International Women’s Day (IWD) takes place on 8 March each year. It is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality.
How it all began
The earliest known celebration of women was on 28 February 1909 in New York City. It was called ‘National Women’s Day’ and two years later, in 1911, the first International Women’s Day gathering was supported by over a million people.
The same year Emmeline Pankhurst called on women to boycott the census, urging passive protest against the government‘s reluctance to give women the vote. The first form of protest was that women who were at home on census night should refuse to complete the census (and risk a £5 fine or a month’s imprisonment), spoiling the census form by either refusing to provide any information or by scribbling comments on it along the lines of ‘I don’t count so I won’t be counted’ or ‘No vote – No census.’
The second method was to avoid being at home that night. Women hid or kept moving from place to place throughout the night to avoid being recorded. Emily Davison, who later lost her life at the Epsom Derby when she walked onto the course in front of the King’s horse, hid in a broom cupboard in the Houses of Parliament for forty six hours. She was arrested and released without charge but was recorded on the census as ‘found hiding in the Crypt of Westminster Hall.’ Emily’s landlady also included her on the census form, so she was actually recorded twice.
In January 1918 the House of Lords gave approval for women over the age of thirty the right to vote but it would not be until 1928, that another law would be passed allowing women over the age of twenty one to vote, the same as men.
However, the first woman to vote actually did so in 1867 — her name was Lily Maxwell and that year her name was entered in error on the registered list of voters. Lily was encouraged to cast her vote and the returning officer had little choice but to accept it. At the time, voters had to announce out loud who they were voting for and their choice of candidate — it is said when Lily voted the room erupted with cheers.
Historians write that while women have always been 50% of the population, they only occupy around 0.5% of recorded history but if you look at figurines made between about 40,000 BC, until around 5,000 BC, around 90% of these are of women. At the birth of civilised society, women had status, property rights and owned land but the new civilisations wanted to expand and when that happened, society became more militarised and the balance of power shifted.
More recently, the UK census should be a good source of information, however it was not until 1851 that household heads were ‘instructed’ to record married women’s occupations and only then ‘if they were deemed to be regularly employed.’ Actually, most working class women at the time had no choice but to work, in addition to the unpaid work they did at home but this was often not recorded, so the census returns show a blank space in the occupation column against women’s names.
Throughout history there are many examples of women achieving incredible things but their contributions have been written out of history or they were not given the credit they were due.
Hazel Hill was only 13 years old when she figured out the precise mathematical calculations to enable improvements to be made to Spitfires, increasing the number of guns to eight from four and helping to win the war. While Mary Ellis joined the Air Transport Auxiliary after hearing an advertisement for women pilots on the radio and was responsible for delivering Spitfires and Bombers to the front line.
Rosalind Franklin was a British biophysicist who also studied DNA, taking x-ray diffraction photos which showed there were two forms of DNA. Scientists Francis Crick and James Watson subsequently learned crucial information about DNA’s structure from one of the photos and from a summary of Rosalind’s unpublished research. They never told Rosalind they had seen her materials or directly acknowledged their debt to her work and went on to be awarded the Nobel prize.
The actress Hedy Lamarr was also an inventor who pioneered the technology that would one day form the basis for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth communication systems. A patent and military support was sought for the invention but the navy decided against the implementation of the new system and Hedy’s patent expired before she ever saw a penny from it.
And in April 1959, when NASA announced that seven men, who would become known as the Mercury 7, would go into space, thirteen women, enrolled on a privately funded programme and all successfully underwent the same physiological screening tests — none of the women got to go into space.
These and many more women quietly and against the odds opened doors for their daughters and granddaughters, leaving the light on, so they in turn could open doors for future generations. And today the fight continues with the gender pay gap, ‘Me Too’ and ‘Time’s Up’ campaigns, outrage at the treatment of women in Afghanistan and the 2022 demonstrations in the US by American women after the US Supreme Court overturned the legislation which protected their right to abortion.
This year the United Nations theme for International Women’s Day is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’ which aims to recognise and celebrate the contribution women and girls are making to technology and online education, as well as exploring the impact of the digital gender gap on inequality for women and girls.
And the theme for the International Women’s Day organisation is ‘Embrace Equity’ with the campaign asking that equity is not just something we say and not just something we write about but something we need to think about, know and embrace, by challenging gender stereotypes, calling out discrimination, drawing attention to bias and seeking out inclusion.
So while much has changed for women, there is still more work to be done. International Women’s Day provides an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements, ensure we continue moving forwards not backwards and to remember the rights of women around the world are not all the same. How will you celebrate this year?
- BBC: International Women’s Day 2023
- English Heritage: Why were women written out of history
- Historic UK: Votes for Women
- Historic England: Women’s history
- Historic UK: No vote, no census
- The History Press: Lily Maxwell – the first woman to vote
- Hazel Hill: The schoolgirl who helped to win a war
- Hedy Lamarr: The mother of wi-fi
- Mary Ellis: The air pioneer
- Rosalind Franklin: DNA scientist
- The Mercury 13: The women who could have been Mercury astronauts
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