International Women's Day!

Author: Adam Heppell

Date: Monday 8th March 2021

Today (March 8) is International Women’s Day!

The theme for this year’s edition is Chose to Challenge.  International Women's Day grew out of the labour movement to become an UN-recognised annual event.  15,000 women marched through New York demanding shorter working hours, better pay, and the right to vote. Clara Zetkin campaigned for an international day of celebration for women, first celebrated in 1911.

Indeed, unions have played a pivotal role in establishing rights for women over the years both in the UK and internationally.

UK Women’s Suffrage History


Split into two groups, the right to vote and equal rights, women’s suffrage started in the 1830s as peaceful lobbying and protesting which carried on for several decades before becoming increasingly hostile.

One famous suffragette is Emmeline Pankhurst, a prominent supporter of the movement. Like many suffragettes, she was arrested on numerous occasions and went on hunger strike, resulting in violent force-feeding. In 1913, in response to the wave of hunger strikes, the government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act. Hunger striking prisoners were released until they recovered strength, before being re-arrested.

Ford Dagenham Strike 1968

Women machinists at Ford's Dagenham car factory went on a six-week strike in the summer of 1968 stopping production of all Ford cars in the UK. Female employees would be paid 15% less than men on the same grade. They eventually returned to work accepting 8% less than men until the following year when they gained parity. The strike would lead to equal pay legislation being introduced.

Votes for Women and the UK Parliament

1832: Women were excluded from the electorate by the Great Reform Act.

1867: Decades of campaigning finally ensured women had their voices heard. The first debate on women's suffrage was held in Parliament, led by John Stuart Mill.

1918: The Representation of the People Act was passed, giving women the vote provided they were White British, aged over 30 and either they or their husband met a property qualification. 

The Parliament Qualification of Women Act was passed on 21 November, allowing women to stand for Parliament. Women were able to vote for the first time in the 1918 General Election. 8.5 million women were eligible.

1919: Nancy Astor was the first woman elected to Parliament as MP for Plymouth Sutton.

1928: The Equal Franchise Act was passed, giving women equal voting rights with men. All women aged over 21 could now vote in elections. Fifteen million women were eligible.

Financial Independence and Equal Pay

Until 1975, women could not have their bank accounts or apply for a bank loan or credit card without their father’s signature.

Until 1982, women could be refused service at a pub, even if they had the correct money.

According to ONS data, the gender pay gap in the UK has been declining slowly over time. Over the last decade, it has fallen by approximately a quarter among full-time employees and by around 20% among all employees.

In 2020, the gap among full-time employees fell to 7.4%, from 9.0% in 2019. Among all employees, it fell to 15.5%, from 17.4% in 2019. There is more work to be done to fully close the gap.


Although the first universities in the UK started accepting girls as far back as 1868, they were offered courses that did not equate to degree standard.

Prior to the Sex Discrimination Act in 1972, it was still acceptable to give males a different education because of their gender. This also banned discrimination based on sex or marital status in the areas of employment, education, training, harassment and housing.


More recently, we have seen several campaigns successfully carry the fight for women equality and challenge perceptions, some of which are listed below:


The now global Me Too movement was founded in 2006 by Tarana Burke to protect women from being victims of sexual assault and raise awareness of similar issues. In 2017, it received global recognition after a viral tweet by actress Alyssa Milano. Milano was one of the women who accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault.

Upskirting Ban (Voyeurism Act 2019)

Following an 18-month campaign by activist Gina Martin, who was targeted at a festival, upskirting is now an offence under the Voyeurism Act. Gina’s campaign included a 50,000-signature strong petition.

The criminal offence of ‘upskirting’ was created under the Voyeurism Act. Police and prosecutors have now updated their guidance to ensure the law is properly enforced, with offenders facing up to 2 years in jail and being placed on the sex offenders’ register.

Unite the Union and the Marx Memorial Library are creating the largest collection of Oral Histories from working people. Sharing stories of struggle, collectivism, and what it means to be a member and activist within the Trade Union Movement.  Listen to the podcasts now on Spotify and Pocket Casts.