When I was invited to write this piece, I did what any responsible sociologist would do and immediately typed International Women’s Day (IWD) into the nearest search engine. The first item on the screen defined it as “a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women”, and offered a link to internationalwomensday.com.
Following the link, I discovered that dot-com IWD 2022 has the slogan “break the bias”, and is sponsored by three transnational corporations: HCL (tech firm, turnover $11bn), John Deere (tractor manufacturer, turnover $29bn) and LinkedIn (Microsoft subsidiary, turnover $10bn). The CEOs of all three are men. The website suggests “Lean In” circles and invites viewers to “learn how organizations support women”. There is no invitation to learn how organizations exploit women.
A far cry from the beginnings of IWD, just before the Great War. Socialist feminists including Clara Zetkin launched the Day to promote the campaign for the suffrage and the struggle against gross gender inequality in the capitalist economy. After women textile workers in Petersburg triggered the February 1917 revolution in Russia, even the Bolshevik patriarchs were impressed, and IWD became an official communist holiday.
In the 1970s it was picked up by Women’s Liberation movements, and became a show of strength for causes like abortion rights and equal pay. It moved into the United Nations, which adopted the Day, declared a Decade for Women and organized four World Conferences on Women. Before the patriarchal backlash of the 1990s halted the world conferences, feminists got CEDAW and the Beijing Declaration adopted, which by UN standards are fairly tough policy statements.
So if there’s any meaning in IWD beyond corporate image advertising, it’s about social justice in gender relations, and international solidarity in the struggle. And justice still has to be fought for. If we look at the worldwide statistics of income and wealth, land ownership, corporate power, state power, media attention, religious or cultural authority, we are still looking at gross gender inequalities in this year of grace 2022. And there are powerful political forces trying to make the situation worse. In the recent news, alongside the Russian patriarchy’s military attack on Ukraine, is the Texas patriarchy’s legal attack on women’s abortion rights, quickly followed by a push to criminalize care work that supports trans children.
Studying the situation of women became a major growth area in sociology in the 1970s, and the field quickly broadened to include research on men and masculinities, sexuality, family life, media representations, gendered violence, intersectionality, and more. Theoretical approaches multiplied, from political economy to queer theory; we even got statistical modelling of gender effects… There were problems: most theory came from the global North, and the research was often “studying down”. Challenges and corrections have come from indigenous, Black and postcolonial thinkers. Through it all, a lot of knowledge has been gained and many radical thoughts have circulated. No wonder authoritarian politicians have tried to close gender studies down.
It’s striking that some of the most creative theoretical work in the field has used the experience of transsexual women and other gender-crossing groups to illuminate the nature of gender in everyday life — as a cultural process, an interpersonal accomplishment, or a performative enactment.
Actually, I don’t think accomplishment or performativity are strong enough concepts to deal with gender as a form of social embodiment. I think it’s more helpful to speak of ontoformativity, the creation of social realities through social practice. This highlights the formation of social groups and their agency through historical time, and the transformation of social structures, as much as the making of individual identities and personal relationships. It also gives us a way of understanding gender transition, not just as the recognition of personal realities, but as a deeply social process. Transition involves the creation of solidarities, the recognition of where a person or group belong, where and how they are most connected, in a world of multiple divisions and inequalities.
Enough with the meta-theory — sorry about that, I get carried away! However this does bring us back to the original purpose of IWD: solidarity in the struggle for justice. I’m a transsexual woman, unusually privileged. I’ve faced some abuse, but I’ve survived into my seventies, I’ve got secure housing and income and terrific family support.
Most trans women in rich countries don’t have all or even many of those benefits, let alone trans women in other countries, and other feminine gender-crossing groups (hijra, waria, travesti, and many more). In the lives of many, there are terrifying experiences of gender-based violence, family rejection, exclusion from schooling or expulsion from jobs. There are high rates of precarity, homelessness and illness. And early death. I am sickened at the sight of some well-off, well-educated politicians, churchmen, journalists, and (I’m sorry to say) academics, setting out deliberately to abuse such vulnerable groups and multiply the exclusions and pressures against them.
So if IWD is an occasion to think about social justice in the gender order, it should be an occasion to think about power and marginality, inclusion and solidarity, in the politics of struggle. And hopefully, to think creatively about forms of struggle.
I’ve carried a banner in an IWD march through the centre of Sydney — to be exact, carried the left-hand end, as it was a long banner — with other women in a campaign against femicide, the gender-based murder of women. The group made a powerful statement in other forums too, and I’m proud to have worked in it.
It may be that the days of marches in the street are over. Perhaps we now need to organize for gender justice in other ways, more granular — I’m not certain how. But I am certain that those issues of connection, inclusion and solidarity will remain. I’d even welcome help from the CEO of a tractor company, provided he came down from that air-conditioned suite and pitched in with union-based anti-violence organizing among men.
Please don’t break the bias. Just smash the patriarchy.
- This piece is part of a series of posts marking International Women’s Day. The contributors offer very personal reflections from a variety of positions, exploring themes of connection, power, marginality, solidarity and struggle. Read all the reflections on IWD:
Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney and a Life Member of the National Tertiary Education Union. She’s the current recipient of the International Sociological Association’s quadrennial Award for Excellence in Research and Practice. Her books include Southern Theory, Masculinities, and Gender & Power; most recently The Good University. Details at www.raewynconnell.net and Twitter: @raewynconnell.