International Women’s Day (IWD) and Human Rights 2014

IWDBy Veronica Strong-Boag

Author’s note: This post was commissioned as an IWD blog by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It was initially approved and posted by the Museum on 4 March 2014. It was, however, almost immediately withdrawn as ‘Communications’ at the Museum deemed the one line comment on the current federal Conservative government unacceptable as written. The offer of a substantive footnote and illustrative example from the author brought no reply. has reposted this time-sensitive contribution here, to which examples of anti-women policies and a footnote have been added.

International Women’s Day on 8th March should be a key date in the human rights calendar. Its place is hard-won. When Charlotte Bunch, a leading figure in the creation of UN Women (2010), insisted in 1990 that women’s rights are human rights in the Human Rights Quarterly and Edward Broadbent, from the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, served in 1993 as a judge in the Vienna Tribunal on Women’s Human Rights, one half of humanity’s entitlement to fair dealing remained globally contested. That struggle continues.

Although recognition that women’s rights are human rights pre-dates even writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) in the western tradition, IWD emerged in 1908 with a mass women suffrage meeting organized by American socialists.  By 1911 the idea had reached Europe, where again it persisted as a special interest of the left. Unlike ‘Mother’s Day,’ also first observed in 1908, which celebrated women as maternal and peace-loving, IWD initially concentrated on waged and industrial labour. Early champions such as the German socialist Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) intended to highlight tragedies such as the 1911 New York Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and economic oppression generally. When IWD became an official holiday in Russia after 1917 and in the new People’s Republic of China in 1949, even as both countries failed to offer equality, liberal democracies, not to mention dictatorships, shied away.

Champions of equality, however, persisted. 20th century wars and genocides prompted international action. The United Nations, like the earlier League of Nations, proved influential, producing Conventions on the Political Rights of Women (1952), on the Nationality of Married Women (1957), and on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962). By the 1960s, the second great feminist wave took up the unfinished agenda of fundamental human rights. Its message infused International Women’s Year (1975), the International Decade of Women (1976-85), and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW; 1979).

IWD was another beneficiary. In 1977 the UN encouraged members to proclaim 8th March ‘the UN Day for Women’s Rights and International Peace.’ The linkage of women and peace (remember Mother’s Day) was familiar. Far newer was recognition of violence against women in both war and peace as a major human rights violation. This was not the only shift. By the close of the 20th century, the IWD feminist grassroots in Canada as elsewhere emphasized the role of class, race, sexuality, and (dis)ability in further jeopardizing particular groups. Although Canadians grew increasingly sensitive to human rights, state approval included the threat of cooptation. In 2014 Canada’s Conservative government left its anti-woman record unmentioned (which included withdrawal of plans for a national child care program and major cuts to Status of Women Canada [2006], the prohibition of civil servants taking pay equity complaints to the Human Rights Commission [2009], the denial of international funding for abortion [2010], and major cuts to public services that employ and serve significant numbers of women)[1] as it dedicated IWD week to the ‘valuable contribution of women entrepreneurs.’

For the moment, despite herculean efforts by loyalists, the IWD spirit often resides elsewhere than in official commitments. In 1991, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside inaugurated 14th February as a Day of Remembrance for murdered and missing women. As losses mounted across the country and around the world, that tragic record drew increasing censure.  The UN appointed a special rapporteur on violence against women while the Native Women’s Association of Canada and the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action provided on-going proof of abuse for the UN CEDAW Committee. In 2014, nation-wide Valentine’s Day protests once again illuminated the plight of particularly disadvantaged women. The Canadian human rights calendar now properly includes the day previously evocative solely of romance.

The 8th of March should not, however, be abandoned. The IWD’s vision of ‘bread and roses’ does not rely on UN approval, for all its value.  Like much feminist accomplishment, it has been hard forged on picket lines, in women’s shelters, in political life, and in private homes.  With its rich history of resistance and celebration, IWD remains a key marker of how far we have come and how much remains to be done when it comes to women’s human rights in Canada and around the globe. On 8 March 2014, like many others, I will be renewing my commitment to a more just future.

1. For an introduction to this see Sylvia Bashevkin, “Regress trumps progress: women, feminism and the Harper government,” Perspective/FES Washington (July 2012),

Veronica Strong-Boag, the author and editor of many scholarly books and articles, received the Tyrrell Medal for excellence in Canadian history from the Royal Society of Canada in 2012 and is a former president of the Canadian Historical Association. She is a Professor Emerita at UBC and at the moment the Ashley Visiting Professor at Trent.  

