Commentary | On International Women’s Day

Why doesn't Canada celebrate a national holiday dedicated to women?

March 8 marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day (IWD), an opportunity for millions of people to campaign for women’s rights and equality. Participants in events worldwide seek to honour women’s intelligence, strength, courage, solidarity and – perhaps most importantly – civil rights.

The sentiment of IWD has been honoured since 1908, but it wasn’t formally established until after a decision made at the 1910 International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen. The first international celebration occurred on March 19, 1911, and was observed in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. IWD is now an official holiday in countries as diverse as Belarus, Cambodia, Nepal, Turkmenistan, Uganda, and Zambia. It is not officially celebrated in Canada.

While variations of Women’s Day have been celebrated since the early 1900s, both the movement and its association with feminism have changed dramatically in the last century. Many now separate IWD from its original political motivations by treating it more like a fusion of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, bestowing women with flowers, candy, and affection. So, if IWD is no longer as politically charged, why can’t it be an official holiday?

Some argue that making IWD a national holiday in Canada or in the United States – where Women’s History Month is already celebrated in March – isn’t politically tenable, but I think it’s worth asking: Why not? Groups like the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) advocate for making IWD a national statutory holiday because it would “send a positive and meaningful message” from the Canadian government. “All women in Canada need to see the government take such an initiative to affirm the empowerment of women, highlight their abundant contributions to Canada, and inspire future woman leaders in the process,” argued Beverley Jacobs, who was president of the organization from 2004 to 2009.

So, what’s keeping this vision from becoming a reality? Are we still living in a world where we can’t officially argue for women’s equality because it’s taboo? Or is it because many believe we already live in a post-feminist, egalitarian society? The very fact that we need to ask these questions speaks to the necessity of a day dedicated to thinking about women’s role in society.

That being said, it would be remiss not to acknowledge that IWD has its own inherent problems. The holiday is meant to celebrate a diversity of women and their experiences, but because of the nature of the celebration, it is inevitably exclusive. Those who don’t fit within the gender binary are not included in these celebrations. As a result, the essential elements of third wave feminism are tossed out in the cold for the sake of a large, mainstream reception of the holiday. In the spirit of feminism, these celebrations should be free from marginalization on the basis of cultural, social, racial, economic, or political differences.

Many of the events are exclusively meant for the participation of women. Mothers, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers are welcome to participate in spirituality, yoga, and mental health workshops – like ones at Equilibrium Yoga on St. Laurent – but non-female participants are not welcome. This deters men from honouring women and marginalizes transgender and intersex individuals. Furthermore, events like these not only reinforce the gender binary, they put a dark cloud over a celebration about acceptance, recognition, and solidarity.

Any worldwide celebration is bound to have its hiccups, and IWD is certainly no exception. However, it is still a necessary and valuable celebration to observe. We don’t live in a post-feminist world, and although more and more women around the world are gaining access to education, civil rights, and equal pay, parity hasn’t been achieved in any respect of the word.

Possibly both the biggest strength and weakness of the unofficial organization of IWD is that it is, as a result, haphazard and unfocused. International Women’s Day as it exists today doesn’t get a lot of media attention or coverage, so it really is about whatever you make it. This year’s United Nations theme is “equal access to education, training and science and technology: pathway to decent work for women,” but don’t just follow the guidelines of the United Nations theme or of the official website. Choose your own theme, plan your own event, or take the time to participate in whatever way you feel is most productive and inclusive.

Olivia Messer is a U2 Humanistic Studies and Communications student, and The Daily’s Illustrations editor, but the opinions expressed here are her own. She can be reached at olivia.messer@mail.mcgill.ca.


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