One unwashed dish might not seem a powerful statement on its own, but, if it is one of a million dirty plates, it could make a resounding mess. This week, on the 8th of March, thousands will renounce their daily demands to strike for International Women’s Day. Women are calling upon women to act, or not act, in any way they can: to ‘put a broom outside the front door or a banner in the window; bang pots and pans, change your facebook profile to the image of the Strike, refuse to do the washing up or the shopping, charge double for sex work’.[i] They’ll also gather to disrupt public spaces across the world. The aim: to paralyse life for the day. To stop the rhythms of routine and show the undervalued — often hidden — work that keeps the world moving.
Women will gather outside Parliament in London to demand an end to gender violence, discrimination and poverty. This is one of many gatherings, but the reasons to strike are diverse. For example, the All African Women’s Group will perform a play condemning racism and sexism in England’s immigration system. A demonstration outside London’s Central Family Court will protest ‘unjust separation of children from their mothers’.[ii] Groups including Women Against Rape, Queer Strike, and the English Collective of Prostitutes are coordinating the day’s activities. Of course, many women can’t afford to spare a day to strike and participating in International Women’s Day can also entail calling a representative or signing a petition.
Organizers have said they hope the strike will build on the momentum of the anti-Trump women’s marches, as well as recent demonstrations in Argentina and Poland fighting for reproductive rights and against male violence. But the movement’s roots are more than a century old. The first International Women’s Day took place in 1911, when more than one million women from Austria, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland rallied for women’s suffrage and other causes.[iii] The day was inspired by a 1909 National Women’s Day in the United States, organized by the Socialist Party of America following a garment workers’ strike in New York, in which female workers demanded better conditions.
These actions sparked a movement that would eventually span many countries, and today International Women’s Day is meant to rally women as a collective. This focus is integral to the spirit of the day. To quote Gloria Steinem, ‘The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights’.[iv]
The history is compelling and powerful but also presents some troubling contradictions. Is it empowering and liberating for women to collaborate under the banner of ‘being a woman’, or is it simply reaffirming entrenched gender divisions? Is it okay to bang a pot or not go shopping, thereby reinforcing some gendered associations that many want to challenge? Temma Kaplan’s theory of female consciousness is useful in unpacking this paradox. According to her, when women mask their differences and homogenise their identities by claiming to act in the name of ‘womanhood’ they are employing female consciousness.[v]
Female consciousness denotes situations in which women accept their ascribed role as caregivers, but demand the rights that these obligations entail. Throughout history, groups appealing to womanhood have often justified overtly political acts, allowing them to challenge or rightfully resist state power and to move outside the private domain.[vi] For example, in the late 70s women in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo drew upon their identities as Madres to protest the desaparecidos — the disappeared. Appealing to their identities as mothers wielded greater power and more protection than calling themselves ‘citizens’.[vii] Female consciousness places human need above other political requirements, promoting a profoundly radical, egalitarian vision. Thus it is paradoxically both conservative, in seeming to buttress the established gender system, and potentially revolutionary.
Women’s history is strongest as a story of collaboration and collective struggle. Social welfare in Europe today only exists because women repeatedly made demands of the state throughout the last centuries, often drawing on the rhetoric of motherhood to claim rights, legitimacy and expertise.[viii] These histories are so important at the moment, when Theresa May’s government is effectively dismantling the UK’s welfare state and disproportionately affecting women — particularly marginalised women — in doing so.[ix]
This sense of solidarity is perhaps the greatest reason for women at the University of Cambridge and elsewhere to partake in International Women’s Day. The University is always celebrating great men — their faces riddle the dining hall walls and reading lists. Plenty of great women have graced Cambridge’s hallowed halls, long before they gained full membership to the university only seventy years ago. But there shouldn’t be a ‘Great Man’s’ history of women, at Cambridge or elsewhere. Rather than celebrating individuals, women’s history is strongest when it acknowledges and learns from the moments when women have acted in unity to bring about sweeping changes. So go to London, join a local gathering, or bash about some pots instead of washing them.
[iv]Johnman, C., ‘International Women’s Day’, Public Health, Vol. 132, March 2016, pp. 1–2.
[v]Temma Kaplan, Taking Back the Streets: Women, Youth, and Direct Democracy (University of California Press, 2004).
[vi]Kevin O’Brien and Lianjiang Li, Rightful Resistance in Rural China, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
[vii]Temma Kaplan, ‘Gender Identities and Popular Protest’, The National Humanities Center, (1997).
[viii]Seth Koven, and Sonya Michel, Mothers of the New World: Maternalist Politics and the Origins of Welfare States (London, 1993); Gisela Bock and Pat Thane (eds.) Maternity and Gender Policy: Women and the Rise of the European Welfare States 1880s-1950s (London: Routledge, 1991)