This Sunday, 8th March, will see International Women’s Day celebrated around the world. There are various events around Scotland before and after the day itself ranging from conferences and discussion panels to bonfires and art exhibitions.
It may seem as though celebrations are more widespread in recent years however the honouring of women’s rights and achievements on a particular day can be traced back to 1909, when the first anniversary of strikes held by garment workers protesting against poor working conditions (including comparatively low wages and sexual harassment) was observed in the US. The following year, 1910, saw the International Conference of Working Women establish the idea for an international women’s day.
By 1917 celebration of an international women’s day was widespread. Russia’s 1917 protests involved thousands of women who were dealing with food shortages and poverty following war, and who had simply lost patience with inequality. Russian women successfully argued for the right to vote during the March 1917 protests and were looked upon by the US and the UK as an inspiration in the ongoing fight for equal rights.
The protestors faced criticism from male revolutionaries who wanted all workers to demonstrate together in May, but the female workers decided to go ahead as planned on 8th March, the date upon which International Women’s Day is still celebrated. The protests that day led to daily strikes by male and female workers from all sectors demanding better working and social conditions. This period of time saw massive upheaval in the country with the abdication of the Tsar during the protests and the eventual establishment of the Soviet Union.
The perceived link to the Soviet Union means that the day has in the past not been celebrated to the same extent and with the same reverence in the UK and US as it is elsewhere in the world, with some countries observing a national holiday on 8th March.
Within the UK, following the Representation of the People Act 1918 allowing women the right to vote, the Sex Discrimination (Removal) Act 1919 allowed women to be admitted to the civil service and legal profession regardless of marital status, to sit as jurors or magistrates and removed the right of universities to decline to admit women. Women had been able to access university-level education on equal terms to men (i.e. being awarded a degree rather than a “Certificate of Proficiency” upon successful complete of their studies), though not in all institutions, since 1878 but were unable to put that to use in professional settings. The 1919 Act removed some of the remaining barriers and is considered to be an under-rated piece of legislation in terms of advancing women’s rights.
It would not be until the 1960s, however, that matters of female reproductive health, another huge barrier for working women, were addressed by law. That this is still such a hugely controversial topic shows how much progress there is still to be made.
The fight for equal rights in public and private life, including the right to reproductive autonomy, access to education and equal treatment in the workplace, continued unabated throughout the 1960s. The now famous 1968 protests for equal pay for female workers at the Ford Dagenham factory was met with huge public support which created political pressure and eventually led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act 1970. Legislating for equal pay between male and female workers allowed the UK to comply with Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome and thus helped pave the way for the UK’s inclusion in the European Community.
The Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and its equivalents in other countries acknowledged the persisting inequality in the experience of working women, from being selected for employment through to being harassed while employed. Discrimination law generally evolved over the coming years and is now collated in the Equality Act 2010, but in 1975 the focus was on reducing gender inequality and improving women’s public lives.
1975 was the UN’s International Women’s Year. A conference in Mexico City, the Commission on the Status of Women, established goals for the advancement of women’s rights to be met over the next decade. Conferences to consider the progress made towards these goals have been held at 5 year intervals ever since, including in Beijing in 1995 where the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was announced, which is now considered to be the key global policy document on gender equality. This year marks the 25-year review of the Beijing Declaration.
While work continues to advance women’s rights in public life, progress is also being made in reducing gender inequality in home and family life. The introduction of statutory maternity pay in the 1980s, increased paternity leave and the right to request flexible working arrangements for parents in the early 2000s and, more recently in 2014, shared parental leave, aim to make it easier for women to better exercise their right to pursue a career.
Issues of equal pay, sexual harassment, reproductive rights and domestic violence persist, and in these difficult political times some of the progress made in past decades has been casually undone by conservative politicians and lawmakers. Threats to hard-fought rights and freedom have caused women to protest widely and the use of social media has quickly created global movements such as #metoo. Those who continue to fight for gender equality have moved onto different platforms in modern times but it is clear they have the same passion and drive as their social and political ancestors.
It is of the utmost importance that International Women’s Day continues to be celebrated and that work towards gender equality progresses despite the many obstacles still in the way.
Blog by Shona Cocksedge, Solicitor