Skip to Content

International Women's Day: Is it really a day for all women?

SALT LAKE CITY — Around the world, celebrations of International Women's Day every March 8 range from a national day off with flowers, gifts and gatherings for women in Russia to a technology fest for youths in Amsterdam. Other countries give women a half-day off or employers offer small gifts.

In America Friday, multiple cities are holding conferences highlighting the role of women in national and world history. Some events are about networking and skill-building, while others teach teen and young adult women to code.

In Salt Lake, a panel discussion hosted by Utahpolicy.com and the Women's Business Center of Utah will feature globally successful female entrepreneurs. In Atlanta, Georgia, celebrants can attend a tea party, while Washington, D.C., activities include a pop-up art festival featuring works by women. When deejays spin records for some dance parties in New York City and Los Angeles, the songs will exclusively feature female vocals. Los Angeles is among cities with a march and rally planned.

Despite some focus on fun, International Women's Day also has a serious message. Gender equity is at the heart of the United Nations-designated day, which this year has chosen the theme #Balanceforbetter. The U.N. is calling on nations to look at the ways in which women are treated inequitably.

There's a political cast to some celebrations, too, including in America, where the day has activist roots stretching back to Socialist Party protests in the early 1900s. The first gathering formally called International Women's Day took place in 1911, with more than a million people participating from Austria, Denmark, Germany and Sweden, among others. The United Nations declared the day a worldwide event in 1975.

The day has been gaining momentum in America, with more cities planning events each year. The White House marks the day each year, with both former President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump tweeting their commitment to enhancing opportunities for women. But at a moment in American history that includes deep ideological divisions, some wonder if people of different backgrounds and ideas, or on opposite sides of a political gulf — say, Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and conservative television and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, for example — could both embrace the International Women's Day or whether it's simply too political.

Clockwise, from top left: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Laura Ingraham, Joanna Gaines and Malala Yousafzai.

Clockwise from top left: Alex Brandon, J. Scott Applewhite, Brian Ach, Charles Krupa, Associated Press

Clockwise, from top left: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Laura Ingraham, Joanna Gaines and Malala Yousafzai.

Politics should not drown out the meaning of the day, say historians and other experts who tout International Women's Day as a chance for people who have different worldviews to talk to each other — and to listen.

"International Women's Day is the kind of holiday that everyone can project their own meaning onto," said Jessica Preece, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

"There are no real traditions or commonly agreed-upon ways to celebrate it in the United States, so people can celebrate it however they want to," she said. "Liberals and conservatives often have somewhat different views of what it means to celebrate womanhood and what kind of womanhood should be celebrated, so the blank-slate aspect of the holiday makes it fairly palatable for a wide range of people to get behind."

Want to celebrate motherhood? "There's nothing stopping that," Preece said.

Want to focus on women's professional accomplishments instead? "There's nothing stopping that," she said.

"Of course, as liberals and conservatives see the ways in which the other camp celebrates it, it may give them fuel for their respective fires in the culture wars and further entrench stereotypes," Preece said. "But I do think it has the potential to play a fairly narrow but important role in bringing a wide variety of people together to celebrate the wide variety of roles that women play in society."

Assigning meaning

The International Women's Day website describes "a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call for action for accelerated gender parity."

In a press release about International Women's Day 2019, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres focuses on putting "innovation by women and girls" at the forefront. He notes that in 2018 the UN's senior management group achieved gender parity for the first time.

Each country is different in some ways, "but what we've reached is an agreement that women ought not to be kept down in the way that they historically were," said Stephanie Coontz, author of "A Strange Stirring: 'The Feminine Mystique' and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s" and director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The days are gone, she noted, when women and girls couldn't own property because they were property — of their fathers and husbands. "We have pretty much international agreement now that's wrong, even if there are outliers.

"I think that International Women's Day is an important thing because it does point out that even in the countries that have come closest to gender equality, lots more needs to be done," added Coontz, a historian specializing in women and family. "And it still reminds the world that in many different ways women remain second-class citizens."

“International Women's Day is the kind of holiday that everyone can project their own meaning onto.”

Jessica Preece, associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University.

"I am tempted to give the answer that my mother gave me when I would ask why there was a Mother's Day and a Father's Day, but not a Children's Day," said political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose credentials include foreign policy analyst, author and Princeton professor, besides leading the New America think tank in New York City and Washington, D.C.

"She would say, 'Every day is Children's Day!' I would like to be able to say that 'every day is Women's Day,' in the sense that every day is a day that we recognize and value the enormous contribution women are making to the world and focus on the many places where they are not yet equally at the table. But that is manifestly not the case, so something like International Women's Day at least focuses public attention for a week or so every year on how much the world is missing by not fully deploying half of its talent," Slaughter told the Deseret News.

Challenges in America are not all unique to America, said Audrey J. Murrell, associate dean and director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh College of Business Administration. She calls an international celebration of women "vital."

"Issues of gender equity, violence against women, the need for education and health care are not just U.S. issues, they are global issues. So the fact that this is celebrated not just in the U.S., but globally, is critical."

A holiday that provides resources for people to think about issues, become educated and get involved is a good thing, said Murrell.

At least equally important, though, "it opens up a dialog about these issues: about gender rights, about gender equity. I like the theme for this year, '#BalanceforBetter,' because it puts a marker on a key point: That our society, our country and our world will not be better if we don't have balance." Murrell said that while women feel the impact of being treated unequally, gender inequity also hurts the economy and families.

Polarity and common ground

So could Ingraham and Pelosi celebrate together?

"As far as I am concerned, they could," said Coontz.

"We might disagree — we definitely disagree about how to protect women and further their equality with men. We may disagree over what that equality means, but we all have an interest in getting rid of sexual harassment, rape, sex trafficking.

"I think almost everybody in America today agrees, including strong conservatives, that women if they choose to work — (Ingraham) might argue that we shouldn't propagandize them into working — but if they choose to work or need to work, they ought to be paid the same and ought to have the same opportunities," said Coontz. "I do think there are lots of ways we can come together without overlooking the fact that there are racial, class and ideological differences over where we hope women will end up in that struggle for equality."

Murrell doesn't believe disagreeing over politics or other aspects of life should keep people from talking, either.

"My expectation is dialog and awareness, not agreement, because there are things in which we're going to continue to have a difference of opinion because of background and experience and culture and our needs and interests," she said, adding that moving forward requires talking to each other.

Americans "have the liberty to have our own views and perspective, but what divides us is silence," she says.

In a land where there are plenty of disagreements, Coontz has some advice for those on opposite sides of an issue: "Occasionally take days off to recognize there are common unfairnesses we all face."