“Thank you for the flowers, but I demand respect” (Kommersant, 2019): Why we still need International Women’s Day

By: Dr Louise Livesey, Senior Lecturer in Criminology

There are a few ‘international days’ which I hold dear. But I am passionate about International Women’s Day (8th March)[1] alongside its end-of-year cousin, the UN Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls (25th November) and its associated 16 Days of Action. It’s not just because I am a woman. IWD is much more meaningful than that (as I hope to convince you of) which connects me (and you) to a history and a globality of activism to change the world.

Originally, IWD was Women Workers Day, designed to acknowledge all the work that women do, paid and unpaid, acknowledged and unacknowledged.  As Charlotte Perkins Gilman, now known more for her disquieting novella The Yellow Wallpaper, said in her address to the 1908 New York Women Workers Day protest, that women are largely confined to the home and domestic duties; “[but] home should mean the whole country, and not be confined to three or four rooms or a city or a state”. It is important for me, that the threads of IWD lie in global working-class women’s activism, that grounds me in a tradition in which I was raised – pro-worker rights, pro-women’s rights and pro-demolishing hierarchies. Those threads lie in that 1908 New York women workers’ protest for shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Those threads are in the contemporaneous suffrage campaigns across the globe and Trade Union campaigns for reasonable working hours, living wages and better safety conditions (things that we have to remember still do not exist for most workers across the globe). Those threads lie in the 1910 Copenhagen Socialist Women’s Conference which proposed an annual Women’s Day (but didn’t set a date). The Conference Resolution read:

In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day, which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception.

Those threads lie in women’s actions to enact that Conference resolution – in 1911 over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland demonstrated for women’s right to vote, to hold public office, to get good quality education at the same levels as men and to have equal rights under the law. These actions were galvanised by the New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire just a few days later where more than 140, mostly immigrant, women workers died. Those threads are in the women’s ‘Bread and Peace’ demonstration in Imperial Russia (March 8th 1917) against the killing of thousands of men on all sides in World War I, against tzarism and imperialism everywhere and against food shortages. That protest, days later, caused the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II and the start of the 1917 Russian Revolutions. So the early years of IWD acted as a catalyst for change on a vast, political scale.

In the 1970s, IWD was taken up by a wide variety of second-wave feminists and feminist groups. Socialist Feminists[2] saw IWD actions as a continuation of a history of working-class women’s action.  Radical Feminists saw it as an important way to highlight women and their struggles– domestic and global (indeed some suggested changing the name to International Women’s Day of Struggle).  Black and Lesbian Feminists saw it as a way to develop their communities and to arrange more formal celebrations of their groups. Liberal Feminists liked the idea that it could focus on equality, especially when in 1975 it was adopted by the United Nations and became part of what Hester Eisenstein (2017) and Kristin Bumiller (2008) would later as ‘co-optation’.

In countries as far apart as Poland (Global Equality Rank 28th out of 189 countries), China (39th/107th), Bulgaria (48th/38th), Russia (50th/81st), Romania (61st/88th) and Argentina (75th/35th) is marked by the giving of cards and gifts like chocolates, flowers and perfumes by men to women in their lives. In these countries the prices of such gifts go up, mirroring what happens for Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. The Liberal Feminist and neoliberal co-option of IWD (Eisenstein, 2009 & 2017; Mohanty, 2003; Eschle & Maiguashca 2017) is a more recent and Western-centric occurrence in which efforts to monetise International Women’s Day have gained greater traction over the past two decades.  ‘Gender-washing’, as it has become known, is common, with companies trying to jump on the bandwagon by issuing pledges and tweets about IWD without analysing their own gender inclusivity issues nor the gendered impacts of their actions. On 8th March, the Google Doodle is often IWD themed, McDonald’s flipped it’s “M” into a “W” and almost every brand imaginable produces a pink version of their products.  In these actions IWD risks becoming corporatized as another Mother’s Day, for which the pink products neatly double up in marketing appeals.  “Today, everything can apparently be reshaped and repackaged into an IWD product” (Petter, 2021) without the need for consideration of the gender orders being reinforced (pink now being commonly seen in Western countries as symbolising daintiness, gentleness and hegemonic femininity) nor the exploitative neoliberal practices involved in their production (Gunnarsson Payne & Tornhill 2021).  And whilst some companies donate a percentage of profits to women’s charities, these are often such tiny amounts that it demonstrates no real commitment to women’s emancipation except where they are responsible for spending money, or causing it to be spent.  Even IWD itself has been corporatized with a company setting itself up as the masthead of IWD without any reference to UN Women work or theme.

