In 1910, Clara Zetkin, the leader of the Women’s Office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. The proposal received unanimous assent from over one hundred women representing seventeen countries.
The very first International Women’s day was held the following year on March 19th. Meetings and protests were held across Europe with the largest street demonstration attracting 30,000 women. The day sparked great public debate, and advocates drew attention to the absolute necessity of extending the right to vote to women to make parliament more democratic. In 1913, IWD was transferred to March 8th and has been held on this day ever since.
In 1975, during the UN International Year for Women, the United Nations held its first official celebrations International Women’s Day. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace to be observed by Member States. In adopting this resolution, the General Assembly recognised the role of women in peace efforts and development and urged an end to discrimination and an increase of support for women’s full and equal participation.
Since those early years, International Women’s Day has assumed a new global dimension for women in developed and developing countries alike. The growing international women’s movement, which has been strengthened by four global United Nation’s women’s conferences, has helped make the commemoration a rallying point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas. Increasingly, International Women’s Day is a time to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities.
UN General Assembly adopted a resolution inviting Member States to proclaim a United Nations Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace – International Women’s Day – to be observed on any day of the year in accordance with their historical and national traditions. Since then, the United Nations Organisation has observed March 8th as International Women’s Day. The purpose of this day is to recognise the fact that securing peace and social progress and the full enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms require the active participation, equality and development of women; and to acknowledge the contribution of women to strengthening international peace and security.
The 60’s, 70’s and 80’s in WA saw the rise of a movement known as women’s liberation.
In hindsight, it could be termed,“The Age of Difficult Women”. Radical feminists and lesbians united around tabletops and desks together with conservative women, many of whom would not call themselves feminists. Radical or conservative, women across the political spectrum united to address the pressing concerns for women. Even in the 70s, 80s and 90s women still needed more than bread and roses.
Issues such as rape, incest, domestic violence and pay equity became lightning rods for debate.
At all levels and across all streams of life men dominated. They were the politicians, the lawmakers, the judges, the police officers, the doctors, the school principals and the priests. It was male interests that dominated public, employment and spiritual life and ruled on many private matters.
Male decision makers had not heard the concerns of women raised over many years and via traditional and largely private channels. In the 70s, 80s and 90s women took a different tack….they became like their suffragette foremothers, “difficult women”. They took to the streets and refused to take no for an answer. This more radical (and public) approach raised the flag in terms of these “unpalatable issues” and paved the way for conservative feminists, seen as more reasonable women, to table the shared view and their equal resolve. And so began the reform.
It seems extraordinary now that the law makers, police and wider community turned a “blind eye” to domestic violence on the basis that what happened in a person’s home was their own business. Whatever happened to a woman, be it being bashed by a partner or raped by stranger, it was often deemed to be her own fault. Men and their interests were constantly protected.
This was also evident in the employment arena. Men were paid more than women purely on the basis of their sex. They received better working conditions and opportunities purely on the basis of their sex. For example, up until the early 70s women had to resign from the public service when they married. In addition, institutions such as the female dominated Department of Education had a Breadwinner Policy favouring the promotion of married males. This policy restricted the promotional and income opportunities of those single women who remained in the Education Department’s workforce.
Women in the unions and community, corporate and government sectors challenged and defeated many of these policies, assumptions and inequities. The successes have been significant. Thanks to tremendous lobbying, research and community awareness raising law enforcers and the judiciary now view domestic and family violence as a crime and have developed laws and procedures to protect women and children. Public campaigns have been funded encouraging violent men to seek help. Generally, community attitudes are now more sympathetic towards women and children victims of domestic and street violence.
Initiatives such as the “Reclaim the Night” marches and the “Give a Girl a Spanner” women into non traditional occupations equity campaign in the 90’s again saw radical and conservative women unite under a single umbrella.
Together with the Equal Opportunity Commission, government departments responsible for employment and training began to focus on addressing discrimination against women in employment. They employed women’s officers and set up programs like Tradeswomen on the Move and Women for Technical Jobs specifically to focus on this. Through policy work such as the Women’s Employment and Training Strategy, they worked to make sure that the gains made through community action were embedded in the system. The gains made have been enduring – now women as well as men from all walks of life believe equal employment opportunity to be a right. Women have entered all sorts of occupations which they previously didn’t consider, although this work needs to continue.
A common thread throughout the era was women’s concern with power structures. Many women were committed to power sharing and operated in collectives. The voices of the silenced groups such as Aboriginal women or women from non English speaking backgrounds NESB) were sought out and their views promoted. Initiatives to address these various needs developed.
A NOW type program was developed for young women with disabilities and also a NOW program for deaf women – which only ran the once sadly. The latter had a huge impact – particularly with the ‘tandem teaching’ with women who were deaf facilitiating the sessions. With Aboriginal women at the forefront, a lot of Aboriginal NOW work was also done.
Many groups formed around a particular event such as annual Reclaim the Night and International Women’s Day Marches. The groups were not incorporated bodies and generally worked as consensus decision making collectives.
Some groups have flourished and remain today. Others have disbanded when the task was complete and/or was taken up by more specific interest groups and/or government withdrew support. For example the Women’s Electoral Lobby addressed all issues relating to women. It had a very broad mandate. In the 90s many specific interest groups sprang up and took over particular interest areas and government rationalised the number of peak women’s organisations that it would “speak/listen” to. WEL was not one of them.
As can be seen by the examples above, in the 80s and 90s there was unprecedented progress with women being employed to run programs, women’s units and special campaigns in government and in unions.
As we speak the Australian Services Union is running an equal pay case before the Fair Work Act on behalf of workers in the female dominated social and community services sector. This groundbreaking case is arguing that workers in these industries are significantly underpaid as their work has traditionally been seen as ‘women’s work’ and is subsequently grossly undervalued.
A recent win for unions and the women’s movement was the establishment of a national paid parental leave scheme which came into effect in January this year after more than 30 years of campaigning by women and their unions. With women in WA earning 24% less than their male counterparts (compared to 18% less nationally) women will need to maintain their collective voice and power in order to further close the gap.
Footnote: This herstory provides a snapshot it will be expanded as further resources come to hand. As part of the centenary of International Women’s Day, additional effort will be made to record the fascinating herstory of this period.
Not just to ensure recognition for those from the past but as a reminder of how much has been achieved for those to come.