8 March is the centenary of International Women’s Day. This year, we mark the occasion with a series of blog posts about initiatives to strengthen gender equality worldwide.
“The factory had only one main exit, and workers had to scramble through a lone narrow stairway to escape, while others jumped from windows”, said fire official Rashidul Islam. He could have been talking about New York, where one of the journalists described the distress of a veteran police officer trying to identify the dead bodies. The reporter asked him if one of the corpses was a man or a woman, but all he could say was that it was just a human.
The wider context of both tragedies is similar too: a time of rapid industrialisation and globalisation, with millions of migrants leaving their homes, or even countries, to make a better life elsewhere. That meant, and still means, long hours, poor housing and fighting to improve your conditions.
International Women’s Day has its roots in this tradition. Initially known as International Working Women’s Day, it was proposed in 1910 by Clara Zetkin at the first international women’s conference organised by the Socialist International. At that time, Finland had just granted the vote to women as part of a law on universal suffrage. Elsewhere, women, and many men, were excluded from the electing the government, although white women could vote in Australia and New Zealand.
Many professions refused access to women too, and when they were admitted, it was not always on equal terms. In the UK for instance, the engineering sector had special pay rates for “boys and women” until the 1960s.
As the articles we’re publishing for the centenary of International Women’s Day show, inequalities based on sex persist (as do those based on colour and religion), and although battles have been won, nothing should be taken for granted.