by Belinda A. Aquino, Ph.D.
There are numerous reasons to observe the celebration of International Women’s History in March of every year. This essay attempts to look into the origins of this annual celebration
dedicated to women, but in fact, involves all of humanity as well.
This annual event should have happened before it actually happened. It would be interesting to understand why it was so late in coming in the international community.
Actually, it should have happened to mark the significance of the women’s efforts starting in the middle 18th century when the right to vote for public service was given to women themselves as functioning members of the international community.
What actually happened was that men were able to get the right to vote while women were left to themselves. Women didn’t have the right to own property. Women weren’t able to run and get elected to public office even though they are functioning member in the wake of a modernizing society. They didn’t have the same rights as the ones earlier acquired by men.
A Human Tragedy
At the height of the Great Depression in the mid-1960s, measures or legislative initiatives were slow in coming to improve the status of women to own property, run their own businesses and most of all, the right to vote.
Women were typically portrayed as frivolous with the main responsibility to raise a family and educate their children. In addition, women are expected to perform the duties of a housewife who obeys her husband.
But over time through their own efforts, women worked hard to improve their status in society.
One day in March 1911, a garment factory in New York was destroyed by a fire because of poor working conditions in the factory. Several women were killed while escaping from the building while many more were rushed to the hospital and other safe places succumbed to the fire.
A woman named Frances Perkins was having coffee in a restaurant across the factory when she witnessed the fire engulf the garment factory. Perkins saw the devastating fire and decided to see President Franklin Roosevelt.
He was so impressed by Perkin’s courage and that he listened with what she had to say to render attention to the victims of the fire. The president also gave Perkins an audience to tell her plans of assistance the victims of the tragedy. The victims were mostly immigrant women from Europe who were working under unsafe conditions during the Great Depression in order to survive.
The following day, Roosevelt released numerous executive orders to provide aid to the victims. Moreover, he appointed Perkins to his Cabinet. It was the first time in U.S. history to have a woman serve in a Cabinet position.
Perkins immediately went to work, closely meeting with Roosevelt to make their plans effective and implementable. They lobbied Congress to pass legislative measures to approve their plans in aiding the fire victims.
The bill they sponsored became law with March as the month designated for the observance of the new law.
Since then, the law has been a gateway for Roosevelt to add numerous executive measures to support women. The law has also been declared a national holiday to mark its historical significance.
Perkins was given more measures to make the new law as effective as possible in reaching the families of the victims.
Reasons for the Celebration
Before long, countries around the world made it a point to designate March as the month for the
international celebrations of this once-in-lifetime achievement of women’s power.
Now, the celebration has been seen as the supreme achievement of women themselves.
But we should not stop there. There is still work needed to be done in order to achieve equal rights, not just for women, but for everyone.
DR. BELINDA A. AQUINO is a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she taught Political Science and Asian Studies, and also the founding director of the Center for Philippine Studies for nearly four decades before retiring. Also, an accomplished journalist she has written numerous contributions, articles, and book reviews for international, national and local publications.