Whilst the gift-giving might sound nice, particularly in a country like the UK with no particularly strong IWD traditions, and whilst the price increases are what we might expect in capitalist systems, we should note that many of the countries who have traditions of gift giving are also countries with poor gender equality histories: Poland recently made abortion illegal under a coalition government of right-wing parties; post-Soviet Russia has reduced women’s rights, celebrated women who prioritise motherhood over work and publicly quashed women’s cultural and political campaigns including using prison as a repressive tool. The countries mentioned have gender pay gaps of between 13% (Bulgaria) and 30% (Russia) and women still shoulder the greater burden of unpaid (domestic and caring) work ranging from 65% in (Bulgaria) to 74% (Italy) (International Labour Organisation, 2018). Most of these countries also have gender orders (Connell, 2021) which condone domestic abuse and sexual violence: Russia decriminalized domestic violence which doesn’t cause ‘serious’ injury (broken bones or concussion) in 2017, in the same year Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court ruled that a comprehensive treaty to address violence against women unconstitutional and of these countries only Poland, Italy and Romania have ratified the UN convention on ending discrimination against women.  So, the one day a year of gift buying marks less an embedding of gender emancipatory practices and more a gesture of reinforcement of dominant patriarchal hegemony focusing on celebrating women’s domesticity through the gifts marketed at celebrating household domesticity, beauty and reproductive capacity.

In Western countries like the US, UK and Australia, IWD has more recently become a time to hold events and conferences celebrating women and encouraging women’s leadership.  But again these have become increasing corporatized – large companies holding a “women’s breakfast” for the relatively few senior women and tweeting about it does nothing to address the sexual harassment, the gender pay gap nor the vertical and horizontal segregation of employers in Western offices of such companies nor the exploitation of women workers globally or the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples from their lands and the poisoning of the environment (all of which disproportionately hurt women and children).  Stratigaki has described this as co-optation during which “the concept [women’s emancipation/ feminism/ equality etc.] itself is not rejected, but its initial meaning is transformed and used in the policy discourse for a different purpose than the original one” (2004: 36).

Image from Pixabay

There are pockets of women’s activism which remain rooted in earlier Socialist Feminist traditions, such as financial accessibility, internationalism and solidarity, such as the Oxford International Women’s Festival and the York International Women’s Week. Some areas also use IWD as a chance to launch important campaigns like Cheltenham’s anti-period poverty campaign Unstoppable (https://www.cheltenham.gov.uk/unstoppable). But more mainstream events, such as London Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival costs over £80 for tickets before any consideration of transport, food (the Southbank’s restaurants not being particularly cheap) or accommodation for non-Londoners. Giving the solid impression that learning about global emancipation still remains the preserve of the relatively wealthy.

And in recent years, IWD has become reinvigorated as the site of political activism by women and for women, such as the Spanish mass strike, Chilean marches for sexual and reproductive rights, Argentinian protests against violence, the pay-gap and unequal representation, mobilisations in Poland around the anti-abortion laws and in Turkey against gender inequality, femicide, domestic violence and sexual abuse. In 2016, one such demonstration in Turkey was broken up using rubber bullets, and in 2019 and 2020 using tear gas. In China, women were arrested in 2015 for planning a protest against sexual harassment to be held on IWD. In Iran in 2007, the Police beat hundreds of women and men planning an IWD International Women’s Day rally, many women were arrested and held in solitary confinement and experiencing Iran’s notoriously brutal interrogation techniques.

Now, IWD is an official holiday in countries such as Burkina Faso (UN Global Gender Inequality Index rank 182nd out of 189 countries, World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 124 of 156 countries)[3], Eritrea (180th), Guinea-Bissau (175th/118th), Afghanistan (169th/156th), Madagascar (164th/32nd but it’s only a holiday for women), Uganda (159th/66th), Zambia (146th/56th), Cambodia (144th/103rd), .Nepal (142nd,/106th also a women only holiday), Laos (137th/36th), Tajikistan (125th/125th) , Kyrgyzstan (120th/108th), Vietnam (117th/87th), Turkmenistan (111th), Uzbekistan (106th), Mongolia (99th/69th), Moldova (90th/28th), Azerbaijan (88th/100th), Armenia (81st/114th), Ukraine (74th/74th), Cuba (70th/39th), Georgia (61st/49th), Belarus (53rd/33rd), Kazakhstan (51st/80th) and Montenegro (48th/48th). One glance down that list shows that countries who have poorer gender equality rankings are more likely to have IWD as a public holiday.  This is likely because those countries are using IWD as a way of ‘institutionally polishing’ (Ahmed 2017) their reputations whilst also maintaining the status quo. This is a form of ‘gender washing’ (Walters 2021) of reputations. Saudi Arabia, for example which has a significantly repressive gender regime, holds a three-day conference every year for IWD where Saudi royalty and (male) citizens come together to “celebrate the Saudi woman and her successful role”. This is gives us a clear indication of intent – it is only Saudi women who are celebrated (ignoring female migrant labour which forms an important crutch for many Saudi institutions).  Yet Saudi is a country which has legal restrictions on women’s dress, women’s interactions with men, that only raised the legal age for marriage from 13 to 18 in 2017, allowed women to drive in 2018 and in which polygamy is still legally permissible as long as the man can support all his wives and children and does not have more than four wives at any one time, but where men can also divorce their wives without the wife’s knowledge. Moreover, women hold only 1% of municipal council seats and 20% of the ‘reformist’ Prince’s advisor committee (nearest thing to a Government Cabinet).

