International Women's Day

Monday 7 March 2011, 14:59

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Tuesday 8 March 2011 is a highly significant date. This is a global centenary, marking the 100th anniversary of the establishment of International Women's Day (IWD).

This world-wide celebration of women's rights and, significantly, of the part that women play in society has been held since March 1911 although it is only fair to say that conferences, demonstrations and campaigns on the subject had been organised in a variety of different countries - most notably the USA - for several years before that date.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries the focus of the day has ranged from simply marking and commemorating mutual respect between men and women to a celebration of women's achievements in fields such as politics and economics.

In the early days, however, there were marked and serious political overtones to IWD.

The early years of the 20th century saw rapid industrialisation in many countries and the working conditions of most of the women employed in factories and on the production lines gave cause for considerable concern.

At the 1910 Copenhagen Conference of Working Women, the German socialist Clara Zetkin proposed the idea of a special day to celebrate the social, political and economic achievements of women. She went on to suggest that celebrations take place on the same day every year and although the very first International Women's Day (IWD) was held on 19 March 1911, it soon became accepted that 8 March would, in future, be the special day.

That first year over a million people, mainly women but some men also, celebrated the day with marches and lectures, rallies and meetings being held in countries such as Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. The United Kingdom, in these early days, was noticeably silent and absent from the major celebrations.

The outbreak of World War One in 1914 did little to enhance the significance of the day. However, it was still marked wherever and whenever possible. Demonstrations in support of IWD were actually an important factor in the success of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Lenin, once he had come to power, declared the day a state holiday - even though nobody actually took time off from work until the 1960s.

International Women's Day soon became hugely influential and important in Russia and all of the countries of the old Soviet Block. In these states the day retained its social and political significance while in others, like Romania, it developed or changed into something rather like Mother's Day. In Italy men still present their partners with yellow flowers on 8 March.

The significance of the day, however, goes a lot deeper than presents of flowers and should never be forgotten. It is, after all, less than a 100 years since women in Britain were given the vote and these days it is all too easy to forget that for many years women, if not exactly second class citizens, certainly did not have the same rights and opportunities as men.

Wales has never been short of women who have demanded their rightful place in society, no matter how difficult it has been.

The idea of the Welsh 'Mam' is central to Welsh society as a whole while even the most cursory look at The Mabinogion will show that our legends and our history contain a wide range of notable and influential women. From the redoubtable Jemima Nicholas who helped defeat the French invaders in 1797 to Betsy Cadwalader who nursed alongside Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, Welsh women have often played a significant role in the memorable moments of our country.

Two Welsh women, in particular, seem to epitomize the ideals of the early organisers of International Women's Day. Annie Powell, who trained as a teacher, saw the poverty of the valleys first-hand when she worked in Trebanog and was determined to improve the lot of those she worked and lived alongside. Always socialist in outlook she quickly turned to Communism as the only way forward and made 13 attempts to get herself elected to the Council as a Communist. Finally, in 1955, she succeeded and spent 20 years serving on the Rhondda Council, becoming Britain's first Communist Mayor in 1979.

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Elizabeth Andrews was born into a mining family at Hirwaun in 1882. One of 11 children, she was forced to leave school at the age of twelve to help out with the family but retained an active interest in women's rights and politics in general.

A member of the women's suffrage movement, when women were given the vote after the First World War she became one of four women organisers of the Labour Party. A tireless campaigner on the issues of health and education, she was constantly arguing for improved living conditions in the mining valleys.

In 1948 Elizabeth Andrews was awarded the OBE for her services as a JP and, more recently, was voted 100th in an on-line poll to discover the 100 greatest Welsh heroes of all time.

Both Annie Powell and Elizabeth Andrews were clearly women who were never going to take a back seat. The ideals of International Women's Day fit them exactly.

The way that the day itself has been organised has not always been without its critics. And sometimes there have been serious political and social fallouts. The London Borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, once closed its libraries to all men (staff and clients) on IWD, forcing any man who wished to use library facilities to journey elsewhere.

More seriously, in Iran in 2007 women (and men) who were planning a rally on the day, were attacked and beaten by police. Many women were flung into prison and forced to spend several weeks behind bars.

International Women's Day 2011 is a significant moment in history. The living and working conditions of women - and their status - have changed out of all proportion since that first special day back in 1911. And yet, in some parts of the world, women still have to endure oppression and brutality. Marking the day, in whatever way we can, might go some little way to making sure that, sooner or later, things are bound to change - all over the world.

BBC Cymru Wales is marking the centenary of International Women's Day in a special, one-off way. Every English language service will be presented by a woman on that day. The intention is to mark the anniversary and celebrate the role of women in contemporary Welsh life..

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