“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’, I ask, ‘Why? What’s your problem?”
Dale Spender, Man Made Language
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”
Martin Luther King
On this day I am often think of my mother, an intelligent generous vivacious women who never got the chance to finish high school and was pushed out by the patriarchal system of her family to be a domestic worker. She may not have agreed with this perspective but this is her story too. In the years after the end of the war, with Alsace having reverted back to France from being subjugated under Germany during the war, my mother found herself faltering at being the best in her class at school. Before war broke out she was easily the best at her neighboring village high school and loved the challenge of education. During the war schooling in Alsace was forced back to being taught in German and then reverted back to French after the War. Alsace has been a region historically disputed over for centuries, influenced by the Celts, Romans, Franks, annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war, ceded back to France after WW1 with the Treaty of Versailles, and then invaded again by Germany during WW2. With this war time schooling disruption my mother, also convinced to jump classes, found that she was no longer the best and this difficult to tolerate. With much discord at home and post war turmoil abounding education seemed less of a necessity at the time so she stayed home to help in vineyards and re-establishing the family business. Simply did not go back to school one day. No one at home seemed to notice or encourage her to return. Her parents were divorcing, the first in the village, that would see her mother shunned from the only church in the village, her older brother was getting married, her uncle’s young wife also busy in the family business, her younger sister still too young to contribute, her grandmother still an active family member. Suddenly there were too many women in the family home and without an education or any further plans her presence seemed a burden. A position was found for her to be housekeeper for an elderly couple in Zürich. There she spent a few happy years, learnt how to drive and was generally treated with respect by her employers. But in essence she felt herself a glorified servant, was not happy for her future to unfold in this way and missed Alsace. Eventually she found a position as assistant to a psychiatrist in Colmar and returned closer to home where she worked until she met my dad finally to leave Alsace forever with him to far-flung shores she had never even dreamed of. And would recount years later to her own young daughter incredible tales of working for that psychiatrist, a woman, one of the few role models of my childhood of a working professional woman.
International Women’s Day, the 9th March, has been celebrated every year on this day since 1914. Its first iteration was in 1909 in New York in remembrance of the 1908 strike by the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union but was subsequently associated with women led strikes and riots in March1914, and in Russia in 1917 women led marches initiated the February Revolution as women demanded an end to war, food shortages and czarism. Yet women’s rights are not just something of the past, even though this past week one of my young fellow classmate’s blithely commented to me that she has never felt any discrimination as a woman in her life and couldn’t relate to the life of Tsitsi Dangarembga whom we had read that week and who wrote a ground breaking narrative on post-colonial patriarchal Zimbabwe in Nervous Conditions. I was amazed at the world she lives in or does not notice. That indeed is still a rarity, as my own teenage daughter would not say the same thing. She has felt many a time that being a girl impacts many aspects of her life, from dress and looks, to being harassed on the streets of London, to food and body politics, to acceptable passes given to boys over girls – the sexes are not equally valued or supported within the greater societal perspective. For female teenagers growing up into this world there is still a significant wage gap, slut shaming, feeling lessor than, pressure to perform according to gender norms, and still experience ‘housewife’ jokes and teasing.
In their online Time blog an article today identifies four areas where great strides in the wellbeing of women and girl children worldwide have been made – education, maternal mortality, water access, and leadership. http://time.com/3734862/international-womens-day-progress-action/. One may think these are just issues for the so called lessor industrialized countries but as an example a country like the US, with about 28 pregnancy related deaths per 100,000 woman, has a maternal mortality rates worse than Iran, China and Russia, significantly worse than a recently war torn country like Serbia, and three times worse than Germany. Comparable developed countries like UK and Europe have numbers below 10 per 100,000 women. This is a shocking indictment for an advanced nation and its commitment to developing rights and care for its women. Perhaps a complex issue to solve but much to do with access to health care for everyone, as well as pre-natal care and post-natal visits for reasons that seem to very narrowly linked provision of care only to a model of profit making within health care. New leadership models that seek to care for its workers rather than put profit first are paradoxically finding it may be good for business, may be of interest to the health industry of the future in tackling access to health not just with a profit motive in mind. [http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/business/at-aetna-a-ceos-management-by-mantra.html?_r=1&referrer] I find it difficult to accept such a narrow economic view of care and success and happiness which defines it only according to our own success. We need to advocate that all women can have similar advantages and access to education, to good maternal and child health, to water, low risk of death, ability to be leaders in their field.
And for my son who continues to challenge my own narrow understanding of gender, violence, trauma, priviledge and social constraints with his thoughtful investigations I would like to share the story of Sojourner Truth, a women born into slavery around 1797 of parents from Ghana and Guinea in New York and when escaping her own slavery was not able to take all her children with her. When she found out that her young son of 5 had been illegally sold to a slave owner in the South she became the first black woman to successfully challenge a white man and win in a US court, understanding how to challenge the constraints of society from within itself. She went on to become a well known abolitionist and women rights activist speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention of 1851. But even in her lifetime she was considered a radical as she advocated civil rights for black women as well as for men and openly expressed concern that these would be paused when rights for men were realised. As she feared women’s rights would lag behind that of others and the vote for women in the US would only be realised in 1920, nearly forty years after her death.
This International Women’s Day remember those close to us, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our sons, and our friends, the lives they may have sacrificed for our privilege today, and continue to raise our voices in support of women everywhere. Let us do our part within our own lives every day. And in so doing this not only benefit women but all people, men and women alike. It may be as relatively small a daily intention as being respectful to women of difference around us, refraining from shaming, belittling, and blaming others for a life they may have little control over. Let us be compassionate for their journey. It may be our journey too.