activities of her and other suffragists through biological misfortune and social ineptitude.  In other words, one could take pity on such women, for if they had been graced with the same beauty, refinement, and taste enjoyed by their less rowdy female counterparts, they would have no need to revolt. In 1889 Zetkin wrote: 

“[The woman] will remain subjugated [by man] if she continues to remain economically dependent. The essential condition for economic independence is work. If women are to become free human beings and equal members of society like men, it is neither necessary to abolish work for women nor limit it, except in certain wholly individual and exceptional cases.” Clara Zetkin, Die Arbeiterinnen- und Frauenfrage der Gegenwart (1889)

In 1910, Zetkin’s proposal for an International Women’s Day was adopted by the International Conference of Working Women.

Wow! Perhaps, I’ve found my holiday!  The best holiday in the world to be scroogey about! Gritting my teeth, and hoping someday in the not too distant future, this holiday will be obsolete, I offer my take on IWD.

5 Reasons Why International Women’s Day is Still Needed

Happy Women's Day

Happy Women’s Day (Photo credit: Doddamalluraprameya)

1.  Global Equality for All Women

In 1979 the United Nations adopted CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women) — the most comprehensive, global initiative to bring equality to women across the globe. To-date 187 countries have announced to their citizens and their world partners that they will work to:

  • Reduce sex trafficking & domestic violence
  • Provide access to education & vocational training
  • Ensure the right to vote
  • End forced marriage & child marriage & ensure inheritance rights
  • Help mothers and families by providing access to maternal health care
  • Ensure the right to work & own a business without discrimination. via CEDAW 2013 – About CEDAW.

The United States of America, Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga have yet to ratify.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supports CEDAW, as do President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. But if the United States Congress barely agreed to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (see #4), I’m not going to hold my breath that the U.S. Congress will ratify CEDAW any time soon.

I could stop here. This alone is reason to crack open a bottle of cheap champagne. But, alas, there are even more reasons to celebrate International Women’s Day! Yippee!!!!

2. Poverty & Economics

The UN declares that 70% of the work women perform goes unpaid.

Housework is Exercise

Housework is Exercise (Photo credit: mrquizzical)

What?  Does that mean that all that boring stuff I do around the house and for the house — cooking, mopping, dusting, opening bills, paying bills, loading the dishwasher, emptying the dishwasher, making the bed, stoking the fire, sorting the laundry, shopping for household goods, sending out holiday cards to loved ones (well, okay, I don’t do that), rearing children (I don’t have any, but I’m also an anomaly in most regions of the world), and tending to my garden could… could, be paid labor?

Yes! Yes it does! (And if you’re wealthy enough, you may even pay someone else to have it done!)

Depending on where you live in the world, the hours a woman spends on unpaid household tasks varies widely: the US female/male ratio is 27hrs/16; Japan, 29hrs/4; and in developing nations, it’s even worse: 31-42/hrs/5-15.  Every hour a woman tends to the household, is one hour she’s lost to earned wages, which in some cases also means lost benefits such as health care, vacation time, sick leave, and, if you’re lucky, a retirement plan.

Okay, let’s talk about earned wages.  So, if the care economy balance could be met, does that mean that the nasty statistic — 70% of the world’s poor are women — would change?

Not so.

According to the National Women’s Law Center:

The wage gap persists at all levels of education. In 2011, the typical woman in the United States with a high school diploma working full time, year round was paid only 74 cents for every dollar paid to her male counterpart. Among people with a bachelor’s degrees, the figure was also 74 cents. In fact, the typical woman who has received an associate’s degree still isn’t paid as much as the typical man who only graduated from high school.

A typical woman who worked full time, year round would lose $443,360 in a 40-year period due to the wage gap. A woman would have to work almost twelve years longer to make up this gap. A typical woman working full time, year round who starts, but does not finish, high school would lose $372,400 over a 40-year period, an enormous amount of money for women who are typically paid $21,113 a year. A woman would have to work over seventeen years longer to make up this gap.  via National Committee on Pay Equity NCPE.

Back in 2000, while president of the Madison-NOW chapter, I helped organize a bake sale on the steps of the Wisconsin state capitol in recognition of Equal Pay Day. We sold our homemade brownies and cookies at the equivalent of women’s to men’s pay ratio in the United States — at the time, 75 cents to the dollar.  If I had a dollar for every man who accosted me for “breaking the law” by charging men more than women, well…I might just have broken the green glass ceiling.

