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Emmeline Pankhurst

The history of International Women's Day

Dating back to a protest for women’s voting rights in 1908, IWD is now a universal celebration of women’s social and political achievements.

Emmeline Pankhurst addresses a crowd in New York City in 1913 | Image: Public Domain
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Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! Said to date back to a protest for women’s voting rights in New York in 1908, IWD is now a universal celebration of women’s social and political achievements. For International Women's Day 2024 the theme is 'Inspire Inclusion'. In honour of the day, here are some of the biggest moments in the women’s movement over the past 100 years.

Women get the vote

Where it all began… it’s a truth, universally acknowledged, that most politicians only listen to people who can vote for them. Any fight for equality, therefore, had to begin with this basic right.

When 15,000 women flooded the streets of New York back in 1908, only a few US states and a handful of jurisdictions worldwide allowed women to vote in elections. Following a global campaign for suffrage and women’s substantial contribution during WW1, several Western countries granted women the vote during the interwar period, including Britain in 1918. (Though New Zealand led the way, granting votes to women way back in 1893.)

A few exceptions included France (1944), Greece (1952) and Liechtenstein, which finally changed its laws in 1984. Most Latin American countries had granted women the vote by the 1950s. It was in December 2015, that Saudi Arabian women were finally allowed to vote in municipal elections for the first time. This was two years before they were allowed to drive.

Nasa’s secret weapon

Though not an actual trade secret, NASA did little, at the time, to publicise that fact that dozens of women of colour, still forced to sit at the back of the bus and use separate toilets, played a pivotal role in its operations from the 1940s onwards.

Hidden Figures (2016), based on the book of the same name, tells the story of how three of these 'human computers', helped John Glenn to become the first American to orbit the Earth. Years after mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan broke through boundaries of gender and race to excel in their fields, women working in science and technology still face stigma. As demonstrated by Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt’s excruciating comments, ridiculed by Twitter, a year before the film’s release.

Along came the ‘60s

No era is more synonymous with women’s liberation than the 1960s and its 'sexual revolution'. The year after three black women sent John Glenn into space, Betty Friedan’s cult book The Female Mystique, was hailed the bible of second-wave feminism. In its backlash against the 1950s housewife cult, Friedan argued women could never be truly fulfilled without the freedom to find meaningful work and reclaim their identities.

A global civil rights movement exploded, breaking through fundamental social taboos, around how women should dress, act and conduct sexual relationships. The contraceptive pill, first invented in the 1950s, was increasingly available. Feminists fought against legal restrictions to abortion. The workplace began to fully open up to women, beyond the so-called 'pink-collar' jobs of secretary, teacher or nurse. The first law suits on equal pay also began to appear.

1975, when mums didn’t go to Iceland and the sausages were sold out

On 24 October, 1975, women of Iceland 'took the day off'. Across the nation, 90% of women didn’t show up to work, left their families for the day, and gathered in the streets of Reykjavik for a huge rally. Described by one female participant as a 'quiet revolution', the results were mind-blowing. Iceland’s newspapers were half the normal size and only reported on the strike.

Schools, shops and nurseries closed. Sausages, the nation’s favourite ready meal sold out in all supermarkets. Employers struggled on skeleton staff, while also accommodating hordes of young children brought into work by their fathers (who would come to call the day the 'long Friday').

Five years later, Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the first democratically-elected female president in Iceland and the world. Serving until 1996, she went on to be the longest serving of both.

#metoo #timesup and Twitter explodes

It’s impossible to talk about International Women’s Day without mentioning the watershed #metoo movement. Coined a decade earlier, by activist Tarana Burke, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase “me too” in October 2017, and within 3 months, the hashtag had been used almost 6.5 million times on Twitter and Facebook. Hollywood’s Time’s Up swiftly followed.

Harvey Weinstein’s downfall in 2020 set off a domino effect, exposing seemingly untouchable men from actors to journalists to high-ranking politicians.

One thing seems certain though, with the World Economic Forum predicting it will take another 170 years to achieve gender equality in the workplace, we are likely to celebrate 8th March for some time to come.