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Mar 08 2012

Some Thoughts On International Women’s Day

I love and respect International Women’s Day. I do. I think it is deeply important, and deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated, as well as used as an opportunity to engage in certain kinds of thinking and dialogue we normally don’t bother with. Sadly, it does seem that the people who ignore feminism and issues of women’s rights tend to ignore IWD, and those who pay attention to the value of IWD are those who were already paying attention to feminism and women’s rights. But I still think it’s of huge importance to have a day where we specifically do everything we can to bring those issues forward, and remind people they’re there. Even just the reminder alone, even if it doesn’t lead to further discussion, is worth having this day.

And everyone who complains about the alleged absence of an International Men’s Day (which actually does exist, incidentally), need to recognize that men’s issues are prioritized and given prominence the other 365 days of 2012. In fact, men’s issues are so thoroughly prioritized that we don’t even tend to think of them as “men’s issues”. Women’s issues are cordoned off as special considerations, while men’s issues are simply par for the course, part of everyday “normal” discussion. We don’t even notice that we’re not noticing that they are prioritized to the point of their prioritization being unnoteworthy.

(that sentence made sense in my head)

But International Women’s Day ends up being a bit of an anxious and scary thing for me. I end up insulating myself from it and not seeking out stories and posts and articles and things related to it. I get nervous and don’t want to expose myself too much to anybody else’s conception of IWD, preferring to acknowledge the day in my own private and personal way.

The reason for this is that IWD ends up displaying in full and obvious view what the concept of “woman” means in our culture, at this point. It demonstrates what we take “woman” to mean, what represents and signifies it, what it is associated with, what “women’s issues” are considered to be and which are at the forefront… and perhaps most importantly, it places in full view what we think of when we think “woman”.

Which wouldn’t be such a scary and anxious thing for me if it weren’t that foregrounding our primary cultural conception of “woman” also means tacitly foregrounding what that cultural concept excludes. In our images of International Women’s Day, and the ideas and discourse surrounding it, how many trans women are you likely to see? How many trans women’s issues are likely to be discussed? How many of the things taken as primary representations of “women’s issues”, which implicitly suggest what we consider to be the most woman-like aspects of the experience of being a woman, are things which focus specifically on the experiences of cis women: reproductive health, pregnancy, birth, menstruation? And more so than simply cis women, the dominant narratives and dialogue that occurs in association with IWD also tends to focus on straight women participating in normative hetero relationships and families, on women who are white and middle-class and located within developed nations (though the “international” part will periodically lead to considerations of how cis / straight women are affected in other parts of the world), etc. Much like men’s issues are so thoroughly treated as default that we don’t even notice when we’re discussing and prioritizing and focusin upon them, the various privileged ways of being a woman and similarly just treated as the default conception of what a woman is, what her needs are, and that default categorization goes unnoticed. We don’t notice that we’re the cis/straight narrative of woman while beneath immediate recognizability we’re erasing (or, at best, de-prioritizing) queer narratives of being women, and other marginalized experiences of that gender.

International Women’s Day ends up not only being a reminder of the importance of women and the issues we face, but also a painful reminder of who does and doesn’t count as a woman, and which women’s issues, and which sort of women, count. While it is saying “Yes! Women’s access to insurance coverage for contraception is an important issue to be talking about!” or “Yes! It is inappropriate for the state to exert control over women’s choices about their own bodies vis-a-vis pregnancy!”, one can’t help but feel an echo suggesting “It isn’t particularly important to talk about insurance coverage for hormone replacement therapy” or “We’re not going to worry too much about the enforcement of external control on trans women’s decisions about their own bodies vis-a-vis genital surgery”… in fact: “we’re not even going to make a quick footnote on the parallels here”. There’s an echo suggesting that the concerns of trans women, of lesbians and bisexual women and other queer women, of women of colour and economically disadvantaged women, of intersex women and women with disabilities, of women who cannot have children or choose not to have children, are not “women’s issues” but instead particularities: “trans issues”, “lesbian issues”, “queer issues”, “race issues”, “intersex issues”, “disability issues”, etc. which ought only be foregrounded on THEIR “special days”. That what “women’s issues” means is “straight white cis middle-class child-rearing women’s issues”.

Now, I need to be careful about falling into the “human rights is a zero sum game” here. I know that the fact that someone else may have a different (or bigger) problem doesn’t mean we can’t talk about a problem. I know that we don’t need to focus on EVERY human rights issue all at once. And I know that it’s perfectly okay to prioritize particular issues in particular situations.