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34 thoughts on “International Women’s Day (IWD) and Human Rights 2014

  1. kaitlin

    The contrast between this post and yesterday’s (on Observing Civic Commemorations in Toronto) is striking. To me, the commemorations that matter most are the ones that are hard-fought and that continue to engage in the discourse that they espouse. This was an important reminder that historians have a role to play in engaging contemporary debate and discussions, especially when opportunities to do so are stymied. Thank you for sharing this, Dr. Stong-Boag.

  2. Leanne Fournier

    I add to this that in our local community of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, home of the Canadian Human Rights Museum, the Winnipeg Art Gallery is featuring a stunning exhibit Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and Art that speaks to the pervasiveness of this social issue in current and historical context. Applaud the WAG for honouring the subject and all women with free admittance tomorrow out of respect for International Women’s Day. This helps to spread the power of the exhibit and its message even further accessible to everyone. Kudos to the WAG and to Ms. Strong-Boag for these contributions.

  3. susanacrussell

    This is an important outline of the Herstory and the recent stories of anti women policies. Thank you goes to Dr. Strong-Boag. This tells it like it is.

  4. Jessa Chupik

    Withdrawing Dr. Strong-Boag’s article from the Canadian Museum for Human Rights blog was wrong. This article provides thoughtful and exceptional historical analysis, while reflecting on contemporary issues. A part of what historians are expected and should do is to write about contemporary issues and that is exactly what is written about in the article; in fact, it is what drives us as historians. Dr. Strong-Boag has taught many of us to do this in our training as female historians. I am grateful that there is a place like ActiveHistory where her message can be heard openly.

  5. Dale Barbour

    If the Canadian Museum for Human Rights isn’t prepared to allow people to speak truth to power on a seemingly straightforward matter like this, how does it expect to tackle the thornier issues that come from looking at Canada’s and the world’s relationship with human rights?

  6. Jon G. Malek

    Taking this down from the CMHR site is a sad day for its very mission and kudos for preserving this. Women’s Rights *is* Human Rights, and there should never be a qualifier on any rights. It is a dangerous sign of the times in Canada when free speech over Women’s and Human Rights are silenced by a _Human Rights_ museum, regardless of its length from the government. HR should not be partisan.

  7. Sean Kheraj

    I’m so glad to see step in and publish this article after CMHR took it down off of its website. This is yet another example of the degree to which the Federal government has eroded the arms-length status of our national museums.

  8. Alison Letourneau

    While I too am appalled at the ongoing meddling of the federal government in our national institutions, including its national museums, I would be curious to know whether or not the order to take down the said blog was politically directed or not. It seems to me that the greatest threat to our democratic freedoms of free speech and women’s rights may arise from the misguided and misinformed actions of petty bureaucrats such as those working in Communications at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, or worse, their Executive. I would like to see someone held to account for this unacceptable form of censorship on such an important topic, in our Museum. Alternatively, I believe the public deserves an explanation.

  9. Barb MacDonalf

    I just posted this article to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights facebook page. Let’s see how long before it is deleted…

  10. Tanis MacDonald

    I too am glad to see the full text of Dr. Strong-Boag’s article posted here: much gratitude to ActiveHistory for doing so. I can only echo Dale Barbour’s question, and hope that the CMHR reconsiders its decision, or at the very least, addresses the concerns raised here.

  11. Ester Reiter

    Removing Dr., Strong Boag’s excellent and informative article only underlines the iimportance of the comment she made about the anti woman [and anti human] practices of the Harper government in an increasingly undemocratic Canada, and the problematic nature of the Human Rights museum, — that is unless museum means a place where one looks at a graveyard for what used to be hoped for in Canada.

  12. Marcy Toms

    I am disgusted, but not at all surprised, that the current federal government through its particularly partisan control of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, seems to have censored Dr. Strong-Boag for telling the truth. It is a dark day indeed when a relatively benign assessment with evidence attached about the nature of the government, is extirpated, thus demonstrating the very point the author sought to make. Add this to the failure of that same government to initiate an inquiry into Canada’s many missing and murdered women, and it is easy to see who is right and who is not.

  13. fem_progress

    The exhibits also have no mention of Roms or GBLTI people as victims of the Holocaust, if I am correct.

