Memo to Self on International Women’s Day

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Memo to Self:

Remember to stop on this International Women’s Day and consider your contributions to this world, and prepare to contribute more.

Sounds simple, especially to those in my generation of American women who ‘just got on with it’ and confidently marched into university and the workforce on the wide shoulders of the women and men who sacrificed for us – until ‘having it all’ became a snide commentary on women’s roles in the American economy.

Americans celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of every September. International Women’s Day is no longer celebrated in the United States where I was born and raised in the 1960 and 70s. It was widely considered a ‘communist’ tradition and therefore rejected outright and unrecognized on our calendars.

International Women’s Day is not a communist tradition. In fact, it is an American, Canadian and European labor movement tradition. Here are the facts, according to the United Nations:

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History: International Women’s Day first emerged from the activities of labour movements at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and across Europe.

1909: The first National Woman’s Day was observed in the United States on 28 February. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honour of the 1908 garment workers’ strike in New York, where women protested against working conditions.

1910: The Socialist International, meeting in Copenhagen, established a Women’s Day, international in character, to honour the movement for women’s rights and to build support for achieving universal suffrage for women. The proposal was greeted with unanimous approval by the conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, which included the first three women elected to the Finnish Parliament. No fixed date was selected for the observance.

1911: As a result of the Copenhagen initiative, International Women’s Day was marked for the first time (19 March) in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, they demanded women’s rights to work, to vocational training and to an end to discrimination on the job.

1913-1914: International Women’s Day also became a mechanism for protesting World War I. As part of the peace movement, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February. Elsewhere in Europe, on or around 8 March of the following year, women held rallies either to protest the war or to express solidarity with other activists.

1917: Against the backdrop of the war, women in Russia again chose to protest and strike for ‘Bread and Peace’ on the last Sunday in February (which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar). Four days later, the Czar abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.

Source: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/feature/iwd/history.html

* * *

It’s important to ask why this international holiday celebrating women and our wide ranging contributions and potential remains unrecognized in 21st century America where one’s choice of work and the fruits of our labor often define us in society, and for some, one’s destination in the afterlife.

Of course ‘defining ourselves through work’ is limiting and certainly not unique to the US. America’s Protestant Work Ethic continues to shape social expectations and advancement.  In fact, US domestic policies are broadly designed so that citizens and newly arrived immigrants can achieve the ‘American Dream’. Call this ‘naïve American optimism’, ‘capitalist consumerism’ or ‘delusional myth making.’ Call it what you will.

But if US President Barack Obama’s recent State of the Union address is anything to go by very little leadership is expected out of the White House regarding equality and justice for women. In his speech the president said that it is ‘wrong’ and an ‘embarrassment’ that half of the US workforce are women who do not earn equal pay for their work also performed by their male counterparts (http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/28/president-barack-obamas-state-union-address).

The president mentioned this decades old fact as a mere transition to discussing raising the minimum wage. The president does not appear to have the courage like the men and women before him to lead a march for equality, let alone for women by reviving and revamping the Equal Rights Amendment. Nor did the president call for the nation’s support of US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (NY-D) Military Justice Improvement Act which is carefully designed to recognize and fight the epidemic of sexual assaults in the US military (http://www.gillibrand.senate.gov/mjia).

Are we to understand then that America’s president believes it is acceptable that women (and citizens in general) remain unequal under the law, unprotected in their homes, the US military and other workplaces, and essentially undervalued in the ‘greatest nation on Earth’?

It’s important to consider these things and to challenge American cynicism and willful inaction surrounding issues of women’s rights – as well as human rights. If America does not get it right, then what hope is there for fledgling democracies and the many countries fighting for the rights of women?

There is plenty of hope and examples to help guide these countries as well as the US, which seems to have lost its way. History shows us that when called upon Americans – like others – have enormous strength of will, clarity and charity. But when Americans separate themselves from the rest of the world, including by disregarding International Women’s Day, we have a responsibility to ask why.

What’s so hard or ‘radical’ about joining the world on 8 March to recognize the specific contributions and value of women? Yes, Americans celebrate the work force each September but for most the three-day weekend is an opportunity to enjoy the final days of summer outside of work.

Lauding inalienable US constitutional rights, liberty, freedom and equality – without backing it up with domestic and international policies consistent with those political principles demeans America’s significant contributions and potential. It also highlights the continuing hypocrisy on civil and human rights coming out of the White House, despite the president’s well crafted speeches.

We can and should do better, including the 2016 US presidential candidates who can lead vigorous debates about women’s rights and more broadly, human rights. Will the 24/7 mainstream media and voters embrace this debate or will they allow partisan politics and carefully crafted speeches to avoid meaningful action?

Rachel Cunningham is a Master of Arts candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, Australia where she is researching contemporary foreign policy.  She graduated from the University of Chicago with a BA in Political Science and is a former journalist. She currently resides in Hanoi, Vietnam.  Follow Rachel on Twitter @RCHanoi.

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4 Comments

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  1. Good article..what more would one expect from a US President’s state of the union message? These speeches are usually filled with nice sayings and rousing comments….but are rather meatless sandwiches….and this last one was no different. There is no doubt that a human being that has all the qualities to fill a job must reap the ‘normal’ benefits fo that job including the pay levels. The recent US election with its ‘war on women’ tagline for the Democrats did nothing but help get an inept man re elected..what have they done since to aid whatever their point was (this was nothing but an argument to reach people’s emotions..and it did work!)? Nothing that would narrow the gender gap in positions or pay in the workplace…and most female voters voted for this man…in 2016, Hillary Clinton will run for president…and she will receive most of the female vote….will this help women? Perhaps, but if the current US president who received 90% plus of the black vote in both of his elections is any example…it will be just another politican playing on emotions on their way to the White House…in 2009 the number black unemployment was 10%..in 2013 it is 13%…Nice job Barack!

    1. Rachel Cunningham

      Peter: Thanks for your feedback. You nailed it: the disappointment in Barack Obama’s presidency crosses the political spectrum, including among his most ardent and early supporters. Gary Younge expressed this well recently: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/23/what-is-barack-obama-presidency-for

      Should former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton run for the US presidency in 2016 will her supporters expect her administration to advocate strongly for women and children, much like the unspoken and rather naive expectation that President Obama would represent African-American interests?

      I’m with you: it is time to move beyond the superficial assessments and expectations, and evaluate Hillary Clinton’s potential as an effective president through her congressional legacy and track record on civil rights, the domestic and international economies, war and diplomacy. That would be a good start.

  2. Richard Kitchener

    Interesting article. Having lived and worked in several former USSR countries and communist countries in SE Asia, currently living in Vietnam, I have noticed all of them take seriously the celebration of International Women’s day. All these countries rely heavily on contributions that women make in many workplaces. Agriculture, mining, fishing, public service sectors, private enterprise and family.

    To generalize these societies are patriarchal with women assuming more diminutive roles, arguably many western societies are very similar. As such it is nice to see women recognized and celebrated, albeit for a fleeting moment, during the year. True equality and recognition is however someway off! The same could be said of many western societies.

    1. Rachel Cunningham

      Well put Rich. Striving for ‘true equality and recognition’ in our homes, workplaces, and political spheres is a meaningful goal. It would also go a long way toward reviving respect and credibility for western democratic governments and their international diplomatic human rights initiatives in China, Russia, Vietnam and elsewhere.

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