International Women’s Day has been recognised by the United Nations since 1975, but it has its roots much further back in the early twentieth century (the first National Women’s Day was celebrated in the USA on February 28th, 1909). It has a background in labour movements – workers’ rights, democratic socialism – and today continues that campaigning message by asking people to consider the contributions to society, culture and history made by women, and therefore also consider their value and how to increase women’s opportunities for further contribution.
Indeed, it isn’t only women of the past who require that kind of advocacy: though many of our modules here at Gloucestershire attempt to focus in whole or in part on the particularly female experience of history, there are plenty of issues today, too – from equal representation to female genital mutilation – which require us to consider why women are still treated differently to men by society at large. (In the Independent yesterday, Katie Grant went so far as to say, “To those who can’t see the point of International Women’s Day: you are the very reason it exists”).
March, too, is Women’s History Month, giving historians a particular opportunity to emphasise the often over-looked role of women in the past (BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour began a series of historical segments to this effect on Monday). I’m excited to be taking part in two conferences this summer which focus on various aspects of the female experience in the early modern period and beyond, and in my Gender and Power course here at Gloucestershire help undergraduates understand the ways in which gender and femininity can be imagined in such a way to limit women’s choices (not only an early modern problem!) … but also how women throughout history have learned to negotiate these visions of femininity in order to express themselves and win agency.
That’s why today – and Women’s History Month as a whole – is so important. It allows us all, women and men alike, to consider how gender is constructed … and how, therefore, we can just as easily reshape it in order to create better and more equal circumstances for women everywhere.
So think about your favourite woman from history today. And then go and discover a new one.