International Women’s Day: a Vent, and some History

By Ludovica Martella

Today, March 8th is International Women's Day (IWD,) a celebration of social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women around the world. It is, however, or at least it should be, a reminder to accelerate gender parity around the world. 

In Italy, to celebrate the day, men give yellow mimosas to women. “Communist politician Teresa Mattei chose the mimosa in 1946 as the symbol of IWD in Italy because she felt that the French symbols of the day, violets and lily-of-the-valley, were too scarce and expensive to be used effectively in Italy”  Wikipedia.  Photo: Pixabay

In Italy, to celebrate the day, men give yellow mimosas to women. “Communist politician Teresa Mattei chose the mimosa in 1946 as the symbol of IWD in Italy because she felt that the French symbols of the day, violets and lily-of-the-valley, were too scarce and expensive to be used effectively in Italy” Wikipedia. Photo: Pixabay

People who know me and who know my work and ethical background know that I am feminist and an advocate for gender equality. I do this because I stand with any minority group that is not treated equally, or that is discriminated against, because of some invented societal norms. Said this, I feel a bit strange about IWD. I am sure that out there, IWD is a marketing scheme for companies and men in power to show that they are in favor of gender parity, but what truly matters are actions, not words. Why am I saying this? Because as a woman, who also worked in institutions “for women,” still witness the discrimination women face in and outside the work place. Said this, having an IWD celebrated in more than 100 countries around the world, CAN be a way to start a fruitful conversation about gender equality around the world. It is the way that we use this achievement, which must be effective in order to achieve this big goal of gender equality.

For instance, what are educational institutions and companies doing in order to teach and bring awareness to specific gender-related issues to children and fully-grown adults? It would be wonderful if more schools would use this day in order to bring to children’s attention issues such as the perception that “girls need to be pretty” in order to be accepted in society. It would be even more wonderful if human resources (HR) or/and corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments would hold dedicated sessions to bring awareness to issues such as sexual misconduct in and outside the work place, between many. This should be mandatory. Why is it not happening? Because it would take away time from proceeding on the curriculum or on completing work? Let me tell you, we waste more time (and personal stress) on having individual meetings with teachers and HR colleagues because “my daughter won’t attend gym class because Jimmy told her she is a girl and can’t play ball,” or because “Kevin will collaborate with me only if I promise to go on a date with him.” These problems are real and affect us on a personal level. I, as many women (and here I am including every individual who identifies as a woman,) have experienced these and want to see more action instead of words. 

Now that my vent is over, here’s some historical background of IWD, which can be interesting in order to frame our discussion around this day.

The women's liberation movement march in Washington, August 1970. Picture: Getty

The women's liberation movement march in Washington, August 1970. Picture: Getty

Historically, IWD emerged from the fights of labor movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe. Back in 1909, the first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on February 28 by The Socialist Party of America, in honor of the garment workers’ strike in 1908 in New York City. In this occasion, women and men marched in order to demand better working conditions and equal rights. 

Inspired by American socialists, Luise Zietz, a renowned German socialist, proposed the establishment of ‘International Woman’s Day.’ In 1910, the proposal was well accepted in a general meeting of the Socialist International in Copenhagen, Denmark. As a result, on March 19, 1911, that International Women’s Day was observed for the first time in Germany, Austria, Denmark and Switzerland. 

In Russia, as part of the peace movement during the World War I, women observed their first International Women’s Day on February 1913. It was only in 1917 that Russian women protested again, and called a strike for “Bread and Peace” on the last Sunday in February, which fell on 8 March according to the Gregorian calendar. Four days prior to that, the Czar of Russia resigned and the interim government granted the right to vote to women. 

In the United States, actress and human rights activist Beata Pozniak worked with the Mayor of Los Angeles and the Governor of California to lobby members of the U.S. Congress to propose official recognition of the holiday. In February 1994, H. J. Res. 316 was introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters, along with 79 cosponsors, in an attempt to officially recognize March 8 of that year as International Women's Day. The bill was subsequently referred to, and remained in, the House Committee on Post Office and Civil Service. No vote of either house of Congress was achieved on this piece of legislation.

However, it was only during late 1975 that the United Nations started observing International Women’s Day on March 8.

UN Secretary General António Guterres addressing the importance of IWD at the General Assembly in New York on March 8th 2018. Picture: Ludovica Martella

UN Secretary General António Guterres addressing the importance of IWD at the General Assembly in New York on March 8th 2018. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Today, IWD is celebrated in more than a 100 countries and is an official holiday in Afghanistan, Angola, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China, Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.

In some countries (such as Bulgaria and Romania) it is also observed as an equivalent of Mother's Day.

As of 2019, International Women's Day will also be celebrated as a public holiday in the federal state of Berlin, Germany.

If you are big on timelines, here’s one by the UN. 

Happy IWD, sisters.

Important Messages from Mary Robinson (a Rock Star on the Fight for Human Rights, Climate Change and Gender Equality)

By Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson (right) with the co-founder of Company (left). Picture: Ludovica Martella

On February 26th, Mary Robinson, former first female (!) president of Ireland and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and UN Special Envoy on Climate Change, engaged in a conversation about her latest book, Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future, at Company, a space that hosts tech start ups, but also, conversations, like this one. Throughout this conversation, Robinson not only dug into the obstacles that she faced and overcame during her impressive career in human rights, but also gave important advice to individuals, companies and tech start-ups on how to tackle climate change solutions. Climate Justice is a story book about the injustice of climate change. Most often, climate change effects are more severe for women and poor developing countries and communities all over the world (the worst effects are seen in developing countries closer to the equator). The 11 short stories in the book are evidence of these injustices. They tell the stories of women (and men) tackling the conditions of the changing climate they live in which is truly inspirational.

