by Cindy Domingo
International Women’s Day (IWD) always reminds me of my sister, Eileen Nelson, an older African American woman who was a grocery clerk and long time Seattle resident working in Seattle’s Central Area. The year was 1999 and the place was Havana, Cuba. Eileen and I were on a national delegation hosted by Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), an international women’s peace organization that has worked for over 60 years to end the US blockade against Cuba.
The day after we arrived in Havana was International Women’s Day and everywhere we went we were greeted with “Happy International Women’s Day,” flowers, songs, smiles and hugs. Two women from our delegation were even walking later that night along the Malecon (Havana’s sea wall) when they were approached by a Havana policeman. Surprising the fearful women, the policeman also said with a smile, “Happy International Women’s Day!” We ended that second day in Cuba feeling proud of who we were as women and the contributions that women globally have accomplished.
However, Eileen also said something then that has remained with me over these two decades. She said to the Cuban women, “Why did I have to come all the way to Cuba to find out about International Women’s Day, especially since its beginnings had to do with women workers killed in the U.S.?”
From about 2001–2007, here in Seattle, a handful of women from various organizations, myself included, planned one-day celebrations of IWD every year at the Seattle Center. The celebrations included cultural performances, speeches, and literature tables filled with information on domestic and international campaigns about women’s empowerment, peace, and social justice issues. We hoped that those in attendance, especially women and girls, would become involved with working for equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
While IWD celebrations of the past were successful events, they were not attended by the thousands of people we see at mainstreamed IWD events now. For instance, the March 1973 issue of the radical Asian American publication Asian Family Affair contained an IWD article written by Cynthia Lee that listed a couple of IWD events on the UW campus. Hosted by the Abortion Action Coalition and the Campus Abortion Committee, these events included a range of speakers on sex work, women in labor unions, and the Equal Rights Amendment. My guess is they were mainly attended by students and overwhelmingly by women.
Fast forward 20 years. Today, International Women’s Day is becoming mainstreamed and commercialized, splashed all over advertising and media. On this March 8, I was greeted by Happy International Women’s Day ads from Kate Spade stating, “Today and every day, let’s lift each other up.” Then, of course, at the bottom of the ad was a white square directing readers to “Find a store.” Aveda’s IWD ad stated they were going to spotlight “the inner and outer strength of extraordinary women” as part of March’s Women’s History Month and then went on to suggest one might “step into your strength” by using Aveda products that can strengthen hair care routines. Banana Republic’s “Be the Change” IWD ad offered to donate to the International Center for Research on Women a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the “Notorious Necklace,” which I presume is named after the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
I could go on and on, but I am sure you get my drift. I am disappointed that IWD is becoming popularized and mainstreamed by corporate media and big business. When I reflect on how much IWD has changed over the last decades, I realize that something is being lost — that I long for the building of a community that used to happen through the organizing of International Women’s Day celebrations.
My wish is that we continue to popularize IWD without losing the true meaning of International Women’s Day; that the Eileen Nelsons of the U.S. will understand the radical beginnings of IWD in the U.S. and Europe; that it was the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York on March 25, 1911 that killed 146 young women workers, most of whom were immigrants, that established firmly in history today’s IWD events.
We as a women’s movement seem to be making great strides in our women’s rights agenda. But sometimes I question, particularly given the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic is having on women economically and socially, whether we are taking huge steps backwards for women. The recent murders in Atlanta, Georgia, as a result of growing hate crimes against Asians, are a reminder that working women face violence every day of their lives. The shooter killed six Asian women — Soon Chung Park, Hyun Jung Grant, Suncha Kim, Yong Yue, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng — and two others, Delaina Ashley Yaun and Paul Andre Michels.
It reminds me more than ever how important International Women’s Day is. I don’t want to let corporate America steal what should be the most significant day for women in the U.S. and globally. A day when we celebrate our cultural, scientific, social and economic contributions but when we also recommit ourselves to the struggle for equality, peace, and development. I know that corporate America will not promote that kind of IWD, but we still can! We can use social media and our networks to mainstream the true IWD, past to present, especially to vulnerable working class women today.
I am committed to preserving the heart and soul of IWD for future generations. Already, Eileen and my former co-chair of past Seattle Center IWD events, Lika Smith, said “let’s do it!” We are ready to organize IWD within the context of its true history and mission. We have no choice if we are to regain hope that a better world is possible for women and children and therefore, our whole society.
International Women’s Day 2022, here we come…
Cindy Domingo is Board Chair of A Legacy of Equality Leadership and Organizing (LELO) and has been involved with women’s human rights since attending the historic 1995 United Nations International Conference on Women in Beijing China.
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