74 cents to his dollarIn 2011, we dropped to 74 cents to the dollar.  So, I guess we have a ways to go on this one, too.

3.  Health

Since this blog has much to do with smoking, I’m going to single out tobacco use in woman under the health category, even though there are many, many, many other issues that could be raised here (health coverage, breast/cervical cancers, birth control, abortion, childbirth, HIV/AIDS).

A new study by the American Cancer Society, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that women now die at the same rate as men from smoking.

The risk of death from cigarette smoking continues to increase among women and the increased risks are now nearly identical for men and women, as compared with persons who have never smoked. Among men, the risks associated with smoking have plateaued at the high levels seen in the 1980s, except for a continuing, unexplained increase in mortality from COPD.  via 50-Year Trends in Smoking-Related Mortality in the United States — NEJM.

In 50 years, the percentage gap between American male and female smokers has lessened — with 20% of men now smoking, and 18% of women now smoking.

It wasn’t always so.  In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe, while visiting Germany, was alarmed at the number of women (and men) who smoked:

“There is but one drawback to all this, and that is the smoking.  Mythologically represented, these Germans might be considered as a race born of chimneys, with a necessity for smoking in their very nature.  A German walking without his pipe is only a dormant volcano; it is in him to smoke all the while; you may be sure the crater will begin to fume before long.  Smoking is such an acknowledged attribute of manhood, that the gentler sex seem to have given in to it as one of the immutable things of nature; consequently all the public places where both sexes meet are redolent of tobacco! You see a gentleman doing the agreeable to a lady, cigar in mouth, treating her alternately to an observation and a whiff, both of which seem to her equally matters of course.” ~~ Harriet Beecher Stowe, Letter XIV, Wittenberg, Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands

It seems the admen of the 1960s and 70s were highly successful in bringing equality to women, at least when it comes to smoking! (Don’t worry. I’ll be posting about Mad Men, when the new season starts.)

4. Violence Against Women & Girls

In 1993 the United Nations defined “violence against women” as:

“any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, 85th plenary meeting, December 1993 

Yesterday, President Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act of 2013, first passed with bi-partisan support in 1994 and reauthorized in 2000, and 2005.

Heated debate arose over the reauthorization of this act, with certain voices from the Halls of Congress refusing to include provisions extending to same-sex partners, American Indians, and undocumented persons living in the United States.  As President Obama noted, in celebration of the historic changes to the legislation, “When Native women are abused on tribal lands by an attacker who is not Native American, the attacker is immune to tribal prosecution by tribal courts. As soon as I sign this bill today that ends. That ends.”

My question: Why does such a bill need reauthorization? Shouldn’t it simply be put into a law for ever and eternity?

Which brings me to my final reason to celebrate International Women’s Day, and, it is, perhaps, the most important one.

5. Politics

International Women’s Day was started 10 years before women in the United States were granted suffrage; 12 in Ireland; 16 in Turkey; 18 in Great Britain; and 98 years for the women of Bhutan. (It should be noted that non-aboriginal Australian women received the right to vote in 1902; Finland, 1905).


But where has the vote gotten us “women of the gentler sex” when current statistics show the global ratio of men to women at 101:100?

According to International Women’s Democracy Center, women hold a mere 18% of parliamentary seats world-wide. In 2013, Rwanda ranks #1 in terms of women’s representation in federal government (56.3% in the House/38.5% in the Senate), while the United States flounders at #77 (17.8% in the House/20.2% in the Senate).

There are only 13 women in the highest positions of State out of 189 governments:

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina; Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia; Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, President of the Philippines; Helen Clark, Prime Minister of New Zealand; Luisa Diogo, Prime Minister of Mozambique; Mary McAleese, President of Ireland; Micheline Calmy-Rey, President of the Swiss Confederation; Michelle Bachelet, President of Chile; Pratibha Patil, President of India; Tarja Halonen, President of Finland; Yulia Tymoshenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine; Zinaida Greceanîi, Prime Minister of Moldova. via Fact Sheet: Women’s Political Participation

Equal representation… now that’s a concept.

If women had equal representation in government — at all levels of government — across the globe, I wonder if we’d even be having a discussion about #1-4…or, might we be able to eliminate International Women’s Day celebrations for good?

Now that’d be a reason to pop some bubbly!


© 2013 Lisa Rainwater