One-hundred years ago this year, International Women’s Day was celebrated for the first time in countries across Europe. More than a million citizens in four countries gathered in small town streets and village halls to rally for women’s right to vote and hold office, to be educated and trained, and to live free of discrimination. Less than a week later, in New York City, 146 garment workers, mostly women, died in a factory fire. Workers had been locked into the building by their employers and had no escape. The call for women’s rights in North America grew louder. The call was heard around the world, and by 1975, the United Nations officially declared March 8 International Women’s Day.
Here in Prince Edward Island, many women have achieved many of the rights women and their allies first called for in 1911. Women’s lives have changed.
Let’s imagine Suzanne, a 35-year-old woman from Bloomfield, PEI, waking up to the morning news. It sounds like a federal election is brewing, and the PEI news reminds her that a provincial election is coming up in the fall. She is weighing her options and will definitely vote. Getting involved in politics or running for office is the furthest thing from her mind. Even so, she gets frustrated that the news sometimes seems so distant from what she needs in her daily life, and she sometimes wonders why there aren’t more women in politics when so many of the movers and shakers in her community – at her church and at her daughter’s school and at the rink and soccer field – are women.
As she gets breakfast ready for her 8-year-old, Kelly, she keeps an eye on her daughter to see if she is showing signs of the earache she had last night. If Kelly is sick, Suzanne will have to scramble for childcare. Suzanne is raising Kelly on her own, and has no back-ups in her community. She might have to take another day off and lose another day’s pay. She already can only work part-time because she can’t take evening shifts – she has to be home when Kelly gets home and can’t pay a sitter. She makes caregiving a priority, but it comes with costs.
The heat comes on, and she thinks about the oil bill. It has been such a stormy winter, the bills are piling up and her credit card is maxing out. Suzanne hopes she will be able to find better-paying work in the spring. She is proud to work and support her family. She just wishes she could earn enough to get by.
Suzanne hopes that the work Kelly does in the future will be valued by society and come with fair pay. She wants Kelly to have opportunities and wants her to have the chance to go to college or university. Kelly is a bright light and will have lots of choices, but Kelly says she wants to be a teacher or a nurse. Suzanne hopes Kelly won’t still be paying off her student loans if and when she wants to have kids of her own.
Suzanne is not planning to do anything special on International Women’s Day. She has heard that in some countries, men honour the women in their lives with flowers or small gifts. She has heard that in other countries, International Women’s Day is a day of rallies and demonstrations for rights yet to be achieved.
Suzanne is happy for the rights she has. She is happy to be a full voting citizen, an educated woman, a paid worker, and not persecuted for being a parent on her own. She thinks about her grandmother’s life, a hundred years ago, when even in Canada some of these rights were unthinkable. She thinks about the kind of world she wants for her children’s children a hundred years from now.
On International Women’s Day, we hope that Suzanne and women like her will take a moment to connect their daily challenges to women’s struggle for a fair and equal world. We hope they will be inspired to dream a future where women not only vote but are equally represented in our legislatures; where women continue to have full access to education and opportunities; where women not only hold jobs but are paid fully equitably for their work; where women’s unpaid work and caregiving work is valued for all it contributes to our society. We hope that all Islanders will take a moment in their own way, in small town streets or village halls, to take a stand for the rights of women around the world.
Happy 100th year, International Women’s Day.