The International Working Women’s Day, which is now commonly referred to as International Women’s Day is an event whose history of commemoration globally is over a century old. When and how did it begin and what’s its history been like? To offer a brief response to this, it started as a socialist political event when in 1908 around 15,000 women of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union undertook a strike and marched through New York City demanding better pay, lesser working hours and voting rights. To commemorate this political stirring, the Socialist Party of America declared 28 February to be the National Woman’s Day and up till 1913, the last Sunday of every February was celebrated as such.
In 1910, the Second International Conference of Working Women was held in Copenhagen in which over a 100 women from 17 countries participated. At this conference, a suggestion was made to identify a day as International Working Women’s Day to mark women’s achievements and press for their demands for greater gender parity. In 1914, International Women’s Day was celebrated on Sunday, 8 March and since then the day has always been celebrated on this date across countries. In 1917, women in Russia protested for ‘bread and peace’ following the death of approximately 2 million Russian soldiers in World War I. The Russian women continued their strike for four days till the Czar Emperor was forced to abdicate and the Russian women were granted a right to vote by the provisional government.
In more recent times, the United Nations celebrated the International Women’s Day for the first time in 1975 and since 1996 it has always come up with an annual theme related to the issue of gender equity on 8 March.Thus, the history of this day throughout the twentieth century globally has had diverse political essence in context of women empowerment. It has commemorated achievements of women’s movement in the direction of gender parity and charted out new courses of action on issues related to the same. However, in recent times it has become in the mainstream discourse, somewhat of an ‘Archie’s Card’ Day event.
So I would like to draw attention to some of the political debates and discourses that can be extracted out of this event by asking to critically reflect on two ideas: What it means to be ‘working’? And what it means to be a ‘woman’?
To go about probing the first one, in our societies, ‘work’ is related to any economically productive activity the product of which becomes the source of the individual’s work’s value and appreciation. The classical notion of work rests on the public/private distinction wherein the public sphere becomes the realm of work and the home becomes the space for leisure. This complete negligence of housework as even constituting as work led to a complete devaluing of it and has historically been instrumental in women’s oppression. For the past several decades there has been a strong demand to consider housework as an economically productive activity, as a lot of people who are engaged in it, fall under the unorganized sector and their earnings need to be included in the GDP calculations. But also importantly, marking it as an economically productive activity would make it more valuable in our society, more generally. I think it brings out the very crucial idea of how in our collective consciousness we link the idea of work to productivity wherein productivity is understood as output generating earnings.
Another concept that has gained traction recently is that of ‘care work’. It emerges from a model of a citizen who is not wholly autonomous and independent, but interdependent and has a need, responsibility and even obligation to care for others. This idea also complicates traditional notions of work for it forces employers and policy makers to take cognizance of the fact that caring for others forms an important part of human lives and needs to be considered when thinking about an employee or citizen. Moreover, the bulk of responsibility of care work in our societies has been shouldered by women as they have been perceived to be more “naturally” suited for it. Further, as women have taken more to the ‘public sphere’ in recent times, this responsibility has fallen upon the most marginalised women in our society- the lower class, lower caste, minority and immigrant women.
Finally, I would also want to explore the concept of ‘beauty work’ that certain strands of feminism talk about. The idea is that to conform to a particular image of what it means to ‘look like a woman’; several women expend a lot of efforts in altering their natural appearances through makeup, salon work etc. The work undertaken to fit into this cosmetic image of a woman held by society should be taken into consideration as ‘beauty work’ whenever the idea of work is invoked.
The next concept to be probed is that of a ‘woman’. This is a far more complex category to examine. Now there are some biological basis on which a child is ascribed the female gender at birth, namely: the presence of sex organs, the hormonal levels and the chromosomal structure. But as feminists like Nivedita Menon have pointed out that there are many individuals who would ‘default’ on one or more of these parameters, and further that even within those assigned the female gender, there would be significant variations among these parameters.
Further, looking at the category of ‘woman’ from a sociological and political lens makes it enormously difficult to offer a singular definition. This gender category is intersected at various points by other social categories- that of class, caste, race, ethnicity etc. making the lived experiences of all women highly plural and heterogeneous to be able to talk about them collectively. The experience of a tribal woman would be very different from a middle-class, urban woman. Moreover, there is often the argument given that all women, by virtue of having that gender identity would have something in common, tying them in bonds of ‘sisterhood’. That’s not wholly true either. As humans, we tend to embody multiple identities, and the prominence that we give to one particular identity depends upon the context. For instance, women who participated in the Ram Janmabhoomi Agitation in the 90s would have perhaps identified themselves more with their Hindutva identity and given it more primacy over their female identity. Thus, it is not necessary that by virtue of having a particular gender identity, one would identify greatly with it.
Having indulged in these reflections, here’s some food for your thought: Who’s a Working Woman?
Arushi Sharan is an MA student at CPS and works for The Informer. The views expressed are personal.