• Michaela Selway

International Women’s Day: A Day for Celebration?

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

Every year on the eighth of March, women from all around the globe declare what it means to them to be a woman and the countless ways that this should be celebrated. The idea of ‘woman’ is neither singular, nor timeless, nor universal. Rather, it lies at an intersection with multiple and simultaneous identities, such as gender, socioeconomic class, race, sexuality, and religion. Social media, in particular, has acted as a vessel for women to share what they have learnt in the hopes of encouraging and uplifting others. For many, this is a positive day to reflect on the achievements of notable women in the past and to reflect on the many ways society has suppressed or criticised women in the past. In recent years, this has included commentaries on the use of make-up in defining a woman’s worth and the entry of women into jobs that were, in the past, reserved for men. For many, International Women’s Day (IWD) is a day to reflect on the past to see how far we have progressed in gaining equal rights for all. However, the eighth of March 2019 caused many to question whether we have, in fact, accomplished this at all.

Despite the many intersections that characterise the term “woman”, the original founders of International Women’s Day only had one specific intersection in mind: the white socialist working woman. Industrialisation in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe heralded a period of profound and unprecedented change to the distribution of gender roles in society. The movement of production from the home to the factory largely obliterated the skilled artisan class of the preceding period: in its place arose the bourgeoisie, the property-owning middle class, and the proletariat, those who worked for them. In order to make production more efficient, factory labour was divided into unskilled, mundane tasks and wages remained low. Hence, driven by economic desperation, many proletarian women and their children resorted to factory work in order to support their families. Not only were female workers paid 30-50% less than their male counterparts, but their specific experiences, such as pregnancy, maternity leave, and sexual abuse, were neglected in labour legislation [1]. Furthermore, after working for up to eleven hours a day, women were expected to come home and fulfil their duties as wives and mothers [2]. In effect, working women suffered from exploitation in two key ways; firstly, as women who were subordinate to men and lacked the right to vote; and secondly, as workers who endured bestial conditions under the yoke of capitalism [3].

The international socialist women’s movement was founded in 1907 by Clara Zetkin, the leader of the women’s auxiliary of the German Socialist Party (SPD). The movement, driven by the German women, sought to launch an international campaign for universal women’s suffrage as a mechanism for socialist revolution. Women’s suffrage, then, was valuable in two respects: firstly, it emancipated women from their dependence on men; and secondly, it also gave them the necessary tools to lobby for political reforms that removed barriers to women’s civic and economic development. At the suggestion of SPD member Luise Zietz, a special Women’s Day was declared at the International Socialist Women’s second congress in Copenhagen in 1910. The primary goal of Women’s Day was simple: to spread propaganda in favour of universal women’s suffrage.

In future years, Women’s Day (or International Women’s Day as it later became known) served as a focal point for issues affecting women. However, at its conception, the International Socialist Women’s ideas about womanhood were based on a historically specific experience of sexual and economic oppression. The women in question constructed their doctrines within a variety of medical, scientific, and racial discourse at the peak of imperial power in Europe. As such, the experiences of women in countries under colonial rule were not included in the notion of ‘universal oppression’ that preoccupied the European socialists. In order to analyse the significance and success of Women’s Day, therefore, it is necessary to consider how the definitions of ‘woman’ have been shaped and reconstituted over time.

Photo reposted by @diet_prada of @russellcbs’s fitness models using Maasai women as obstacles.

While in many ways the definition of “woman” has expanded over time, allowing those who do not conform to the traditional definition of the white socialist working woman to be included in the search for, and attainment of, equality and peace, exclusion is still prevalent. Diet Prada, an Instagram account of 1.2 million followers, shed light on how fellow Instagrammer Russell Bateman chose to celebrate the day. Bateman, on his formerly private account, captioned his controversial post: ‘Celebrating strong women today and everyday. Some of our clients representing International Women’s Day’ [4]. The post shows ‘a gang of seemingly cloned, pony-tailed white women on a retreat in Kenya,’ completing a series of exercises that show Maasai people acting as obstacles or jumping in the background to the rhythm of the routine [5]. Diet Prada argued that this ‘retreat’, which included a ‘chef-prepared organic’ lunch after the exercise routine and did not include the Maasai people, reinforces a ‘colonial mindset’ and highlights the inequality that is still prevalent in society [6]. Jacqui Quinn-Leandro argues that these contradictions can be attributed to the ideals lack of transferability to the rest of the year [7]. She argues that ‘one gets a sense of euphoria for a day; and a sense of falling back into the 'same-old-same-old' after March 8th’ [8]. She implies that the reason progression towards equality has not been as far-reaching as it could have is because many are only reminded of the inequality on specific days throughout the year. Though many discriminatory acts and events displaying inequality occur throughout the year, they are only highlighted on international days of celebration when the ideal of perfection is at the forefront of the minds of the masses [9].

