While there are many conflicting accounts as to its beginnings, from what I can glean, it appears that it was at the International Women’s Conference, taking place in New York, in February 1910 that the date of March 8 was suggested. Some reports say that this date was selected in recognition of a protest staged some 60 years earlier in New York City by women garment workers against inhumane working conditions and low wages.
On the other side of the Atlantic, something else took place on March 8, 1910, which has no conflicting accounts; “Baroness” Raymonde de Laroche of Paris became the first female to be granted a pilot’s licence. While “Baroness” conjures up a rather bourgeois image, with all the trappings of a regal status, the truth was that “Baroness” Raymonde was actually Elise Raymonde Deroche, daughter of a plumber. Elise had seen Wilbur Wright’s 1908 flying demonstration in Paris, and at the age of 23 became determined that she would fly. Her first flight covered only 300 metres, but what an achievement. Little did she know how significant that date would be to future generations.
I am reminded of a Gandhi quote: “Strength does not come from physical capacity – it comes from an indomitable will”. Seven years later, in 1917 Soviet Russia, women displayed this indomitable will, and gained suffrage. Subsequently, March 8 became a day of national holiday there.
So what is this day all about? Yes – of course it celebrates and acknowledges the many amazing achievements, strength and contribution of women.
But this day is more than a celebration – it commemorates and honours the women who have gone before us and paved the way; women who have struggled and sacrificed so much to secure women’s rights and contributed to build more equitable societies.
While the true essence of the day is rooted in the recognition of the rights and power of women, the day also reminds us that we all must ensure that the future is bright, equal, safe and rewarding for the generation of young women who follow.
I hope I never see International Women’s Day dissolved into something trivial, acknowledged by greeting cards, and patronising gifts – denying women a stature that they unquestionably deserve.
While we have not yet reached the parity for which we yearn, we are heading in the right direction – even in my life, the changes have been substantial, and this day, March 8, embodies the passion, the power and the will, of so many throughout the last century.
Just yesterday, I was surprised to hear on Jon Faine’s ABC radio show a segment on a female petrol tanker driver, Lana Perry. I was surprised on two counts: Jon expressed his surprise on pulling up to a service station to see a woman driving a petrol tanker. “A woman!”, he exclaimed, “I have never seen a woman drive a petrol tanker before.” I was surprised that he was surprised! My next surprise was that Lana was the only woman petrol tanker driver in Australia.
Another first that I heard about yesterday was the appointment of Kerri Judd, QC, as the first female Director of Public Prosecutions in Victoria. Really? It took us until 2018 for this “achievement”.
I guess we still have a way to go until there are no more surprises and we are well and truly judged as equal.
Pamela Rothfield is Mayor of Bass Coast. This is an edited version of her address to an International Women’s Day breakfast at Cape Kitchen on Thursday.