This year, International Women’s Day, on Friday 8 March, centres on the theme of ‘momentum’ and offers us a good opportunity to look forward and answer the question ‘How can we keep up our momentum this year in the things that we do?’ This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the suffragette best known for her tragic demise following the events of the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. Emily’s death is a key event in both women’s suffrage and British political history, and the anniversary is an ideal opportunity to look back at both what has been achieved so far throughout women’s history, but also to provide the momentum and impetus for the changes that still need to take place.
To many people it is undeniable that the position of women has improved dramatically since 100 years ago, when women were still struggling to get the vote. Women now excel in the arts, academic life and business; they participate in all areas of the political social and economic life in ways that would have been unthinkable to our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Women exert power and influence and shape their own and other women’s lives.
Young girls growing up have unparalleled access to education and a sense that they have a wide range of possibilities and opportunities for their future lives. This is a result of improved health care and access to contraception, legal changes such as the sex discrimination laws and equal pay acts and most importantly changes in culture and attitudes. Significant in giving momentum to such cultural changes are role models; young girls are influenced by being able to see women as head teachers, professors, doctors, running their own businesses and having successful careers in the media. For example Margaret Thatcher as the first woman prime minister was instrumental in the huge rise of women MPs when Tony Blair swept to victory in 1997. Anita Roddick as the successful head of the Body Shop retail chain no doubt inspired many other women to start their own businesses.
The current situation would therefore not have come about without the struggles of many women in the past. Women such as: Ellen Wilkinson: Labour Party cabinet minister in the 1940; Lady Denman, the first chairwoman of the National Federation of Women’s Institute, leader of the Birth Control Council and the Land Army in the Second World War; or Fanny Craddock one of the most famous television cooks of the 1960s. Each of these women did not accept the limitations society’s ideas of gender might have been expected to exert over their lives. These women and now many more women in Britain may choose the priorities they give to the workplace, to relationships, families and domestic life.
However the question remains as to whether there is really equality. The choices that women may make still come at a cost in economic or personal terms. Childcare is expensive for working mothers; in building a career many women find they have to sacrifice starting a family or developing relationships and they may feel torn between their work and their family. While the costs of achieving personal fulfilment in the workplace, in the arts or sports remain much higher for women than men, equality has not yet been achieved.
Professor Maggie Andrews is a cultural historian whose work covers the social and cultural history of nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and the representation of that history within popular culture. She is the author of a feminist history of the Women’s Institute movement and co-editor of a collection of essays exploring women’s relationship with consumer culture in the twentieth century.
- International Women’s Day website
- To find out what events are happening across the UK, visit the IWD website here.
- IWD on Pinterest
- The top 5 reasons you should care about International Women’s Day
- BBC: A short history of IWD
- BBC: The Book Cafe (IWD special)
- Suffragette Emily Davison centenary marked in Morpeth
- IMF chief Christine Lagarde: ‘Women should not imitate men’
- Dr Condoleezza Rice: ‘Societies need women to prosper’
- Women paid thousands less than men
- Women in history (THP)
Have women achieved equality? What do you feel are the biggest challenges for modern women?