International Women’s Day Thoughts —by Jinny Batterson
March 8, 2017 will be celebrated in many countries as International Women’s Day, a holiday that gradually has taken hold since the early 20th century as a way to honor women’s economic and social contributions and to press for more equitable treatment of the “fairer sex.” No one agency, country, or non-profit is a primary sponsor for International Women’s Day. Some companies have underwritten celebrations in various places, perhaps hoping to get their names associated with being good corporate citizens, perhaps welcoming this occasion to market their products more emphatically to women.
The first time I had a chance to participate in an International Women’s Day celebration came a decade ago, when I was teaching English at a small agricultural college on the far northwestern fringes of China. That year the holiday fell on a Thursday, and our classes were shortened to allow for an afternoon of amateur intramural sports. According to the journal entry I made at the time, I participated in “water bottle bowling” and jump rope competitions, winning an extra liter of cooking oil and a ribbon for my efforts.
In 2014, I attended a North Carolina International Women’s Day gathering in a local church hall on a Saturday afternoon. I don’t remember a whole lot about the celebration—it was small and fairly informal. Among the participants were several older nuns and a different group of singing elders, the “Raging Grannies.” The grannies wore aprons and floppy garden hats and belted out political satire words set to traditional tunes. After a while, all of us went home.
International Women’s Day was first recognized by the United Nations in 1975, in conjunction with the first International Women’s Conference and a U.N. themed “Year of the Woman.” That same year, though not on International Women’s Day, women in the Nordic country of Iceland decided to take a day off to illustrate how vital women were to the smooth functioning of Icelandic society, despite what was then a 40% pay gap. According to excerpts from the account given by the BBC in 2015, the October, 1975 “Women’s Day Off” was a turning point in the relationship between the sexes in Iceland:
“Instead of going to the office, doing housework or childcare they took to the streets in their thousands to rally for equal rights with men. (An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part, including rural women.)
It is known in Iceland as the Women’s Day Off, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (Iceland’s first woman Prime Minister, elected initially in 1980) sees it as a watershed moment.
‘What happened that day was the first step for women’s emancipation in Iceland,’ she says. ‘It completely paralysed the country and opened the eyes of many men.’
Banks, factories and some shops had to close, as did schools and nurseries – leaving many fathers with no choice but to take their children to work. There were reports of men arming themselves with sweets and colouring pencils to entertain the crowds of overexcited children in their workplaces. Sausages – easy to cook and popular with children – were in such demand the shops sold out.
It was a baptism of fire for some fathers, which may explain the other name the day has been given – “the Long Friday.”
The pay gap in Iceland has not entirely disappeared, though it has shrunk to one of the smallest of any nation. In 2016, Icelandic women for a single day staged a smaller work stoppage as a protest of the enduring part of the wage gap—figuring that they were paid 14% less than men for equal work, many quit work at 2:38 p.m. rather than “work for free” for the rest of the day.
So far, International Women’s Day has not caught on in a big way in the United States of America, where the gender wage gap hovers at about 20% nationwide, with considerable variation by state and a much larger gap for women of color. One of the initiatives favored by the current U.S. administration is support for childcare expenses, which typically helps families with working parents. So far, there is little detail about how such support would be administered or financed. Considerable skepticism exists about whether that support would be structured to help improve the lives and earning capacity of those at the bottom of the wage scale.
In my family, women through the generations have carried at least their share of both nurturing and earnings responsibilities. If I do nothing else this International Women’s Day, I will pause for a moment to honor these foremothers who farmed, ran households, got educated, taught, provided vital family income, and invested for the future. Once they got the right to vote, they for darn sure did their best to make fulfillment and advancement easier for their daughters as well as for their sons.