Over the years, men and women alike have continued to give the gift of flowers on International Women’s Day (IWD) to show their appreciation.
Although I have never understood this way of marking this significant day, I was flattered to receive some mimosas a few years ago. In Italy, it’s customary to give mimosas to the women in your life. But this celebration is not about flowers.
It is believed that in 1946, Theresa Mattei, a politician, and national director of the Italian Women’s Union, introduced the flower as a symbol of strength, sensibility, and sensitivity. But I believe that the symbol of pink hats (Women’s March and MeToo/Time’s Up movements) would be a stronger representation.
IWD started over 100 years ago. On February 28,1909, in New York City, the Socialist Party of America, first celebrated National Women’s Day. In 1910, The Second International Socialist Women's Conference was held in Copenhagen. Here, Clara Zetkin suggested the idea of WD. There were 100 women (including Rosa Luxemburg) from 17 countries and they supported this suggestion unanimously. Across Europe, the first celebration of IWD was on March 19, 1911. The demonstration called for women's suffrage along with basic gender equity in society and the workplace.
After World War II ended, many ‘fake news’ around the origin of WD came out e.g. a day to remember the horrible death in a fire of more than 100 women who worked in a fabric factory in NY. This tragic event did happen in 1911, but has nothing to do with WD. People started to forget it's true historical meaning. And so the movement grew, until The United Nations designated IWD in 1977.
The date wasn't formalised until a war-time strike in 1917, when as many 150,000 women had taken to the streets and demanded "bread and peace". After four days of the strike, the tsar was forced to grant women the right to vote. And so the 8th of March marked the day of the Russian Revolution (23 February in the old Russian calendar), and so an important date in the calendar.
Each year organisers choose a new theme, to focus the direction of everyone’s efforts, and help raise awareness. The first theme adopted by the UN in 1996 was "Celebrating the past, Planning for the Future". This year is #ChooseToChallenge; the IWD website says “We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women’s achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world”.
Where are we now? Vote and gender pay gap
The UK has made progress on women’s suffrage; last year marked more than 100 years gaining the right to vote. However, in Saudi Arabia women were only permitted to vote in 2015 and women still have no right to vote in Vatican City.
Gender pay gap is a major issue in most countries, excluding Iceland (where it’s now illegal to pay women less than men). The UK gender pay gap fell to 7.4% among full-time employees and 15.5% among all employees in 2020. Approximately 8.8 million employees were furloughed under the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS); a slightly higher proportion of men were furloughed with reduced pay in April 2020. Finally, the gender pay gap has fallen to almost zero among full-time employees aged under 40 years!
In 2019, most ethnic minority groups earned less on average than white British people. The pay gap narrowed to 2.3% that year but we still need to do better.
In 2020, female CEOs running Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time record of 37. However, this is only 7.4% of the total and only three of the CEOs are women of color.
What about pleasure and sex discrimination?
In 2006, WHO defined pleasure as a right and a part of sexual health. But how far have we moved from the view that pleasure is the husband’s right and the wife’s duty to provide? The orgasm gap is all too real; only 65% of heterosexual women reach orgasm during sexual intercourse. Most of us think that vaginal penetration should bring the most pleasure in sex, but data proves that more than 80% of women need external stimulation to climax.
One of the most searched questions on Google in 2017 was ‘why can’t I reach orgasm?’. We rely on Google because female pleasure is still a taboo topic; it’s not included in SexEd programs, not taught at home or discussed between friends.
We only discovered the real anatomy of the clitoris 20 years ago, after landing on the Moon and discovering the Internet. The clit is the only organ dedicated solely to pleasure yet very few school books include it.
How has our scientific community treated female dyspareunia compared to erectile dysfunction? Dyspareunia is severe physical pain some women experience during sex, whereas erectile dysfunction while lamentable is not painful. PubMed has only 393 clinical trials studying dyspareunia, while there are 1,954 studying Erectile dysfunction.
Until the 80’s, women were excluded from medical trials and many drugs dedicated to women are still mostly tested on men.
A survey we conducted among our community showed that 74% of women who consulted a doctor for pelvic pain were given painkillers as a solution; with only 40% of their doctors further investigating the problem. So it’s not surprising that Endometriosis takes 5 to 7 years to be diagnosed!
Psychological and physical violence
Motherhood is socially seen as a woman’s life purpose; it’s what makes her feel useful, fulfilled and complete. But this is not the reality; motherhood is a choice, not a duty. Becoming a mother is one of the most significant physical and psychological changes a woman will ever go through and sometimes we are not ready for it, or can have complications (women of colour are twice as likely to have problems during childbirth). The choice of abortion should be a woman’s right but in Poland (and in many other countries) this is not the case.
Falling in love can also put women in danger; in fact, the majority of homicides of women aged 16 or over is by their partner or ex partner. Over a third of the victims had previously attempted to leave their partner, but leaving an abusive relationship is not always easy. In 2019, domestic-killing reached a five-year high. And last spring, during lockdown, the total number of offences flagged as domestic abuse-related, had increased compared to the previous year. The latest study on femicide reports that, on average, a woman is killed by a man every 3 days. There is no ethnicity, age or social class more at risk.
Women are still so enculturated to be uncomfortable most of the time, and to ignore their discomfort in most scenarios in life. We need to keep celebrating IWD to promote change and appreciate all the women who have fought for us. Without them we would not have the right to vote, work, divorce, contraceptives and abortion (which is proving to still be a fight for some counties).
Women’s Day exists to remind us of how far we have come, and how far we still need to go. This includes equality for female pleasure and sexual health!
Here are some related links:
- on what WHO says about sexual health
- on data about femicide