  14. Elizabeth Jameson

    Thanks for posting this. I am horrified that a Museum allegedly committed to human rights would censor such a distinguished feminist voice.

  15. Laura Madokoro

    Thank you Veronica Strong-Boag and for making this history known and creating the space for an open discussion. I have written the Museum for Human Rights to express my disappointment with their decision and encourage others to do the same.

  16. E Vibert

    Such a useful historical review for us all — and if anything measured in its critique of the current govt. Hard to imagine worse optics for a Museum of Human Rights. My twelve-year-old daughter is mystified.

  17. rsemple

    Wouldn’t it be nice if it wasn’t necessary to have strong women like Prof. Strong-Boag to say the tough stuff, and sites like this to post it when she’s censored. Glad that we do though. Maybe sometime in the future the Museum will host an exhibit that showcases the way in which our current government’s policies have harmed Canadians – how about Sisters in Spirit? How about funding for women’s shelters? How about cuts to legal aid?

  18. C. Joyce Hodgson

    I appreciate this opportunity to read the blog prepared for and requested by our Canadian Museum of Human Rights. We are shamed by the actions of a few. Thank you for making Professor Strong-boag’s blog available.

  19. Nicole O'Byrne

    Censorship is antithetical to human rights. Thank you Dr. Strong-Boag for standing your ground. We support you.

  20. johnny Ose

    come on ladies, rebranding, its the way to get this govt ear, how about

  21. Dave

    Well I’m glad that this isn’t on the CMHR website. I get where you’re coming from and some of the logic behind your views, but you’re gonna go and bash a political party while neglecting half the facts? Then bitch and whine to the national media? Congratulations, you’ve become the laughingstock of Canadian journalism. Keep it up, we’re having a good laugh.

  22. Andrew Graham

    Thank-you for your insights, and your steadfastness in getting your message out. Those attempting to censure you should be ashamed, but we see their colours and should take note and act.

  23. Barb MacDonald

    Here is CMHR’s response on their facebook page which was posted today. Somehow I doubt the veracity of their answer. “The Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) contacted Dr. Strong-Boag to write a blog for International Women’s Day. When the blog was received, there was a breakdown in our internal processes and it was posted to our Web site without having gone through our regular review and approvals. It was removed because it didn’t align with our standards for blog posts.

    CMHR blogs are intended to consist of interesting short stories on human rights themes and topics, ideally from a first-person perspective, written primarily by CMHR staff as an opportunity to showcase the depth and diversity of their work and experiences.

    On occasion, the CMHR invites guest bloggers who have a connection to the Museum or to timely human rights topics. These blogs ideally consist of anecdotal accounts of personal experiences that illuminate human rights these and include “rich media” (photos, images).

    The CMHR makes efforts to ensure that guest blogs not be used as, or be perceived as, a platform for political positions or partisan statements.

    The CMHR is improving its internal processes to ensure concise guidelines can be provided to guest bloggers and to allow time for fulsome review and approval”.

    My question now is how they can possibly interpret Human Rights without political statements…

  24. sheila

    Women’s studies divide. It mislead’s young women into feeling victimized and bitter. It is good only for these quasi intellects who feed off divisiveness. Think breast
    cancer awareness. If these young women knew of the false positives and hysteria caused by good intentions they’d burn those pink ribbons.

  25. Lauren W.

    Thanks for posting the short piece by Dr. Strong-Boag. There have been rumblings in the museum sector for years about interference from the federal government in the CMHR, some even made the CBC News site (
    The issues brought up by the removal of this blog post due to one critical – yet completely accurate – statement are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to federal interference in the heritage sector.
    How can museums and heritage institutions funded by the federal government fulfill the mandate of exposing the public to the depth and richness of the past when to use funds they are told to only talk about the nice parts that the government agrees with.

  26. Manuela Popovici

    Sounds more like Harper’s a Rights Museum. It’s sad to see institutions and people self-censor themselves like this – is it from the belief that Harper’s policies have not harmed women, or it is fear of consequences?

  27. Sharon Haggerty

    I sent the following to CMHR:I understand that the work of the highly respected historian, Dr. Strong-Boag, has been removed from your site as she had the temerity to make a negative comment about our current Harper government. Why is a historian who has good reason (and sound historical evidence) for her criticism of the federal government considered dangerous enough to be silenced by a supposedly arms-length institution? I am appalled. Since when do democratic governments refuse to allow criticism? Since Stephen Harper it seems. I mourn for the loss of democracy in my beloved Canada.

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