This can be attributed to the many steps of progress that have been made that shroud those we have not yet made. Quinn-Leandro states that there are ‘more women in the boardrooms across the globe, greater equality in legislative rights, more visibility of women's issues; more impressive women role models in all walks of life,’ and many notable achievements that can be clearly recognised, such as the Women’s Right to Vote in 1893 in New Zealand, and Marie Curie winning two Nobel Prizes [10]. These are notable accomplishments to celebrate and they paved the way for more women to enter non-traditional workforce positions and attain achievements that were previously impossible. However, just as these accomplishments cannot be diminished, they should also not serve as a camouflage for other acts of inequality.

Some may not see the relevance of celebrating these contradictory days as it ignores the majority of women across the globe from third world countries who do not know about IWD. However, it can be argued that this day serves as a vessel for demonstrating how far we have to go and encourages women to continue to fight for equality and peace for all [11]. While, on the one hand, many may only see displays of inequality such as the exploitation of the Maasai on these celebratory days, it begs to question whether people would pay attention without it. If anything, they cause people to consider the ideals of a perfect and equal world and view how current events do not line up with these ideals. In an interview after his post, Bateman argued that he had no intention of causing offence and that he was ‘deeply saddened.’ He stated that he was ‘devasted for anything related to this retreat to be considered disrespectful of the environment and culture in which we travelled’ [12]. While he may be saddened and regretful, it is moments like these that make us question what beliefs we take for granted that do not adhere to the principles we claim to support and uphold.

--- Michaela Selway is the co-founder of Tāhuhu Kōrero and a Master of Arts student in History at the University of Auckland, studying how biblical ideas on Origin Myths, Morality, Prophecies and Gender Roles were projected into Chronicles throughout the Middle Ages in Europe. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.

Emma Wordsworth is a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) Students in History at the University of Auckland, studying how the European International Socialist Women's movement constructed and deployed discourses of internationalism through the lens of their first international congress in Stuttgart in 1907. All posts by contributing authors reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not necessarily represent the perspectives of the University of Auckland History Society.


[1] Jean H. Quataert, Reluctant Feminists in German Social Democracy, 1885-1917, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1979, p. 34.

[2] ibid., pp. 36-7.

[3] August Bebel, Woman Under Socialism, translated by Daniel DeLeon, New York Labour Press, New York, 1904, p. 4.

[4] Dianne Reeves, Kenyan fitness retreat blasted for a ‘colonial mindset’, accessed 10 March 2019: https://hienalouca.com/2019/03/09/kenyan-fitness-retreat-blasted-for-a-colonial-mindset/

[5] @diet_prada, Happy International Women’s Day?, accessed 10 March 2019: https://www.instagram.com/p/BuxCwfzl1z7/

[6] ibid.

[7] Jacqui Quinn-Leandro, ‘International Women’s Day’, Journal of Pan African Studies, 5, 5, 2012, p.97.

[8] ibid.

[9] Magano Neri, ‘100 Years of International Women’s Day’, Windhoek, 23, 1, 2011, p.4.

[10] Quinn-Leandro, p.97.

[11] Neri, p.4.

[12] Emer Scully, Skinny B***h Collective founder offers 'truly humble' apology for 'colonial' PR gaffe after using Maasai tribesmen as 'props' in video of exclusive Kenyan fitness retreat, Daily Mail, 09 March 2019, accessed 10 March 2019: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6789285/Kenyan-fitness-retreat-blasted-colonial-mindset.html

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