The day itself has antecedents that stretch back to 1908 when women garment workers marched in New York demanding better working conditions and the right to vote. From there, women demanded (and celebrated the day) throughout a number of European countries.
In 1917, tired of the war, mostly women protested in Russia demanding bread and suffrage. This was to be one of the precursors of the revolution that brought the Russian empire, and the rule of the Tsar, to an end. Russian women gained the right to vote that year, before their sisters in the UK and USA.
Ofttimes in these days International Women’s Day is viewed through the lens of equality. Have women gained similar rights as men? Has the pay discrepancy reduced? Are women gaining access to institutions of power once reserved exclusively for men?
Yet, not all women are focused simply upon equality. Germaine Greer cynically stated that,
“I didn’t fight to get women out of behind vacuum cleaners to get them onto the board of Hoover.”
Germaine Greer, and many other feminists (especially during the 1970s and 1980s) advocated liberation. Indeed, the feminist movement of that time was often called the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Liberation, as readers will know, means something much much more than equality.
Did men hijack the intent of liberation? Did men simplify the message (or at least hear the message) to one of “equality with men”? Did men maintain the institutions of patriarchy by allowing for the equality of women so that women could participate in those institutions? Did men do this so that the institutions would not have to change?
Are men afraid of liberation? Any form of liberation – not women’s only.
I don’t know the answers to these questions. However, I would rather the questions were posed and that we have to think about them, than have glib and simplistic answers available.
During the 1970s and 1980s, women’s liberation was a political project. Yet, even within the political phraseology there was a radically different understanding of “political.” Political did not mean women having equal access to the political institutions. It did not mean more women in the seats of government. It did not mean more women heads of state. Although all those aspirations are worthy, for the women’s liberation movement, political institutions and structures themselves had to be rethought.
To quote Germaine Greer again:
“I do think that women could make politics irrelevant; by a kind of spontaneous cooperative action the like of which we have never seen; which is so far from people’s ideas of state structure or viable social structure that it seems to them like total anarchy — when what it really is, is very subtle forms of interrelation that do not follow some heirarchal pattern which is fundamentally patriarchal. The opposite to patriarchy is not matriarchy but fraternity, yet I think it’s women who are going to have to break this spiral of power and find the trick of cooperation.”
That, men and women, is a totally transformed understanding of the role and nature of politics.
Thus, as another International Women’s Day is celebrated, let us recall the radical liberation ideas of the feminists who were active fifty years ago – at the time the international institution of the United Nations was proclaiming the day.
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