First of all, it’s important to provide a bit of a background on this inspirational woman and her formative years. Mrs. Robinson opened the conversation at Company explaining how she became a human rights expert from a very young age. She grew up West Ireland, which is know to be the poorest part of Ireland, “in a household with four brothers, all younger than me, a very interesting human rights situation” she laughs. “At that time, women were supposed to know their place, EVEN THE CONSTITUTION placed the women in the home. My parents who were both medical doctors ASSURED ME that I had the same opportunities as my brothers”. Apart from the rage that many of us could have by reading the sad reality about discrimination against women embedded in the constitution, I’d like to focus for a second on the fact that Robinson’s parents encouraged her to believe that she was EQUAL, despite the law and despite what the general cultural circumstances of the time were. This is not a detail to undermine. More often than not, people who have a strong support system that includes their parents or the people who raised them, are more likely to survive societal pressures that automatically tries to put them in a box. This happens through a process that is called neuroplasticity, and the work of mirror neurons (because this is not a mental health/psychology post, I will keep it brief but I will link some interesting information about these). How does this work? As author Mark Matousek explains in his amazing book Ethical Wisdom, “the role of mirror neurons is to match up our inner reality with the world around us” aka, our brains’ “plastic” adjusts to the environment around us, continuously, but most strongly in children. This is a mechanism that is at the root of our moral beliefs and attitudes. So, would Mary Robinson not be Mary Robinson today if it weren’t for her parents? It’s honestly hard to tell because, honestly, she is pretty awesome. But neuroplasticity is a real thing. That said, let us continue.

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robison engaging in the conversation on her book “Climate Justice”. Picture: Ludovica Martella


Similarly to what we are experiencing nowadays during this sad part of history, Robinson grew up during a wave of global violence. In 1967 she was a young law student at Harvard. Despite the terrible currents of violence of those times, Robinson recognizes that many of her contemporaries were starting to speak out, of all things, about the immoral Vietnam War. As a result, many of them were killed because of their civil rights work. “In April of that same year, Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated, and just after not long, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.” She claims that “desperate times bring the best out of people. Young people were doing great things, they were taking leadership and making a difference.” As she makes this point, she takes a moment to praise the young students in the US who are mobilizing for climate justice and who are organizing a major walk out of schools around the country on March 15th 2019. Mary was brave herself. After she graduated from Harvard Law School she went back to Ireland and started teaching and practicing law with this new activist wave as her motivating force. Through a combination of things, she ended up getting elected to the senate at the age of 25 (mainly because her elderly professors didn’t want to take the lead and push for radical ideas themselves). Between the many topics she had at hearth, she called for the legalization of family planning because women in Ireland at the time couldn’t use contraceptives unless they had a medical note stating they needed them to regulate their menstrual cycle. Despite getting numerous hate mail and being “barely able to walk down the street,” while having her bill called by the Bishop of Ireland “a curse on the country,” Robinson kept on going because change, in her eyes, was the only option. One of her favorite quotes from former UN Secretary general Kofi Annan is (rest in peace,) “you are never too young to lead, you are never too old to learn”. Amen.

Fast-forward through her presidency and to her role of Human Rights Commissioner of the UN, she realized the incredible connection between human rights and climate justice. This was only after her five-year term had ended. At this stage, she created a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Realizing Rights out of her frustration for the still very apparent lack of human rights around the world. The mission behind this organization was to support the ability of African countries to build capacity to provide basic human rights to their populations. This includes holding governments accountable for providing things such as health, sanitation, food, water, education and shelter. During her time in Africa, in 2002, she kept hearing laments from people there about the climatic conditions worsening. She recalls speaking to a climate-wise woman from a small village in Uganda who said “we thought God was punishing us, and then I learned, no it wasn’t God, it was the lives of rich people.” The greenhouse gasses  (GHGs) produced by developed countries for the purpose of industry and luxury were having devastating repercussions on her village. “That brought me to be aware of the injustice of climate change. (Climate change) is disproportionately affecting the poorest countries and the poorest communities” even if it is the richer countries who are majorly contributing to the mess. And obviously, poor communities in climate-delicate areas here in the US are being affected as well.

So, should we conceptualize the issue of climate change as a civil rights issue or keep it purely scientific? “It’s not either or” answered Robinson. “We have to try and make the discourse on climate change and climate justice people centered,” because the decline of our environment has increasing negative repercussions on humans as well. Sometimes people seem to not understand that until they are directly affected by it. Robinson concluded that what we should do is to take the climate problem to a personal level. Whether that means avoiding single use plastic and bringing your reusable bottle or/and mug everywhere (you can save money and even get discounts at some cafes if you ask them to use your bottle) or changing your diet to one with less or no animal products, for starters. (There is a wonderful tool by the BBC where you can track the green house emission of the food we consume, here). Also, she invites individuals to get angry with those who have the power to make change and are not doing their best to take action. For businesses and especially for tech, she invites them to think about the world we envision for ourselves.

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

The cover of the book by Mary Robinson. Picture: Ludovica Martella

Mary Robinson’s book Climate Justice: Hope, Resilience, and the Fight for a Sustainable Future is a fast read and a small book that won’t add significant weight to your bag. I advise you to give it a read since it tells stories from people around the world that can be truly inspirational and give you a wider vision on the realities of climate change and how we can act on them.