We have been celebrating International Women’s Day (IWD) for over 100 years now. It was first proposed in 1910 by political activist Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Socialist Women. Her idea that on the same designated day every year, all nations should celebrate women’s efforts to secure their human rights was supported unanimously by more than 100 women representing 17 different countries. While the first two International Women’s Days were held on March 19, it was moved to March 8 in 1913. In 1975, during International Women’s Year, IWD was given official recognition by the United Nations and was adopted by an array of national governments around the world.
Contemporary celebrations of International Women’s Day include highly varied events that honor the progress in women’s lives while acknowledging that the world’s women still have a long way to go before we achieve gender equality. A very long way to go. Around the world, hundreds of millions of women live on less than a dollar day. More than 100 million females are "missing" from the global population due to a variety of cultural constructs that make sons more desirable and affordable than daughters.
Millions of others lack access to education, health care, clean drinking water, child care, and physical safety in their own homes and on the streets of their communities. Millions live in states enmeshed in chronic warfare.
While many in the West like to think that patriarchal practices and patterns are strictly a Third World phenomenon, that is far from true.
American women experience poverty rates much higher than those of men. Single mothers generally are one of the poorest groups of Americans and single mothers of color are the poorest among them. A 2013 report by the World Economic Forum measured the "gender gap" in 136 countries. The United States’ position was calculated as 23rd from the top of this index -- down from our position of 22 in 2012 and 17 in 2011. This rank places us below Latvia, Burundi and South Africa when it comes to our overall level of gender equality. While our placement on the educational attainment index is high (we are among 25 countries tied for first place), we rank only 33rd on the health and survival index and 60th on the political empowerment index.
When it comes to personal safety, a 2013 report published by the World Health Organization reports that 30 percent of all women in the world have been physically and/or sexually assaulted by an intimate partner at some point in their lives. Estimates for these experiences among American women: 30 percent. More than 1,000 women are murdered by their male intimate partners every year in the U.S. and thousands of others are turned away from battered women’s shelters because there aren’t enough beds to house them all.
During the past few years, our troubled economy has made things even worse. The Mary Kay Foundation’s 2013 "Truth About Abuse" study reported on the impact of the economic downturn on American battered women’s shelters and the people they serve. More than 800 shelters for survivors of domestic abuse were surveyed: 67 percent of them reported an increase in the number of women seeking their help in the past year; 64 percent noted an increase in the number of women with children who applied for services; and 91 percent of the programs stated that the poor economy continues to play a role in battered women staying with or returning to abusive partners.
Despite this outrageous "state of the world’s women" it is critically important that we continue to celebrate, for it is life’s celebrations that keep us going. We can celebrate the ongoing struggle for women’s rights in many ways this March (Women’s History Month). A couple of suggestions follow.
On the international/national level, contact our representatives in Washington and tell them it is long past due that the United States join most of the rest of the world by ratifying the Convention to End all forms of Discrimination Against Women. The U.S. is one of only seven countries that has yet to ratify this international women’s bill of rights. In this, we keep company with Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and the Pacific Islands of Palau and Tonga.
Next, head up to North Adams on Tuesday at 7 p.m. to hear Gloria Steinem speak in the Church Street Center on the MCLA campus. Writer, lecturer, feminist activist, co-founder of Ms. Magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus, Steinem will address the subject "The Progression of Feminism: Where are we going?" Admission is free and open to the public, but get there early if you want to get a seat.
And last, but not least, call Flavours of Malaysia restaurant on McKay Street in Pittsfield (413) 443-3188 and make a reservation for either the 5:30 or 7:30 p.m. seating for the buffet dinner on March 8, in celebration of International Women’s Day. For the third consecutive year, Flavours’ owners/operators Sabrina Tan and Chin Lee will be hosting this fundraiser for the Elizabeth Freeman Center, the county’s provider of life and soul-saving services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault where help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week via the toll free hotline at 1-866-401-2425. The food is always fabulous at Flavours and Sabrina’s special buffets (especially one for a good cause) are not to be missed.
I’ll be post-feminist in the post-patriarchy; until then, the battle for social justice continues. Happy International Women’s Day one and all.
Dr. Susan Birns is chairperson of the Sociology/Anthropology/Social Work Department at MCLA and secretary of the Board of Directors of the Elizabeth Freeman Center.