Women’s Day – why?

International Women’s Day (IWD) has strong roots in the socialist and labour movements, but in 2014, the symbolic meaning of this day is not so clear cut.

While some may lament the lack of a unified vision for IWD, the open-ended nature of the day makes room for productive conversations about social change, history, and inclusion.

IWD does not necessarily have a home with a particular organization or group, and so a variety of events can be held in observance.

This year, a march is being organized by a group identified as the IWD planning committee, who state that “[individual] groups had been doing their own thing to honour the day for years. There was the annual event at the legislature, student groups would plan something for students and people in the area, [community] groups would plan for their members/clients, and so would labour activists.”

The labour movement roots of IWD go back to the early 1900s, and much of the history written about IWD focuses on the struggles for workers’ rights and obtaining the vote for women. In 1975, IWD was officially “sanctioned” by the United Nations (UN), who did not set an exact date but left it up to individual nations to choose how and when to mark the day.

Some local feminists have noticed a lack of specificity in this UN-focused IWD tradition. Tanya McFadyen, who returned to feminist organizing in Winnipeg after seven years in Toronto, noted that “Sometimes it feels like a holdover from a United Nations/second-wave feminist type way of organizing [ . . . ] just create and they will come.”

McFadyen noted that IWD events held in Toronto focused on Canadian women supporting women’s struggles on an international level, while in Winnipeg, “the organizing conversations so far have been more focused on indigenous women.”

The question of who is included within the label of “women” has also fuelled many passionate debates. Gina McKay helped organize multiple IWD and Take Back the Night marches throughout the 2000s, and recalls meeting resistance when trying to open the events up beyond the “women born women” category.

“[The] first [IWD] march/event after that was under-attended as everyone seemed to be avoiding the women’s centre activities [ . . . ] however, it changed by the next march as we began educating regarding the broadening of the feminist lens to include women of all kinds.”

McKay reflects that this change was necessitated by her close work with trans*-identified women who were “desperately looking for a space to connect.”

While she recognizes the challenges in finding a place of inclusion and diversity in events like IWD, McKay believes it’s possible if the organizers “recognize the need for different events that reflect each community, and stitch it all together with solidarity.”

While bringing people together respectfully and inclusively can be a challenge on its own, the question remains: What are they being brought together for?

“Is it a day to educate, mourn, celebrate, or to re-evaluate the social movements that are centred on gendered issues, in particular issues facing women-identified folks?” asks McFadyen.

The IWD planning committee points to the 2011 controversy of Judge Robert Dewar’s sentencing and commentary around a rape case as a galvanizing moment in local feminist movements. This event, and resulting demonstrations, were “instrumental in shaking many local feminists out of their complacency and for providing a reason for everyone to work together.”

This year, a full slate of events including marches, performances, speakers, and dinners are being held in the name of IWD. The vision of the IWD planning committee’s march this year is “to remind women of the benefits of working together, to highlight the work yet to be done, and to celebrate our stories.”

In working together, perhaps this year’s IWD will provide a space for those in the women’s, feminist, and social justice movements to come together and consider their goals for IWD and beyond.

If it is a day to mobilize for change, what changes are being sought? Is it a day to celebrate and reflect on women’s stories, and if so, whose stories are and aren’t being told?

Rather than undermining the work that has been done, these questions echo the strengths of these movements, emphasize their self-reflective nature, and point to areas for productive discussion, learning, and growth.

This article is the first of a two-part series on IWD events in Winnipeg. If you have an IWD-related story or perspective to share, please email anastasia@themanitoban.com