So, where does this leave IWD? The UN has declared the theme for 2022’s IWD as “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” and asks people to recognize the contribution of women and girls globally leading the responses to climate change responses.  The monetised version (you can google them, I am not going to name it here) has decided the theme is #BreaktheBias. I think it doesn’t really matter what the theme or the hashtag is, what’s important is people getting involved in ways beyond the consumerist and the gimmicky – post on social media using appropriate hashtags (#IWD2022 is a good start), double so if you raise awareness of women and girls struggles globally, attend an event (there are two suggestions below), have conversations about gender inequality, read a book on gender issues (read a book by a woman, by a black, indigenous or non-western meeting – decolonise your reading and thinking), donate money to local, national or international charities that make a real difference.

And men, don’t forget that the nature of hegemonically patriarchal gender orders means that men who speak up on these things get more social kudos than women who do, so men, get involved, IWD is your chance to start doing things about challenging gender inequality and amplifying the voices of women. Women, focus on solidary, build up those women you admire, tell them, support each other, refuse the neoliberal competition paradigm which pits women against each other and instead, value collectivity.

Event Suggestions:


Ahmed, S. (2017) Living a Feminist Life North Carolina: Duke University Press

Bumiller, K. (2008) In an Abusive State: How Neoliberalism Appropriated the Feminist Movement against Sexual Violence North Carolina: Duke University Press

Eisenstein, H. (2009) Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World London: Taylor and Francis

(2017) Hegemonic feminism, neoliberalism and womenomics: ‘empowerment’ instead of liberation? In New FormationsDOI: 10.398/NEWF:91.02.2017

Eisenstein, Z. (2007) Against Empire: Feminisms, Race and the West London: Zed Books

Eschle, C. & Maiguashca, B. (2013) “Reclaiming Feminist Futures: Co-Opted and Progressive Politics in a Neo-Liberal Age” in Political StudiesV62 N3 DOI:10.1111/1467-9248.12046

Gunnarsson Payne, J. & Tornhill, S. (2021) “The enemy’s enemy: feminism at the crossroads of neoliberal co-optation and anti-gender conservatism” in Journal of Political Ideologies, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2021.1921937

International Labour Office (2018) Care work and care jobs for the future of decent work Geneva: / International Labour Office (available at wcms_633135.pdf (ilo.org) last checked 25th February 2022)

Kommersant (2019) in Reevell, P (2019) “In Russia, International Women’s Day means something totally different” in abcNews 8th March 2019

Mohanty, C.T. (2003) Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity North Carolina: Duke University Press

Petter, O (2021) “No more phoney press releases. Women deserve more than a capitalist takeover of International Women’s Day” in The Independent 8th March 2021

Stratigaki, M. (2004) “The Cooptation of Gender Concepts in EU Policies: The Case of ‘Reconciliation of Work and Family’” in Social Politics: International Studies in Gender, State and Society 11 (1): 30-56

United National Development Programme (2021) Gender Inequality Index available at https://hdr.undp.org/en/content/gender-inequality-index-gii (last accessed 25th February 2022)

Walters, R. (2021) “Varieties of gender wash: towards a framework for critiquing corporate social responsibility in feminist IPE” in Review of International Political Economy https://doi.org/10.1080/09692290.2021.1935295

World Economic Forum (2021) Global Gender Gap Insight Report 2021 (available at https://internationalwomensday.s3.us-west-2.amazonaws.com/images/2022/WEF-Global-Gender-Gap-Report-2021.pdf last accessed 25th February 2022)

[1] Before anyone asks, the answer is that 19th November is International Men’s Day and that gets less attention because men have largely not organised to celebrate it – perhaps because as we’ll see many of the ways in which IWD is celebrated seem nonsensical when applied to men.  IMD focuses on issues such as men’s mental health and suicide, Prostate Cancer and fatherhood.

[2] Think about NS5501 sessions here and, if you haven’t yet or don’t do NS5501, then feel free to email me about relevant readings.

[3] Both these rankings work by giving a score to women and men in terms of multiple measures and then comparing the difference between them. In the UN Index position 1 is most equal (currently Norway). For comparison, the UK sits at 13th and the US 17th. The Index covers several of the Sustainable Development Goals, including Maternal mortality rates, adolescent birth rates, seats in parliament, secondary education and participation in labour force. In the World Economic Forum, 1 is most equal (currently Iceland). For comparison, the UK sits at 23rd and the US at 30th). The WEF Ranking includes multiple measures of Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival and Political Empowerment.

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