A Simplified History of International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day (IWD) began in Europe and America in the early 1800’s. At that time, in America and other countries, there were great changes as the economy was rapidly developing and becoming more industrialized. With industrialization, women moved out of their homes and began to work, mostly in factories where conditions were bad and the pay was low. As a result, women began to form groups to protest the terrible situation of their working places. They wanted better working conditions and the same salary as men.
On March 8, 1857, women workers in clothing factories in New York City protested for better working conditions, a ten-hour working day and to have equal rights.
Fifty-one years later, on March 8, 1908, women factory workers and members of the Socialist Party in New York City protested again. This was in remembrance of the 1857 march, the right of women to vote, and an end to sweatshops and child labor.
The next year in 1910, the Socialist International Party met in Denmark. A German socialist named Klara Zetkin asked for a special day for women to be decreed called International Women’s Day (IWD). This day was to honor women and their right to be equal with men. March 8 was chosen as the date.
Despite its creation in 1910, IWD did not become a world celebration until 1975, when the United Nations declared it an international holiday.
Celebrating IWD Abroad
In many countries throughout the world, IWD is considered a big affair. There are lectures given by women, gatherings to discuss women’s rights, music concerts and a variety of other women-centered events.
Yet in America, people know little or nothing about this day, even though its roots began in our country. We do designate March as Women’s Month, but as far as the day itself, it comes and goes with little notice.
I certainly had not a clue what International Women’s Day was until 23 years ago, when I worked in Kyoto, Japan at the Kyoto YWCA as an English language teacher. The staff of Japanese women carefully prepared for March 8 with a fanfare I had never seen before in my own country. A large luncheon was planned with notable women speakers who were well-known for advocating women’s rights. Their topics concentrated on women abuse issues in Japan, targeting the Japanese workplace and household.
We also held a Saturday bazaar, with the proceeds going to specific Kyoto projects to help women.
With this introduction to International Women’s Day, I began to take more notice of March 8.
In my teaching placement in Taipei, Taiwan at Wesley Girls’ High School, we women teachers received individual gifts from the school. One year, we were given a cheesecake. Another year, it was 2 pounds of dried pork, presented by one of our students’ fathers who worked in a meat packaging plant. Yet another year, it was a box of butter cookies from a famous bakery in town.
To sweeten the day even more, every gift was accompanied by the traditional Chinese gift, the hong bao (red envelope). This was from the Parents’ Association. Inside, we found a $100.
Here in mainland China, I have also enjoyed the benefits of Nu Sheng Jie (Women’s Festival). As a college English teacher, I find we women are never forgotten by school officials.
At my previous college in Sichuan Province, we had an entire day off with a free tour to a cherry blossom park. We walked about the area, admiring the beautiful flowering trees, chatting, taking pictures and enjoying our complimentary lunch and dinner.
The next year, each department prepared performances. We women were asked by the male administrators to show off our talents in singing, dancing, and acting.
It sounded like a good idea but the amount of work that went into preparing for our programs was excruciating. After all our complaints, the next year there were no performances. Instead, each of our 12 departments was given 800 yuan ($130) to take us ladies out to dinner.
Now that we appreciated.
IWD at My Current College
My current teaching placement is in far southern Guangxi, one of China’s 5 autonomous regions and one of the poorer provinces of the country. Our small, rural college doesn’t have the funding to spend on such lavish Women’s Day presents as big dinners or all-day outings. Still, despite the tight budget, the administrators made sure that today we received something. Whether teachers, office workers, cooks or grounds’ maintenance staff, we women each received a hong bao. The teachers received 80 yuan ($10) while others received 40 yuan ($5). (Last year, it was 50 yuan and 20 yuan but with inflation, we are benefiting. A Women’s Day bonus. Hurrah!)
While the gift wasn’t nearly as grandiose as former schools I’d taught in, the gesture from this struggling college certainly outshone that of my former employers.
The average salary of a rural college teacher here is $260 a month, with the cooks and grounds’ crew receiving about $50 a month. That little extra money goes a long way in rural China, especially for those who have families to feed.
Also included in our gifts this year were flowers. A bouquet of carnations was presented to all women teachers during our break time after the 1st period. The Student Association members caught all of us having lessons this morning and gave us our flowers.
And in our English departmental office, I also added a little zip to the working atmosphere with a basket of assorted candy and an IWD card. When I left for my next class, our English teachers were busily picking through the basket, choosing their favorites and gobbling them down with gusto.
IWD In The English Language Classroom
As already mentioned in my previous blog, “Back to Work! The Semester Begins,” (beside the above listed “Home” and “About “, click on so-named post to read) I always commemorate International Women’s Day in my English language classroom by making sure my students are fully aware of this day. My IWD unit includes a history of IWD, current statistics about women in China and the US and Internet searches done by students on notable American and Chinese women.
This year, an added element to the unit involved my male students.
Out of the 270 English language majors I teach, 13 are men. This follows the trend of most Asian countries, where liberal arts’ study falls mainly to college female populations.
To give our women a meaningful day, my 13 guys will be serenading the ladies in each class and holding a drawing for prizes which they purchased themselves. They also will be presenting their classmates with handmade favors, which they completed in my home last weekend.
Today, I had the first women students of the week enjoy their special surprises from their male classmates. In my 2nd year class today, James and Rio went all out with their song, “Happy Women’s Day To You” (sung to the tune “Happy Birthday to You”), and their drawing afterwards. They certainly had fun on their shopping trips. Their carefully wrapped prizes included a big bottle of coke, huge lollipops, and instant noodle packets.
Each excited winner drawn came forward to give a short speech of thanks and wish everyone a Happy Women’s Day. Included in their thank yous was always a grateful look in my direction.
After class, my new monitor (class leader), Lucy, approached me privately.
“Connie, this class is so wonderful! I have never had such a day like this for Women’s Day. I really thank you. It’s so special. I will never forget it.”
Ah! What every teacher wants to hear!
So for today, I would say the energy and careful planning by the James and Rio for our special class certainly will make our International Women’s Day an enviable one on campus. Maybe next year, other departments will follow suit and treat their female students with just as much enthusiasm as my English major men.
From China, here’s wishing you Ping An (Peace) and a great Women’s Day.