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International Women’s Day, explained

Today’s Google Doodle honors the day.

International Women’s Day protesters. Jay Directo/AFP via Getty Images

Today’s Google Doodle honors half of the world's population — by celebrating International Women’s Day.

But what is International Women’s Day? Where did it come from, and why is it necessary?

The day actually has fairly radical origins, involving the Socialist Party of America. Over the past few years, however, it has become a corporate-backed, global rallying day for women’s issues with a key goal: to finally bring about gender parity around the world.

What is International Women’s Day?

In short, it’s a day to work toward gender parity.

The Socialist Party of America organized the first National Women’s Day in New York in 1909 to commemorate the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. (Women garment workers in early-20th-century America had plenty of reasons to walk off the job, as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would tragically prove.)

A year later, National Women’s Day became International Women’s Day at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, where more than 100 women from 17 countries decided to establish a worldwide day of celebration to press for working women’s demands.

In fact, the Russian Revolution has International Women’s Day to thank. The 1917 demonstrations by women demanding “bread and peace” sparked other strikes and protests, which led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II four days later and granted women the right to vote.

International Women’s Day became a more popularized holiday after 1977, when the United Nations invited member states to celebrate it on March 8.

Since 2001, the holiday has had a sponsored website and an annual theme. This year’s theme, #PressForProgress, encourages “motivating and uniting friends, colleagues and whole communities to think, act and be gender inclusive.” In 2016, the World Economic Forum predicted “the gender gap won't close entirely until 2186. This is too long to wait. Around the world, IWD can be an important catalyst and vehicle for driving greater change for women and moving closer to gender parity.”

The world is far from equal for men and women

All of this gets to a big problem the world still very clearly sees today: Women are still far from equal in just about any place in the world.

The World Economic Forum ranks 145 countries on women's equality on a scale of 0 (no equality) to 1 (full equality). The highest score of all is Iceland, clocking in at 0.881 — not bad, but not fully equal. The US is 28th, with a score of 0.740. Last is Yemen at 0.484.

The score is based on many factors: how many women participate in the workforce, how well women are paid compared with men, health and educational outcomes, and political empowerment and representation in government. Some countries fare better than others, but none is deemed fully equal under these metrics.

Other reports tell a similar story. According to the United Nations’ 2015 report on the progress of the world’s women, the gap between women and men remains particularly stubborn on issues of work. Women do more unpaid household work than men, and get paid less when they do work in the formal economy alongside men.

A chart shows some of the disparities women face around the world. UN Women

The US, for its part, doesn’t face the same abysmal maternal mortality rates, rampant human rights abuses, and other challenges that impoverished or developing countries do. But there are still big problems: For example, on average, women still earn about 79 cents for every dollar that men make for the same work. And women make up only about one in five legislators in Congress.

Changing all of this comes down to money, power, and will.

Spending more on international aid directed at women and girls can help them rise out of poverty and bring their families and communities up with them. Spending more on social safety net programs such as paid family leave and universal child care helps women participate more equally in the workforce, sparing them the choice between making a living and caring for their family. Helping women gain political power can help empower other women and girls, ensuring that women’s issues get priority in policymaking.

But to accomplish any of this, there needs to be awareness of the issues that women uniquely face in the world today. With International Women’s Day and A Day Without a Woman, organizers hope to raise that awareness — and make it clear that this really is a cause worth protesting and fighting for.

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