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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.