Last week was the one hundredth anniversary of the first International Women’s Day. As a woman who has lived through six of these past ten decades, this women’s day led me to reflect on the changes in women’s roles I have seen throughout my life. The changes have meant that my life choices have been markedly different from those of my mother’s as well as my those of my daughter’s, even though my experience is narrowly representative of being a white, middle-class, educated professional in the western world.
Originally held in March 1911, the first international women’s day was one result of the growing demand in Europe at that time for women’s rights, especially women’s suffrage, or the right to vote. It was New Zealand, rather than Europe or America, that became the first country to extend the voting rights to all women in 1893, with Finland being the first country to democratically elect women to parliament. In Europe at least, the women’s suffrage movement of the early twentieth century was linked to the rise of socialist ideals in general. In reading about women’s suffrage of that era I was moved by the passionate activism of women. The protests they undertook and privations they endured, from prison to death, seemed extraordinary. Thus began the first wave of the modern Women’s Movement, which has celebrated the contribution women make to the world as well as fighting for women’s rights.
One of the primary rights of all citizens in the modern world is that of education, yet access has generally been more difficult for girls than for boys. Even after obtaining the vote, gaining equal access to education for women became, and remains, an ongoing battle, as Virginia Woolf’s observed in 1928 in her classic book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This battle re-emerged in the 1960s as the so-called second wave of the Women’s Movement. My conscious experience of a women’s place in society only stretches back as far as the 1960s when I was a teenager and read Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir – without really understanding them I might add. My memories of this formative period have been sharpened recently after watching the achingly accurate portrayal of women in the early sixties in the TV series ‘Mad Man’.
Access to education is now recognised as an important right that enables women to take their full place in the world according to their abilities and situations. Increasingly, access to education for women and girls is seen as vital in any global push to minimise poverty and support peace in society in general. The Chinese saying, that ‘Women hold up half the sky’ inspired the title of one of the first books I read about the women’s movement. ‘Half the Sky’ is also the particularly apt name of a current organisation dedicated to eradicating poverty and extremism through the education and empowerment of women and girls. It is worth supporting, as is the Daughters for Life foundation set up by the amazing Palestinian Dr. Izzaldin Abuelaish to honour his murdered daughters and promote peace through education and health for girls. His story, as told in the book ‘I Shall Not Hate’, is the most moving I have read for many years.
This International Women’s Day, I am grateful for my situation and opportunities as an older women, and for the potential through global movements such as those above, to support women in other parts of the world. The photo is of a collage I made from a number of International Women’s Day posters that I call ‘Passion’.