National Women’s History Month began with a single day. Every year on March 8 more than 100 countries celebrate International Women’s Day. But why March 8?
In 1909, the Socialist Party of America organized a Women’s Day in New York City. The next year, German delegates at the 1910 International Socialist Women’s Conference proposed that “a special Women’s Day” be organized yearly. But it was Russia who unwittingly established March 8 as the official date. On that day in 1917, tens of thousands of Russian women took to the streets demanding change. Their unified cry for rights was instrumental in paving the way for Russian women to finally win the vote.
Women’s Day was primarily celebrated by the Socialist Movement and communist countries, it was adopted by the Feminist Movement around 1967. The United Nations officially recognized International Women’s Day in 1975. In some countries it is now a public holiday, in others it is largely ignored. In some places it is a day of protest, in others it celebrates womanhood. In Portugal where my sister lived, women gathered for lunch and drinks to celebrate the day and each other.
I knew nothing about International Women’s Day in the summer of 1974 when I was living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and attended Summerfest. This festival, held along the shores of Lake Michigan each summer, now features over 1,000 performances on 12 stages. In 1974, I think there were two stages. I was in the audience at one of those stages and with hundreds of other women, sang my heart out along with Helen Reddy when she performed “I Am Woman.” Unfortunately, in those days my naïve idea of woman power meant burning your bra and using Ms. instead of Miss.
Too many important issues were not yet on my radar, gender parity in the workplace, reproductive rights, domestic abuse, navigating career and motherhood, lack of respect for caregiving. I was raised to be a “nice” girl, to stay in my lane, not be “difficult.” Thankfully over the next decades my inner feminist blossomed, my journey being more of a marathon than a sprint. And I’m ok with that. I haven’t shattered any glass ceilings, but I have given the world three amazing men who know that women are their equal.
I admire the trailblazers and intrepid women who have done so much to bring about change, but this morning I am also thinking about all the women for whom tomorrow is just another day. Another day to try and keep their kids safe, to put food on the table and roof over their head, no time off for a special celebration.
In 1996, The United Nations began adopting annual themes for International Women’s Day. This year’s theme is Choose to Challenge. I have stood up for women – co-workers, friends, family, sometimes strangers. But I have also sometimes failed to speak up. I will always be me. I am more traditionalist than radical, but this year I challenge myself to be more aware of gender bias and inequality and find ways to Choose to Challenge. After all, I have four granddaughters who have a right to grow up in a fairer, more just world.
C’est la vie.