What to Celebrate—and Mourn—This International Women’s Day

What to Celebrate—and Mourn—This International Women’s Day

What to Celebrate—and Mourn—This International Women’s Day

Over the last year, women’s rights took one step back, and two steps forward.


Did you know that you’re supposed to give women flowers on March 8, International Women’s Day? Teleflora is on it. What a comedown for a holiday started by socialists in 1909. Then again, every celebration of women, no matter how radical its beginnings—Mother’s Day began as a pacifist holiday—eventually devolves into an occasion for faintly guilt-ridden offerings from men and children. It’s as if they know there’s something seriously amiss, but can’t quite figure out what it is—so please, take these flowers and put them in a vase… and while you’re in the kitchen, do we have any of that nice cheese left in the fridge?

So what do women have to celebrate this year? Let’s have the good news first: Voters repealed Ireland’s constitutional ban on abortion and cleared the path to legalizing the procedure for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. The vote wasn’t even close: “Repeal” won men and women in every age group under 65, urban and rural, in every county except Donegal. It was a triumph of years of persistent grassroots organizing and, following Ireland’s 2015 referendum legalizing same-sex marriage, marks a major defeat for the Catholic Church.

Also, Chile legalized abortion for rape victims and in situations where the fetus has a fatal condition or the woman’s life is in danger, leaving Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic as the only countries in Latin American where abortion is totally banned, even to save the woman’s life (which is not to say it’s always available even where it’s legal).

More good news: Iceland was deemed the most equal country in the world for women by the World Economic Forum (the United States was 51st, between Mexico and Peru). And, unlike here, where women are always being told they’re lucky not to be living in an Afghan harem, Iceland isn’t resting on its laurels; it just passed the world’s first law requiring employers to prove that they’re paying men and women equally. Think what that means: Instead of having to prove discrimination—a lengthy process that can involve mandatory arbitration, losing your job, and getting blacklisted by employers in your field—the employer has to prove he’s fair.

Speaking of laws, according to the World Bank, in only six countries in the world—Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden—do women and men have equal legal rights in the workplace, and the US comes in at a mediocre 62nd. A half-dozen countries might not seem like much, but that’s up from zero a decade ago, so cheer up—just 190 left to go!

More good legal news: In India, the Supreme Court decriminalized homosexuality and ruled that sex with child brides is rape. It also ruled that girls and women of menstrual age could visit Kerala’s Sabarimala temple, from which they’d historically been banned because the god Ayyappa is celibate, and female sexuality is obviously disgusting. When more than a dozen women unsuccessfully attempted to enter the temple, one was physically attacked, lost her job, and was forced to live under police protection. In response, millions more formed a human chain 385 miles long(!) in support of gender equality. Two women then succeeded in entering the temple, but it was subsequently closed for “purification.” At least the law is on their side now, right?

Feminism, often derided by its detractors as a Western colonial imposition, has been breaking out all over. Lebanon, Morocco, and Jordan repealed laws that absolved rapists who married their victims. Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on women drivers—but put activists who’d fought the ban in prison, where they’ve reportedly been tortured. In a movement called “My Stealthy Freedom,” Iranian women are taking off their legally required hijabs and posting pictures of their uncovered hair on social media. In South Korea, women are campaigning for abortion rights (abortion is virtually illegal but flourishes underground, with possibly more abortions per year than births). Feminists there are also attacking the “corset” of rigid and elaborate beauty standards—hours spent daily on makeup regimes, and the highest rate of cosmetic surgery in the world (one in three twentysomethings has had work done). Meanwhile, skin care has become a booming industry in the country, with $13.1 billion in annual sales last year and rapidly growing exports to the US.

When we turn to political representation, the good news begins at home. Women made big gains in the midterms. The 102 women now serving in the House of Representatives represent the largest number ever, and it includes a record number of women of color, including the first Muslim and Native American women. But hold the champagne: Women still account for only 23.4 percent of total House members. The US does poorly when it comes to female parliamentarians, coming in at 78th, tied with Montenegro, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. By contrast, 50 countries have lower houses composed of 30 percent or more women.

It wouldn’t be right to end on a cheerful note, given the persistence of gender discrimination, violence, and oppression of every kind in every country in the world. So let me add that in Argentina, an 11-year-old rape victim was denied an abortion, although it should have been legal, and given a C-section at 23 weeks so she might produce a remotely possible viable fetus. Imagine putting a little girl through that. Pro-life! In Afghanistan, the Taliban is poised to join the government, which may mean fewer civilian casualties in the country’s ongoing war—but it will surely be bad news for women’s education, employment, and human rights.

I’m awarding the prize for biggest move backward to Russia, which decriminalized domestic violence that doesn’t break bones. Each year, 14,000 women are murdered in Russia, mostly by male partners. I’m sure that more than a few of those men bought flowers on International Women’s Day. There’s really no excuse, now that you can get them online.

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