How American women can take back International Women’s Day

(Photo montage by Julia-Grace Sanders)

We women move through life performing the same tasks as men, holding ourselves to a standard of excellence, while combatting the constraints of a society that assumes our intrinsic inferiority.

We do it under the pressure of impossible beauty standards, while battling hormone cycles, being cat-called, slut-shamed and, perhaps most infuriatingly — being paid less to do it.

So isn’t it worth taking a moment to celebrate how far we have come, and acknowledge what still yet needs to be done?

International Women’s Day was created for this very purpose. Although it started in New York City back in 1908, and was designated a U.N. holiday in 1975, it is not recognized as an official holiday in the United States, and hardly anyone observes it here these days. When talking to my American friends in the course of writing this article, only a few of them even knew it existed.

But around 30 other countries have adopted International Women’s Day as a national holiday; and it is widely observed in several others.

In some celebrations, the day has lost the elements of political activism that it originally had, and is celebrated in a manner similar to Mother’s Day or Valentine’s Day — fluffy and commercialized.

In others, the focus on women’s rights remains.

To explore the many ways that cultures commemorate International Women’s Day, I sat down with women from all over the world and asked about their experiences with the holiday:


Awen Zhang Wen. (Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders)
Awen Zhang Wen. (Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders)

For Chinese women, March 8th is a day of great pride. They are recognized for their professional achievements, receive awards for their performance and are honored by their colleagues.

Awen Zhang Wen, who is pursuing a master’s in Digital Media at the UW, grew up watching her mother make speeches at grand International Women’s Day ceremonies.

“My mom always told me the day makes her feel so proud that women can do great things in the workforce,” said Wen.

International Women’s Day in China mainly serves as an opportunity to recognize outstanding achievements of women in the workforce. To celebrate, women normally get a half day off work and receive gifts from loved ones.

“Instead of talk about women’s rights, it’s more to honor their achievements and make them proud or to thank them for what they have done in their work,” said Wen.

In Chinese, two words exist to describe females. The word for women used in the title of China’s International Women’s Day,  妇女 /foo-nyoo/, is more representative of adult women with established careers and families.

Young women and girls are generally excluded from these celebrations. But in response, university students created Girls’ Day (女生节 /nyoo-shnng jyeh/), which is celebrated March 7.


Imana Gunawan. (Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders)

Every year on April 21, girls all over Indonesia powder their faces with makeup and don elaborate, traditional garb — the more ornate the better. They’re preparing for Kartini Day, Indonesia’s national celebration of women.

“I have really vivid memories of getting dressed up for festivals at school,” said Imana Gunawan, who grew up in Indonesia before relocating to Seattle for university. “I hated having to wear makeup and all that, but it was always exciting because there were festival activities and outfit contests.”

This unique version of women’s day honors Raden Ajeng Kartini, a pioneer of women’s education in Indonesia. Despite the political nature of Kartini’s achievements, the day mostly remains an apolitical celebration of Kartini’s life.

“It became more about celebrating this one woman and dressing up rather than the women’s rights that she fought for,” said Gunawan, who graduated from UW last summer with a double major in Dance and Journalism.

Kartini day is celebrated similarly to Mother’s Day — loved ones cook for women or give them flowers and presents.

However, younger women in more progressive cities of Indonesia are attempting to steer the day towards women’s rights.

“Now, the younger generation is fighting back to recognize the ideals that [Kartini] fought for, said Gunawan.”

Puerto Rico  

Noralis Rodríguez-Coss. (Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders)
Noralis Rodríguez-Coss. (Photo by Julia-Grace Sanders)

Since 1972, even before the United Nations officially recognized the day in 1975, women of Puerto Rico have observed March 8th as a day to respect and commemorate women.

Puerto Rico values International Women’s Day significantly more than the mainland United States does, with typical observations including conferences, statements from feminist organizations and marches dedicated to a range of political agendas.

For Noralis Rodríguez-Coss, who grew up in Puerto Rico, International Women’s Day helped awaken the feminista inside of her.

When Rodríguez-Coss moved to Seattle to pursue a doctorate, she was shocked by the lack of observance on International Women’s Day. She is a PhD candidate at the UW in Feminist Studies as a part of the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies.

“The day [in Puerto Rico] was my first encounter with the conversation about women’s rights and how they mobilize people like me,” said Coss.

Originally dubbed “Women in the Workforce Day,” feminist movements have recently pushed for the more inclusive title of International Women’s Day.

Although March 8th certainly provides a space to acknowledge how far women’s rights have come, Rodríguez-Coss said that International Women’s day in Puerto Rico is not a celebration.

“[Feminist organizations] make very clear that it is not a celebration; it is commemorating what has been done and what has still yet to be done,” she said.

However, the political nature of International Women’s Day in Puerto Rico is not embraced by all. Some people give women flowers and gifts, said Rodríguez-Coss.

“We have been very active in the media to make it clear that this is not in a celebration,” said Rodríguez-Coss. “This is a commemoration of the struggle we have been through.”


Frances Donegan-Ryan, Nickie Smith, Kate Isler and Erica Abel, local women who organized one of the few International Women's Day events in Seattle this year. (Courtesy photo)
Frances Donegan-Ryan, Nickie Smith, Kate Isler and Erica Abel, local women who organized one of the few International Women’s Day events in Seattle this year. (Courtesy photo)

As my conversations with these women revealed, International Women’s Day is celebrated in an array of ways as diverse as the women themselves. This begs the question, what are we as women in the U.S. doing to recognize the day?

The official International Women’s Day website provides a list of registered events celebrating the day. Only one Seattle event is listed on that site: “International Women’s Day Seattle: An evening of discussion, inspiration and celebration” (though there are a few others they didn’t include).

The host of this event is not a large feminist organization, but four fiery gal pals. Frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm for International Women’s Day, Frances Donegan-Ryan, Nickie Smith, Kate Isler and Erica Abel decided to take action.

Over a glass of wine, feeling quite invisible, we thought, ‘why don’t we do something?’” said Smith, a global marketing director at Microsoft.

The event will take place March 8th at the WeWork Holyoke Building and will consist of networking, keynote speakers, wine and snacks.

In accordance with the UN’s 2016 theme #PledgeForParity, the event is designed to address what Isler calls the “pillars of parity:” salary, education, safety and health.

“We aim to balance building awareness but also celebrating and letting women know what other women are doing,” said Isler.

Confirmed speakers include Lisa Harrison of the Seattle Chamber, Amanda Hightower of REST (Real Escape from the Sex Trade), Naria Santa Lucia of the Washington Opportunity Scholarship and Helene Madonick of the Gates Foundation. 

“Seattle is now one of the most populated cities in the U.S.; we need to be leaders in this area,” said Isler. “You hear about the ‘boys club,’ and it is very much alive and well. I don’t see any reason why we can’t start the equal women’s club.”

This post has been updated since it was first published.