But nonetheless I feel that on the occasions that we speak about women, and foreground women, we need to make sure that what we’re talking about is indeed all women, not simply demonstrating the limitations of what our culture thinks a “default” woman is, and make sure that what we talk about when we talk about women is as inclusive and respectful a definition and conception as possible, not something that leads women like me (and so many others) to feeling neglected, erased, dismissed, or like we don’t count and our experiences and needs and concerns don’t count as “women’s issues”.

This year, I’m going to be hiding a little bit, and trying to limit exposure to those messages that carry those subtle little suggestions that my identity as a woman and the issues that affect me aren’t really important or woman-ish enough. But hopefully next year I might feel a little braver, and hopefully bit by bit we can work towards an International Woman’s Day where all women will feel able to be proud their gender, and like their claim to that identity is not on the line or under implicit attack or open to question if they participate and celebrate this day, and enact that pride.

This is an important day. I am a woman, and am proud to be so. I don’t want to negate or detract from the value of what this day means and represents. But I do ask that in your thoughts today, you remember to make a little space for those women who aren’t always so readily embraced under that term and identity.

And make room for those of us who had to fight, and continue to fight, for it.

16 comments

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  1. 1
    Pteryxx

    well, the powers that be do seem bent on letting *all* women suffer and die, by whatever means necessary: forced pregnancy, poverty, rape, bashing, stoning, acid. One day just isn’t big enough. (and I admit I don’t have the guts to make THAT card game.)

  2. 2
    nattaruk

    We don’t even notice that we’re not noticing that they are prioritized to the point of their prioritization being unnoteworthy.

    (that sentence made sense in my head)

    Over negation tends to break English, I think.

    Tentative suggestion: ‘We ignore that we’re ignoring that they are prioritized to the point of their prioritization being unnoteworthy.’

    1. 2.1
      Natalie Reed

      But “ignore” implies agency. It’s the not noticing that’s most important to what I’m describing here. Blind spots. Things falling beneath the range of our perceptions. Not being salient features, and instead being perceived as just part of the background noise. Nawmean?

      1. nattaruk

        Ahhh, light dawns. I get it now, thank you for the clarification.

      2. Anders

        It’s like in Yes, Minister when they’re talking about an incovenient report. They make a very sharp distinction between suppressing a report and merely taking a democratic decision not to publish it…

        1. Anna

          Anders, I must give you 50 internet points for referencing Yes, Minister. One of the funniest shows ever.

          1. Anders

            It should be required viewing on any Politics 101 course. Anyone who wishes to understand how governments function should see it.

  3. 3
    julian

    Ironically the double edged nature of advocacy work and the need to prioritize (both when advancing a political issue and offering an introduction to it) seem to hit the most disenfranchised voices worst.

    Our views on what a woman is are still very much wrapped up in the views of strict binary (despite what a convoluted mess it all is) and that shines brighter than anything when we begin to introduce people to “women’s issue.” Invariably you see pregnancy, abortion and birth control. All of which are legitimate (and very important issues) for women’s rights. But with these issues at forefront (understandably so with the constant attacks they are under) under the banner of women’s issues it seems like a throw back to women being defined by their reproductive organs.

    I can imagine it’s even worse for trans and intersex people because of how doctors have (unethically) gone about assigning a sex to infants with ambiguous genitalia. A child (despite having a penis and being a newborn) is assigned female because xe has the potential of giving birth. Or an infant born with a penis and a normal sized vaginal opening is assigned male because of a lack of ovaries.

    Sadly it’s likely to continue happening for some years to come. With the number of attacks reproductive rights are under, the indifference employers have towards mothers and their children and the need for better sex education and easier access to contraceptives, things like IWD are an opportunity to highlight these issues on an international level. An opportunity that just can’t be passes up. We have to exploit these opportunities as much as we can.

    But, like you point out, there isn’t even a foot note. Until reading your piece I hadn’t even thought about trans issues at all today despite most blogs I visit having a post on International Woman’s Day.

    Thanks for the read. Hopefully it’ll stay in my mind next time I’m discussing women’s issues.

