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Honoring Women Everywhere: International Women’s Day – March 8

March 6, 2011

On Tuesday, March 8, women across the world will celebrate the 100th International Women’s Day. In Grand Rapids, the day will include two bridge walks to show solidarity with women in war- and conflict-torn countries.

Beginning at noon, Women for Women International will sponsor a “Join Me On the Bridge” gathering on the pedestrian bridge leading to the Gerald R. Ford Museum.

Then at 5 p.m., the Refugee Services Program in Grand Rapids is sponsoring a “Join Me On the Bridge” event which starts at 5 p.m. at Ferris State’s Riverfront Café, 219 N. Front Street. After events at the café, participants will march across the Fulton Street Bridge.

Originally, the IWD celebration was called International Women Workers’ Day, and was part of socialist countries’ culture to honor the women in their communities. The day had been chosen during the 1910 Second International, where delegates selected May 1 as an international workers’ day and March 8 as a day to honor women’s contributions and their equality in society.

The next year, the first IWD was celebrated by over a million people in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and Denmark. In 1917, demonstrations by women factory workers on IWD in St. Petersburg triggered city-wide demonstrations the next day. The Tsar was forced to abdicate four days after that, giving a foothold for the first phase of the Russian Revolution. Lenin proclaimed International Women Workers’ Day a holiday in the Soviet Union in 1918.

The day of celebration, however, was slow to be taken up by countries of the industrialized West. It was not really recognized in those countries until after the United Nations invited all its member states to proclaim and celebrate the day in honor of social justice and rights for women. That was in 1975.

In the United States, the women of the Socialist Party organized a widely attended IWD demonstration in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. But regular celebrations were not common here until the 1970s.

Today, social and political awareness events are mixed with personal celebrations in many countries on March 8. In some countries such as Italy, Russia, and Albania, yellow mimosas are given to women to symbolize their sensitivity, hope, and strength. In many Balkan nations, gifts are given to women workers and speeches made honoring their contributions to society. In Portugal, restaurants are often closed to accommodate special women-only dinners and parties. The day was declared a public holiday in the United Kingdom in 2005.

March 8 is also a day of demonstrations of solidarity with women faced with specific challenges. In Poland, for example, women go out on a special strike called a Manifa on IWD every year to demand wage equity and to protest gender inequality. In Canada, there have been demonstrations and protests against the Catholic Church and the lack of separation of church and state on March 8 to raise awareness of the church’s institutionalized repression of women. In Detroit in 1996, 44 women were arrested at an IWD protest to show their solidarity for striking women workers from The Detroit News staff.

In many countries, International Women’s Day is used to raise awareness of the many social challenges facing women: education, economic security, pay equity, social equality, gender discrimination, homophobia, physical and emotional abuse, and other health and safety issues.

March 8 has also become a day to acknowledge the places in the world where women are suffering in wars or military conflicts, or under religious restrictions and cultural repression.

A relatively new tradition is that of holding a bridge walk on March 8. In 2010, 108 of these walks were held in locations on four different continents. The marches commemorate those who have been killed in wars and military coups. They also honor the survivors who face the daily terror of physical danger, sexual violence, homelessness, intimidation by troops and military contractors, all while struggling to shelter and find food for their children.

Here in Grand Rapids, the first of two “Join Me on the Bridge” gatherings will take place from noon to 3.p.m. on the pedestrian bridge downtown adjoining the Gerald R. Ford Museum property. The purpose is to stand in solidarity with women in war-torn countries, women in the United States who face challenges, and also to meet members of the Grand Rapids community.

For more information on this Women for Women International event, contact Marie Maher Penny at or at (616) 241-5133.

The after-work event sponsored by the Refugee Services Program begins at 5 p.m. at the Riverfront Café. Attendees will listen to live music and hear the survival story of Florence Bish, a refugee from the Congo. Participants will also decorate a banner for use during the march. When the banner is ready, everyone will proceed to the Fulton Street Bridge for the bridge walk.

For more information about this “Join Me On the Bridge” walk, contact Chris Cavanaugh at or at (616) 356-1934.


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