In the autumn of 1977, as a member of a professional exchange group, I disembarked the train that had brought us from the center of Hong Kong to the border of mainland China, knowing beforehand that we had to cross the border on foot. We proceeded in single file down the middle of a footbridge lined on each side by matching rows of all male Red Army soldiers standing at attention, barely seeming to breathe. I was aware of three things, the absolute stillness of the famed soldiers, the red star on the front of their green army caps, and my heart pounding. True, there should have been nothing to fear, despite the feeling of walking the plank to disappear into the belly of a mysterious country. Chairman Mao Tse Tung, famed leader of the People’s Republic of China had died barely one year before our visit, and his body still lay in state at Tiananmen Square. I was a young black female from the Caribbean who had become active in the global politics of the women’s movement. I couldn’t say no to the recognition that came with a written invitation bearing the crest of the government of the PRC and forwarded to me by the Head of the International Planned Parenthood Federation in London who had responsibility for assembling a visiting team. Here I was, a last-minute inclusion to fill the ‘diversity” requirement that the Chinese officials insisted upon when they sought out international scholars to discuss women’s reproductive rights and adolescent Sex Education in an emerging new era for the country. Anxiety was in order, but by the end of the ten-minute walk, I started to relax. Then smile. Gracing the exit arch was a huge banner that ballooned slightly in the September breeze. I didn’t speak Mandarin, but I recognized the message scripted on the Banner – “Women Hold Up Half the Sky!” I had become familiar with the Chinese women’s advocacy slogan during my previous two years of participation in global advocacy for women’s rights. The sign made me feel welcome – that I was among people who understood the significant place of women in society. The since faded idealism about China does not diminish the power of my 1977 experience nor my advocacy for the rights of girls and women today.
March 08 – Celebrate International Women’s Day
“Women Hold Up Half the Sky” is the mantra that I remember most as we celebrate Women’s History month in March, and International Women’s Day on March 08. History archives document that women’s activism for gender equality began in the early 1900s with marches and strikes in major cities of the world – London, Moscow, New York, Paris, Peking (now Beijing, China) since 1907. Over the subsequent years, countries that were deemed socialist made more measurable progress with the women’s Suffrage movement than the US where race-based and classist inequities persisted. When women in the US won the right to vote, the privilege did not extend to Black, Native-American, or Non-white Immigrant women until Civil Rights Laws and Amendments to the Constitution intervened 15 years after. A few other countries were similarly guilty of the double standard as regards race and class, notably Australia, Canada and South Africa. Popular history tends to ignore women’s suffrage movements outside of the US, Europe and England. However, the Pew Research Center documents that at least 20 nations preceded the US in removing barriers to women’s right to vote, and a total of 129 countries and territories around the world granted women the right to vote between 1893 and 1960, including countries of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, with others coming on board after 1960 with newly formed governments and constitutions guaranteeing women’s rights. Interestingly, another report by the Pew Research center reveals that American women have turned out to vote at slightly higher rates than men in every US presidential election since 1984 and that at least 21 other countries show a similar trend in voter turnout. The numbers prove that women take their democratic rights very seriously.
Women born after the 1970s take for granted the many opportunities hard-won by Feminism
While the women’s Suffrage movement is the watershed era in women’s history, the idea of feminism as a significant movement had its biggest moments in time during the 1970s and eighties, and into the early nineties. The United Nations held four World Conferences of Women in the era of feminism. The first in 1975 in Mexico City; 1980 in Copenhagen, Denmark; 1985 in Nairobi, Kenya; and 1995 in Beijing China. But by the time celebrations stretched to Beijing, a groundswell of backlash to feminism had mushroomed, particularly in the US. A men’s “movement” supported by self-identified anti-feminist women, pushed back publicly and loudly against feminism, with frenzied pronouncements such as: women’s advancement in the workplace was taking away men’s positions, undermining men’s right to work and emasculating husbands; that working women were a detriment to the welfare of children and families; that women wanted to be men; and that feminism was to be equated to butch lesbianism (no offense to lesbianism). It must be acknowledged, nevertheless, that due to the feminist movement, women have made substantial strides in the corporate world, in education, in health, in public leadership positions, in religious denominations, in the political arena and under the law. We can point to the rise in numbers of women among corporate business leaders and business owners, lawyers, judges, mayors, governors, university presidents, school principals, physicians and surgeons, engineers, architects, ecclesiastical priests and bishops. Election of a woman as President still eludes the US citizenry. Nonetheless, since 1950, 75 countries have had female national leaders and 29 currently do. The names are too numerous to mention of the women across the globe who toiled on the front lines for gender-equity and justice. Some became very high-profile individuals. Others remain nameless. History many never give credit to all the individual contributions. However, the women’s movement itself should be honored for the privileges and access that women born after the 1970s now take for granted.
