Happy International Women's Day!
Since its first observance in the early 1900s, at a time of rapid industrialization, economic expansion, and a rise in radical ideologies, International Women’s Day has grown from its socialist roots into a global day of recognition and celebration in developed and developing countries alike.
Last year I celebrated March 8th in Warsaw, Poland at a time shortly after the Department of Gender Equality had been shut down. In a country in which abortion is illegal and may soon be constitutionally banned, I found it rather odd to be sitting at a table in my supervisor’s office eating chocolate candy and drinking sparkling cider to celebrate, when it felt more appropriate to be rallying outside of the Polish president’s house.
Many of us are familiar with International Women’s Day in connection with the United Nations’ annual conference to coordinate international efforts for women’s participation in social, political, and economic processes. In years past, the UN has focused on some of the most critical issues facing the international women’s community -- female genital mutilation in Africa, the burning of brides in India, honor killings in the Middle East, sex trafficking in Southeast Asia, and rape as a weapon of war used in Chiapas, Mexico, Kuwait, Haiti, Colombia, and elsewhere.
In cooperation with the UN, women’s organizations and governments around the world -- if, unlike the organization in Warsaw, they’re not saturated with candy or bubbling over in cider -- observe International Women's Day by holding large-scale events that honor women’s advancements while reminding us of our continued responsibility to insure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life.
Now that there are women politicians, doctors, CEOs, athletes, astronauts, and clergy, and countless women role models in all realms of public life, we do, in fact, have a lot to celebrate on this day; at the Jewish Women’s Archive, this celebration happens every day. And yet for me, March 8th adds a more mindful dimension to this celebration by giving me pause to think about where and how I am situated in the world. With an education, a job, food on the table, access to health care, and many extraordinary women whose passions, convictions, and careers inspire me, it’s all too easy to be fooled into thinking that so many battles have been won. But even from my place of privilege, women still do not receive equal pay for their work, are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and suffer far more violence, discrimination, and social injustice than men.
When I reflect upon how seemingly distanced I am from global gender injustices, I try to remember that over one hundred years ago, this day did, in fact, bridge distance. In its origins, the force behind International Women’s Day came from European women who drew inspiration from the radical energy of women labor activists in the United States, many of them Jewish. Wouldn’t it be great if we could regain some of the momentum that generated this cross-continental interaction during a very tumultuous time?
For me, the power of International Women’s Day is in thinking about the concurrent universality and particularity of women’s experiences by balancing the need to celebrate with the enduring need to act. By using history to empower and inform the present, the challenge remains to “think globally, act locally” and to do so boldly, responsibly, cooperatively, and lovingly… perhaps with chocolate in close reach.