In educating myself on women’s rights and feminism, International Women’s Day (IWD) presents an opportunity to acquire further knowledge. To learn from those leading the charge.
Looking into its history, I have learned IWD started in 1909 by a Socialist Party of America in support of women’s demand for better working conditions in the garment industry. It evolved in 1910 into the universal demand for women’s right to vote. In Europe, it was used to demand women’s right to work and protest World War 1. The United Nations celebrated it in 1975 and has since been used as a program for action globally. According to their website, IWD remains about recognising women’s achievements. Since 1996, it has set a theme each year.
This history and global focus make IWD more of an idea to me than a course of action.
My first involvement in IWD was in 2017 when I attended a conference for public sector workers in London. I found the experience invigorating. I learned from women who spoke of their experience of unequal treatment throughout their careers. I left understanding the experiences discussed were not merely individual but rather a reflection of customs in the work place.
What I liked most about the day was the collective aspect. People interested in women’s rights coming together, appealed to me. I left eager for bold steps for change but unclear how to put this into practice. Because while the various speakers validated each other’s experiences, there was no agreed upon actions as a collective. Maybe sharing is the point. Maybe that is enough for these events. But discussing problems without exploring and agreeing how we solve them, together, felt incomplete.
Time is Now
By 2018, my engagement had improved somewhat. The year of the #MeToo campaign against sexual abuse. Weinstein, Trump and Brexit, having stripped away my naive belief that women were by now considered equal to men, I appreciated this IWD and its theme.
I jumped at the chance to see Laura Bates, feminist writer and founder of The Everyday Sexism Project, and Dr. Helen Pankhurst, great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, at an event leading up to IWD titled A Time’s Up! A Movement for Change.The panel of four advocated use of practical solutions to bring about structural change. They called for an end to all white male meetings, supporting campaigns like period poverty, investing in child care and disrupting the norm. I liked the sound of this. There, I also witnessed resistance. One attendee asked the panel to name one thing that would go to eradicating sexism. I did not realise it then, but this was a statement. A statement that asserted simplicity of the problem. Thereby rejecting the notion that women’s oppression was embedded in everything, and therefore complex. A single solution would be ineffective.
This year I was lucky to see Angela Yvonne Davis, (activist, writer and professor) at the Women of the Worldevent. Her book; Women, Race & Class, has impacted my thinking so it was an exciting opportunity. To a mixed audience of generations, sex and race, she covered an impressive number of areas in her two-hour conversation. She did not sell utopia. A world where sexism, racism, inequality no longer exist. Instead she educated us on racism having existed for over 500 years. Its first rebellion also dating back to 1526. This is to show work for progress is constant and worth doing without guarantees.
She went on to impress on us the need to;
- question structural basis,
- understand that issues of black racism, antisemitism and islamophobia are linked to the idea of white supremacy,
- unpack ‘inclusion’ because where it does not transform the way things are done to deliver justice, it is empty,
- abandon the reform mindset and adopt an abolitionist one – challenging a perhaps a too often timid approach to problems; and
- think of feminism as the approach to bring everything together.
She talked about a lot more than I am able to understand today. Including a broad issue that I am starting to notice. A caution over the emphasis of individualism, a capitalist value. This is about the preference for individual solutions by and for individuals over a collective.
This aligns with what I have learned from events like thison Racial Inequality in Britain and this American article on Women and Class. These stress that social change has tended to benefit some women. The use of individual solutions is one of the reasons for this. Individual organisations demand social change for their members. They are successful because they have access to useful networks and money. This solution therefore favors middle class women. Success of this approach gives the impression change is only achieved this way. Perpetuating the trend.
This makes me think differently about IWD.
I am thinking, as a platform, it could benefit individual organisations able to capitalise on the collective momentum. A collection of women outside these organisations’ membership give their time and money to support the idea of IWD in a number of ways. While it is but an idea for these women, for some, with the right membership, it could be a course for action.
In conclusion, IWD to me is the opportunity to be in company of thinkers and activists. To be part of an ongoing complex conversation on the conditions that define what it means to be a woman. What is missing for me is the how, how our frustrations can be turned into action to bring about change that can benefit all. The absence of a collective or collaborative structure to set and achieve concrete goals, leaves it an incomplete experience for me.