  4. 4
    sunnybook3

    Indeed, there are particular topics that get talked about more than others. This year, in the US anyway, those topics weren’t raised just because of International Women’s Day; those topics were already swirling in the public consciousness due to the all-out attacks on women’s reproductive health that have been made by the far right. In the past few months, we’ve been treated to state-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds for all women seeking abortions and to the idea that it’s okay to withhold medical information if it would make it more likely for a woman to abort. And then there’s Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that any woman seeking birth control, regardless of the reason, is a slut and a prostitute who should post sex videos online if she wants her health insurance to pay for that birth control.

    The thing is, these are all just topics and they all fit within a larger theme. And Limbaugh’s idiotic comments really make that theme obvious: he doesn’t care so much about the health issues or the morality behind birth control. What he really cares about is denying women any sort of agency in their own lives. Ostensibly, all these topics are about reproduction but, when you trace back the rationale for any of them, you’re left with the idea that women should fade out of public life and be reduced to only our reproductive functions. We shouldn’t be making choices about whether or not to have sex and whether or not to become pregnant. We should be shutting up and doing what the men say to do–and that includes just having whatever babies they choose to put inside us. This sounds a lot like just a heteronormative problem, until you work out where LGBTQ women fit into all of this. And the answer to that is that not being cis is no protection from these ideas and their repercussions. Look at the objections to the Girl Scouts–when the objections reach to girls who haven’t even hit puberty and for whom reproduction is still irrelevant, there’s a pretty strong indicator that sexuality and reproduction aren’t really the point. They’re just the most obvious targets for misogyny.

    I think the bottom line is that we’re all in this together. If we want women–all women–to have control over our lives, we have to stand up against every threat to our agency, even if some of those threats don’t apply to our particular situation. It just seems to me that all of the women’s issues I’ve seen over the past year–from nude photo revolutionaries to young girls in orthodox Jewish communities being harassed to transvaginal ultrasounds–are all interrelated. Any individual topic may or may not affect me personally, but it’s worth speaking up about and sharing ideas about because that action may spark someone else to start thinking about what is going on and how ze might feel about it. So, here’s to all of us–whether we’re cis or not–may we all finally achieve the ability to make our own choices for ourselves, without being undermined or second-guessed!

  5. 5
    Rabidtreeweasel

    I have PCOS/endometriosis coupled with body image issues. I don’t think those issues; depression, feeling unfeminine, missing my younger body; I don’t believe these stem at all from the illness. It has much more to do with societies idea of Woman and the fact that I don’t mesh with that. I did once, and I was always sensitive that I might only be getting what I was after because I was a girl. That men were letting me win and it was a rigged deck. I still feel that way, only now they aren’t dealing to me at all. It shouldn’t even matter to me, I’m gay for Vishnu’s sake, but in areas of intellectual discourse it makes me furious that they will agree with the prettiest face in the room while realizing at the same time I am taking part in the subjugation of my own sex by making that assumption. Exhausting.

  6. 6
    Ace of Sevens

    These sorts of things always get hijacked by the least disadvantaged subgroup of a disadvantaged group, kind of like how white, professional men are the face of the gay movement.

    1. 6.1
      Pteryxx

      The least disadvantaged group though, more or less by definition, has the greatest credibility. It’s not so much hijacking as the same forces of bias giving their voices greater weight, even in their (our) own perception. Thus, it has to be countered by conscious effort.

      1. karmakin

        Maybe there’s a natural automatic thought process to use the “thin edge” in order to best facilitate change.

        The sad thing? Is that this is probably correct (in that it probably results in the most change the fastest).

  7. 7
    Jen

    A cheerful thought: I went to a show yesterday called the ‘Women on Top Monologues’ that was being organised on campus and that *did* have talks/performances from women besides the usual suspects. There was a talk from a transgender lady who exhorted us all to be ourselves, and a talk from a muslim woman who was only 18 (I don’t agree with everything she said but it’s bloody good to hear people speaking in their own voices) and a performance about semi-arranged marriages in Indian families (not sure what the message of that one was meant to be, but it was there). So it seems like some people are making moves in the right direction.

  8. 8
    karmakin

    You know, reading this post left me with something. I wonder if this isn’t how every involved person, for good or for ill, feels in some way shape or form. Which makes real change feel next to impossible, and/or makes some people REALLY bloody mad.

  9. 9
    Paul Wright

    This IWD I was working at home all day, so I decided to only listen to music with female vocalists and songwriters or women being creative in some way. Not the usual feminist anthems, or pop music, just a bunch of albums of music I like (mostly metal and experimental music) taken from my own itunes list.

    I included some Doll Fight! and I learned about a band called Life of Agony whose singer recently came out as trans.

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