Cllr Al Garthwaite on the history of International Women’s Day

After being celebrated widely during the first part of the twentieth century, International Women’s Day was neglected, apart from in the Soviet Union, where men would present women with flowers and make them a cup of tea, presumably as some sort of sop for doing nothing for them the rest of the year. This was until the second wave of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the late 1960s; from that time, women all over the world celebrate and campaign in the days surrounding March 8th.

In Leeds, in the late 1970s, feminists booked the then-empty-and-going-on-for-derelict Corn Exchange and promoted International Women’s Day events, with lots of stalls showcasing women’s organisations and businesses, film screenings, music, singing, talks, massage, and the chance to help build a wall, facilitated by the organisation Women in Manual Trades. This was very popular; queues of women snaked up Vicar Lane before the start, and we were full all day.

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This idea was taken up again in the 1980s, when Leeds City Council Women’s Sub-Committee offered similar all-day programmes in the Corn Exchange and eventually, the Lord Mayor’s Banqueting Suite in the Civic Hall. Women’s groups all over Leeds also put on events, from motor bike riding to screen printing, conferences against violence against women, steel band concerts and South Asian dancing, funded by a special International Women’s Day grant pot. Vera Media’s 1987’s short film exploring the history of the day, highlighting activities all over the world and focussing especially on events in Leeds, was distributed nationally. (We showed it recently to a audience of mainly young women at the Hyde Park Book Club; 30 years on, it went down very well).

This year, there’s still time to catch some events in Leeds, like I Am Woman (Hear Me Roar); Girl Gang Presents Cool for Crafts Market; the Feminist Archive North exhibition; Edit Wikipedia for Women; and International Women’s Day – the Promised Band, a film exploring women’s lives in Israel and Palestine and how a rock band brought them together. See www.leedsinspired.co.uk/international women’s day for details. Leeds Beckett University and Leeds University also have events, among others listed online.

In the twenty-first century, International Women’s Day is as relevant and necessary as it ever was. Get out there and enjoy.

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