Enough has been written about the origin of (International) Women’s Day. Enough has been written about the claims by different countries/ideologies for their role in starting Women’s Day and women’s empowerment in general. But how did different ‘Symbols of Women Empowerment’ travel through history?
Some major symbols of women’s empowerment during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were Bicycles, Bob-Haircuts, cigarettes, Voting Rights, dresses and Education etc. The symbolic empowerment of women started at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century.
A 270-metre-long suffrage petition was presented to New Zealand’s parliament in 1873. This petition included around 32000 signatures by women. Soon New Zealand became the first country in the world to give voting rights to women in the world. The symbol of this new voting right for women was a bicycle (image 1).
Women Rights Activist, Alic Hwkins travel through Leicester town of England in the year 1911 on a bicycle as a symbol of women empowerment & Women’s Day. But the recommended dress to wear for women while cycling was still medieval in nature.
The popularity of bicycles as symbols of women’s empowerment reached even India.
The first proposal to organise Women’s Day came from the International Socialist Women’s Conference of 1910 by German delegates. Since next year in 1911, people from different countries in Europe organised Women’s Day unofficially on different dates. Most of the governments in European countries tried to suppress the celebration of Women’s Day.
However, when women in Germany tried to organise Women’s Day in Germany, their posters were banned in Germany. The poster prepared for Women’s Day on 8th March 1914 was banned by the German government.
The first official Women’s Day by any state was declared by Soviet Russia in 1917 when women were given voting rights in Soviet Russia. It took 60 more years for the International community to come to a consensus on organising International Women’s Day globally on 8th March 1977.
The 1920s was the most revolutionary period as far as the history of women’s empowerment is concerned. Some believed that the shortage of labour in Europe during the first world war compelled European states and society to bring them out of their household to work as labourers. The changes in the nature of work by women demanded changes in their dress, haircut, and their daily public life.
Industrial works by women during the first world war required women to wear short, tight and more comfortable dresses along with shorter hair. Coco Chanel to Anna Wintour, are associated with the bob haircut. Before this, the popular women’s dress culture of Europe was painful. There was a ‘Rational Clothing’ movement against such practices in the west
Before the 1920s women, femininity and beauty has always been associated with long hair and smaller waist size. The most popular dress of women before the first world war was corsets. This dress was supposed to control the length of women’s waist as it tightens their waist painfully.
Short hair and smaller, tight and comfortable dresses for women emerged as industrial needs converted into part of their fashion by the end of the Second World War.
But the new public life and symbols of women’s empowerment did not remain limited to things related to industrial or war needs during the two world wars the first half of the 20th century witnessed. The 1920s also marked the ‘Torch of Freedom’ movement in the USA.
The popularity of cigarette smoking by women in the public became a symbol of protest against male dominance and patriarchy during the 1920s and 1930s. The symbol of cigarettes in the USA stands for men’s penis which women need to smoke out.
Some believe that the popularity of cigarette smoking in public was also part of the capitalist propaganda to increase the consumption of cigarettes in the market and make profit out of that.
Women Empowerment in India:
There were many men in Indian history who spoke on behalf of women to end socio-cultural and historical injustice against women. This includes Raja Ram Mohan Rai, K C Sen, etc. on the issues such as Sati, Child Marriage, Nauch Girls, Devadasi system, Breast tax, Women’s Education, Window Remarriage etc.
But the watershed in the history of women empowerment in India is considered as the opening of the first school for girls by Savitribai Phule in Puna in the year 1848.
Apart from the efforts of Savitribai Phule, British missionaries also started multiple schools for girls in India.
The most debated timeline of Indian history on the issue of women’s rights was in the 1950s when Ambedkar proposed Hindu Code Bill in the Indian parliament.
Ambedkar and anyone else who tried to speak in favour of women’s rights was mocked by contemporary media and society in general. Most of the cartoons published on the issue of the Hindu Code Bill depicted Ambedkar at the centre of the entire discourse.
Even though the Indian constitution gave universal suffrage to all Indians including all women of Indian citizenship but their representation in parliament and different state assembly remained very low. Any effort to give representation to women in elections as candidates were mocked in public.
Indian media became so much obsessive with women during the 1950s that the symbol of Women was used for portraying any political conflict in India.
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