Be bold for change – the importance of International women’s day

Guest blog by Marie Sullivan OAM

Editors note: Due to being out of the office yesterday and having some scheduling issues our special guest blog from Marie Sullivan in celebration of International Women’s Day was not distributed. So this is a belated ‘Happy International Women’s Day’ from the Rural Women’s Network. We hope you enjoy reading about the importance of this special day and why we should take the opportunity to celebrate this important day with other women. 

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8 March 2017 marks International Women’s Day (IWD). It’s a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Each year there is a new theme and this year’s is #BeBoldForChange. Worldwide, men and women are being called upon to help forge a better working world – a more gender inclusive world.

So if you believe that International Women’s Day is some new-fangled event organised by women hell bent on stirring the possum and whinging about their lot in life, think again.

The earliest observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York. In August 1910, an International Women’s Conference was organized in Copenhagen. The outcome was a proposal to establish an annual International Woman’s Day (singular). 100 women from 17 countries agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights including the right to vote for women.

In many countries, it took a long time for women to get suffrage, notwithstanding these early efforts. New Zealand was first cab off the rank in 1893 followed closely by Australia. Australian women- with the exception of Aboriginal women- won the vote in 1902, but it took years before they stood as candidates in government elections.

In the following year on March 19, 1911 IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. All over the western world, women pressed for the right to vote and to stand for parliament. The 1914 observance of the Day in Germany was dedicated to women’s right to vote, which German women did not win until 1918. On March 8, 1914 London witnessed a march from Bow Street to Trafalgar Square in support of women’s suffrage. Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square. Meryl Streep played Mrs Pankhurst in the 2015 film Suffragette.

The United States finally began allowing women to vote in 1920, after the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.

In 1921 a leading suffragette, Edith Cowan, was the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament when she won a seat in the Western Australian Legislative Assembly. In August 1943, 22 years after Cowan was elected, Australia finally elected women to Australia’s Federal Parliament when Dorothy Tangney became Senator for Western Australia and Enid Lyons (later appointed Dame Enid by the King in 1943 and Dame Enid of Australia in 1980) was elected to the House of Representatives. Wife of Prime Minister Joe Lyons (who predeceased her leaving her with twelve children), four years after his death, she won the Division of Darwin in north-western Tasmania becoming the first woman in the House of Representatives and remaining in office for 8 years.

Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962 secured by changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act, and not as a result of the 1967 Referendum which amended the Constitution to allow for Indigenous people to be included in the census, and to give Federal Parliament the power to make laws in relation to Indigenous people.

It took until 2016 for the first Aboriginal woman to be elected to the Australian House of Representatives, when Linda Burney won the federal seat of Barton in the 2016 federal election. She was also the first Aboriginal graduate from the Mitchell College of Advanced Education Bathurst (now Charles Sturt University) where she obtained a Diploma of Teaching.

Did you know that Switzerland did not give women a full right to vote until 1971: it took a referendum to achieve this! It took until 1991 following a decision by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland, for Appenzell Innerrhoden to become the last Swiss canton to grant women the vote on local issues. Women in South Africa only got the right to vote in 1994; in Saudi Arabia King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until December 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.

Today the event is sponsored by the United Nations and has been since 1977 when the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace. Some people celebrate the day by wearing purple ribbons.

On March 8, 2011 the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, IWD events took place in more than 100 countries. Australia issued an IWD 100th anniversary commemorative 20-cent coin. In the United States, President Barack Obama proclaimed March 2011 to be “Women’s History Month”, calling Americans to mark IWD by reflecting on “the extraordinary accomplishments of women” in shaping the country’s history. Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the “100 Women Initiative: Empowering Women and Girls through International Exchanges”. In spite of her recent defeat in the US Electoral College vote, Hilary Clinton continues to encourage optimism for the future for women and girls.

U.S. Army officer Lt Col Pam Moody

U.S. Army officer Lt Col Pam Moody with a group of Afghan women on International Women’s Day 2011

I joined my first International Women’s Day march on International Women’s Day 1975 in Sydney when I was an optimistic young student at the University of Sydney. While some progress has been made, not nearly enough has occurred. The national gender pay gap is currently 16.2% and has hovered between 15% and 19% for the past two decades. The World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won’t close entirely until 2186. It will take the hearts and minds of committed women and men worldwide to accelerate progress.

About nswrwn

NSW Rural Women’s Network is a government program working in innovative ways to promote leadership and action on rural women’s issues. The RWN team is dedicated to connecting and exchanging information with women and stakeholders in rural, regional and remote communities.
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