International Women’s Day: struggles & hard-won victories are us

By Maya Khamala

International Women's Day (IWD) is a global event celebrated annually on March 8th, and is widely treated as a focal point for women’s rights movements.

A little herstory: after the Socialist Party of America organized a Women's Day in NYC in February of 1909, delegates at the International Socialist Woman's Conference the following year proposed “a special Women's Day” be organized annually. When women in Soviet Russia were allowed to vote in 1917, March 8th became a national holiday there. The occasion was predominantly celebrated by communist countries until it was adopted by the feminist movement circa 1967. The UN began celebrating the day in 1977. Today, of those countries that do observe IWD, some mark the day with protest, while others celebrate womanhood, and still others do both–and more.

We’ve come a long way, baby

Thumbing through a pile of ancient magazines belonging to someone in my parents’ circle of friends as a child, I came across the phrase “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby.” It was a 1968 advertising slogan for a brand of cigarettes known as Virginia Slims. It’s well known how the company framed the product as a symbol of women's empowerment. Fifty-three years later, a lot has changed: advertising cigarettes is banned on radio and television, and a woman of color, Kamala Harris, has clinched the vice presidency for the first time in American history.

In a fascinating continuation of women’s progress as anchored on one catchy slogan, come 1978, Loretta Lynn released her hit country single “We’ve come a long way baby,” sweetly aimed at challenging the notion that women are the ‘weaker sex.’ “Well, I don't want a wall to paint, but I'm a-gonna have my say,” she sings. “From now on, lover-boy, it's fifty-fifty, all the way. Up to now I've been an object made for pleasin' you. Times have changed and I'm demanding satisfaction too.”

Tangible challenges, tangible progress

The last several decades have delivered major progress for women worldwide, what with literacy, life expectancy, and pay, but huge disparities still exist, particularly in majority world (AKA ‘developing’) countries. And Covid has only helped to highlight these disparities further, what with the majority of frontline workers being both women and underpaid.

But let’s be real. Pandemic or no pandemic, when it comes down to talking about how far women have come over the last 100, 50, or even 20 years, a variety of crucial factors come into play: race, class, and nationality, just for starters. For instance, the women of Saudi Arabia were only granted the right to drive in 2018, and Loujain al-Hathloul, the badass activist who made it happen was kidnapped, detained and tortured, only to be released earlier this month. Iran’s compulsory veiling laws force women and girls as young as seven to cover their hair with a headscarf. Women who refuse are arrested and even tortured. In Poland, women are currently taking to the streets to protest the latest move by a right wing religious conservative government to ban abortion in all cases but rape. And to those who feel like women in North America have it better than women elsewhere, I say, “Different battles, but still, battles.” One need only look at the appallingly tenuous state of American abortion rights, the epidemic of missing and murdered Native women in Canada, or the ongoing wage gap to take a hint that there’s plenty left to fight for.

But I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer: while IWD is about fighting for justice, it’s also about summoning a sense of celebration for all the badass victories women have won over the years.

Voting. The legal right of women to vote was established in the US over the course of more than fifty years, first in various states and localities, and then nationally in 1920, although Native Americans were not granted the vote until the 1960s. In Canada, women had largely gained the right to vote by 1918, with the exception of Quebec that is, where women couldn’t vote until 1940. First Nations were granted the vote in 1960.

Contraception. In 1960, the FDA approved the first commercially produced birth control pill in the world, allowing women to decide when and if they want children *(translation: HUGE). In recent years, however, women have made leaps and bounds as we’ve begun gaining access to a plethora of other contraceptive options which are a lot less harmful to the body than hormonal birth control.

Reproductive rights. In 1973, in its landmark 7-2 Roe v. Wade decision, the US Supreme Court declared that a woman’s legal right to an abortion is protected by the constitution. Many states have set limitations on these rights, but RvW remains an integral precedent!

Equal pay. In 1963, president Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination between men and women performing the same job in the same workplace. It’s limited as acts go, and not always enforced, but it’s down on paper, which makes it a potentially valuable tool in ongoing equality struggles.

Civil rights. In 1964, president Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which bans employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, or gender. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that racism is alive and well in America today (even in feminist circles), but again, having this stuff down on paper always helps, and it certainly boosted the crucial momentum of the day.

Party politics. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to US Congress. In 1993, Janet Reno was sworn in as the first female attorney general. In 1997, Madeleine Albright became the first female secretary of state. In 2007, Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the House. In 2016, Hillary Clinton became the first woman to receive a presidential nomination from a major political party. In January 2021, Kamala Harris became the first woman (as well as the first black woman, and the first person of Southeast Asian descent) to win the vice presidency.

Porn.  Feminist porn has been around since the 1980s when former porn stars Candida Royalle and Annie Sprinkle set about making their own films—from a female perspective, and for a female audience. Initially dismissed by adult film executives as “unmarketable,” their first video garnered hella business among women and couples. With the advent of the internet around the turn of the millennium, feminist porn took off. The first paid porn site for women, Purve, launched in 1998. Fast forward to 2017 when Bellesa hit the scene, and the rest, my dears, is herstory.

While a brief US-focused laundry list such as this one hardly does justice to the wildly varied ongoing struggles and hard-won victories of women the world over, a more comprehensive overview of the status of the global gender gap can help create a fuller picture.

Here’s to international women’s liberation—you know, the meaningful kind.

One love in 2021! <3

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