International Women's Day

It’s Women’s Day, but what about women’s days?

General Women's Day

On Wednesday 8 March 2023, many countries will have a public holiday for International Women’s Day. While it is clearly a good thing to highlight the contributions and accomplishments of women, does it hide a gender gap between public holidays that celebrate people?

In 1977, the United Nations declared 8 March as International Women’s Day, a day each year when the world should celebrate, recognise and remember women and the accomplishments they have made to society. This year, it will be a public holiday in 27 countries around the world. In China, women are entitled to take a half day off. This means that about 15% of the world could be enjoying a public holiday on 8 March.

On the subject of countries and women, there are 25 sovereign nations that are named after people, but only one is a named after a female. Do you know which one? The answer is at the end of this article.

That country name statistic got us wondering if there is a similar gender gap when it comes to public holidays named after people.

We looked at 2,600 public holidays in 2022 that took place in over 170 countries. These holidays cover 808 different topics (for example, All Saints’ Day was celebrated in 29 countries on 1st November). Of these 808 topics, 203 can be said to be related to individuals, both human and gods – and in the case of two North Korean holidays, maybe a bit of both.

Of these 206 individuals, 42 (20%) were female. What stands out from this list is that holidays related to the Virgin Mary account for an impressive 51 days of public holidays in 2022 in 38 countries. There is also strong female representation with Hindu festivals, with goddesses Durga and Lakshmi being the focus of important holidays.

If we put religious holidays to one side, we can look at how our societies have decided to recognize those individuals who are deemed to have made such a large contribution that we should all take a day off to reflect on their lives – or at least stay in bed a bit longer and maybe go into town later if it’s nice out.

With the religious figures removed, our female list is whittled down to just eight*; Queen Victoria, the Queen Mother of Cambodia, Mother Teresa*, Benazir Bhutto, Frances Xavier Cabrini, Josina Muthemba Machel, Rose Francine Rogombé and Sirikit, the Queen Mother of Thailand. There are 90 men left on our list, so less than 9% of the public holidays that honor individuals, honor women.

*The list was nine until 2023, as the passing of Queen Elizabeth II meant that the Queen’s Birthday has become the King’s Birthday in the countries that observe it.

It should be mentioned that the number-crunching to get to these figures does miss out some interesting holidays, such as Jamaican National Heroes’ Day which recognizes ‘Queen Nanny’, a prominent 18th-century leader of the Jamaican Maroons amongst the seven national heroes. The Philippines also has a National Heroes’ Day with two (Melchora Aquino and Gabriela Silang) of the nine heroes being heroines.

Added to this, we didn’t cover all countries and did include many regional holidays, so there may be some wiggle room on the final figures – for instance we could have argued that the holidays that honor current monarchs should be excluded as these holidays don’t specifically recognize gender, but the role. However even accounting for these arguments, we can still say that female focused holidays don’t account for more than 10% of all public holidays that honor individuals.

So if someone asks ‘what about a holiday for men?’, you can confidently say that men are already doing quite well when it comes to holidays! As a side note, there is an International Men’s Day. It’s on 19 November, but it’s not observed as a public holiday in any country.

In 2020, Colorado became the first US state to honor a woman with a paid holiday. They replaced Columbus Day with Cabrini Day. Frances Xavier Cabrini was an Italian-American Roman Catholic nun, who created 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the United States and South and Central America throughout her lifetime.

Apart from this recent change, it is slim pickings for other female-focused holidays in America. At a state level there is Susan B. Anthony Day in California and Daisy Gatson Bates Day in Arkansas, but the former is commemorative and the latter is tagged onto President’s Day – which is still a ‘boys only’ gang.

It would be nice to redress the balance and have more recognition for the women who have an impact on societies around the world. A wider observance of International Women’s Day would at least be a start. And why does that have to be at a country level? In the USA, most companies choose to observe only some of the 10 US Federal holidays and in India, the holidays are often voted on by employees from a wide selection; so why shouldn’t companies treat International Women’s Day as a holiday?

We did count Mother’s Day as a female holiday, but of course, that is counterbalanced in most countries by Father’s Day. We also counted Mothering Sunday in the UK and Ireland – though the date and name of that holiday originally had nothing to do with Mothers, but try telling that to your mother.

Finally, another potential suggestion to increase female representation is highlighted in Heritage Day, a provincial holiday in Nova Scotia, Canada. Each year, the recipient is changed to highlight a different individual’s contribution to the province. This allows a wider diversity of individuals to be celebrated and learnt about, and stops the holiday getting locked into a single person/gender. For example, the subject of 2023’s Nova Scotia Heritage Day was Rita Joe, a Mi’kmaw poet from Eskasoni and We’koqma’q First Nations in Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island). Rita Joe’s (1932-2007) first collection of poetry was published in 1978 and she went on to publish six more works and earn many honours.

In case you didn’t know, the only country named after a female is Saint Lucia. Saint Lucy (Lucia) of Syracuse was a young Christian martyr who died during the Diocletianic Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire of 304 AD.

*Mother Teresa has a public holiday in Romania, but since her fame was founded on her charitable works, we didn’t exclude her when we purged the religious holidays.