All women do not have access to privileges
On the flip side of the current privileges that women have won, it’s on the working-class levels in the workplace, and within family life, and with the permanence of gender-based attitudes, where nothing much has changed. In 2015, I participated in a United Nations Social Division conference in New York to mark the 40th Anniversary of the Declaration of the International Women’s Year. I found no celebratory mood during the five days there. The theme was the alarming and steady growth in the incidence and prevalence of gender-based violence across the world – not confined by any means to war-ravaged countries. My home base was Louisiana at the time, and I recall that as a US state, Louisiana had a significantly high domestic murder rate, at which a woman was killed by her husband or intimate partner – highest in the US, and on a level with the two countries in the world with the highest global domestic murder rates within Africa and Asia. Of note is a little fact that it wasn’t until 1920 that all US states eventually made wife-beating illegal, and not until the 1970s, with pressure from the women’s movement, did the Criminal Justice System begin to treat domestic violence as a serious crime. The reported rate in the US is 33% of all women, across class and race; it’s 35% across the globe, a conservative number since many incidents remain unreported. UN reports verify that “Home is still the most dangerous place for many women.” I came away from the 2015 conference conceding that the more things change the more they stay the same.
In the month of March 2021 so far, one week in, publications’ scream headlines that could match those from any newspaper from a century ago. In Nigeria, law enforcement officers were working round-the-clock to free 279 high-school girls who were kidnapped; in Afghanistan three female media workers who risked their lives for women’s rights, actually lost their lives when they were gunned down while trying to do their jobs; in India, a father beheaded his daughter because she wanted to marry someone outside of his religion. Meanwhile in the US in a single day in this very month of March there were five stories of wives killed by estranged husbands, and two killed by partners in residence. And in Idaho, a congressman blocked a bill meant to subsidize childcare for working mothers whose incomes were below the poverty line, his reason being that he thinks all mothers should stay home and care for their children. In Missouri, a pastor preached a sermon from the pulpit chiding women for “letting themselves go” because according to his faith perspective, husbands need attractive wives. A gender-power-imbalance is the thread that runs through emotional battering and physical violence against women.
Stand up for another woman, and you stand up for all women
Admittedly, when it comes to women’s rights, women are not all on the same page. Gender does not mold all women into a monolithic lump of clay The push in the 1970s and 80s for gender equity gave women the world over the right to dream our own dreams, state our own wishes and seek our own fulfillments. One size doesn’t fit all. Younger women of the 90s and millennial decades have benefitted from the work of those of us who plugged away in the trenches. The key take-away message remains “Choice for women.” But in 2021, choice still evades many women. And that’s a fact for wide swaths of women in the US, on a level with some other countries that may be rightly or wrongly labeled “third world.” Troublesome issues include the non-existence of a living wage for many working women; absence of paid maternity leave or other protections when pregnant; sexism and sexual affronts in society and in the workplace; lack of access to adequate alternate childcare; poor or absent health care; unequal opportunities for educational advancement; and non-supportive legal and legislative policies and actions.
A quote from the late Maya Angelou states that “Each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for all women.” I want to expand the boundaries of that sentiment and say that each time you as a woman stand up for another woman, that is when you show up for all women. It is time to reconsider where you are on the spectrum of opportunity and stretch a hand to those whom opportunities have abandoned. Many non-profit organizations exist to help women who are confined by crushing circumstances. If you can help one woman on this International Women’s Day, support one of these organizations. An example is, Kiva.org – a US-based non-profit that offers small-loans to struggling women in the US and across the world, to start micro businesses. You won’t believe the good that a small sum like twenty dollars can do when combined with others. You will be repaid your initial amount, or you can recycle your opening contribution. Be another woman’s champion. Below are some organizations that serve women in the US and across the world. You can research and select. You too can be a woman who holds up more than half the sky.
Here is a shortlist of worthy organizations