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Want to Understand the Divisions Between Feminists?

Just look at the evolution of International Women’s Day.

The #MeToo moment has awakened us to many hard truths for the first time. The reality that there are contentious divides and disagreements among women who all call themselves feminists is one that is still sinking in. It’s easy to oversimplify those divides as generational—with young women taking a more militant approach and older women holding the movement at arm’s length. Others have rightly pointed out that the divides are actually political, reflecting different core beliefs about questions like, why is there gender inequality in the first place? Do we need women leaning in? Or women revolting against this system altogether? But these political debates can still feel generational. Why? Because the politics that dominate the feminist movement in any given era are a moving target.

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Look no further than the evolving and contested politics of International Women’s Day, where debates among feminists about the roots of the problem and the way to a solution date back more than a century. And the re-emergence of these divisions points toward the renewed vitality of feminist organizing—not its demise.

Today you can celebrate by attending a corporate panel on women’s leadership, drinking the new Scotch for ladies, Jane Walker, with your girlfriends, or organizing the women in your workplace to skip work and go to a protest, joining groups in major U.S. cities who’ve called for a women’s strike for the past two IWDs. Thursday in Spain, millions of women are expected to strike against “macho culture” with the support of 82 percent of Spaniards overall, including major labor unions and prominent politicians. Until recently, IWD was a feel-good holiday across the globe. In the U.S., it was barely a blip on most people’s radars, unless they worked in marketing, where IWD could be a convenient gimmick for attracting female customers, or in gender advocacy, where it was an occasion to draw attention to long-standing inequalities that weren’t always making headlines.

But IWD originated in a very different time when gender and economic inequality were forced into the headlines by a radical international labor movement, rather than by career advocates or clever advertisers. The development of International Women’s Day into an annual day of protest emerged from a group of women associated with the Second Communist International, who formed the International Conference of Socialist Women, led by the German Marxist Clara Zetkin. In part, they took as their inspiration a “National Woman’s Day” organized by socialist women in the U.S. in 1909.

Zetkin, who was deeply skeptical of the motives of early feminists who campaigned for voting rights but did not adopt a working-class outlook, once wrote that, “Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women are two fundamentally different social movements.” While bourgeois feminists believed women’s oppression stemmed from the bad behavior of men in their own class, socialists thought it came from the capitalist system. When the conference finally passed a resolution marking IWD as a day to agitate for voting rights for women around the world, they made it clear this was a holiday representing their particular socialist view of feminism, not a big-tent feminist love fest.

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In agreement with the class-conscious political and trade union organizations of the proletariat of their respective countries, socialist women of all nationalities have to organize a special Women’s Day (Frauentag), which must, above all, promote the propaganda of female suffrage. This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman’s question, according to the socialist conception.

Throughout the early 20th century, radicals saw March 8 as a chance to protest and disrupt a society they believed was built on the backs of exploited people, especially women, who were exploited as well as disenfranchised. In subsequent years around the world, women used the day not only to protest for suffrage, but for more radical, gender-neutral demands too, like an end to imperialism and war. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia kicked off with a women’s day march for bread and peace in 1917 that eventually led to the tsar’s abdication three days later.

As the subsequent backlash to communist politics rose throughout the world, and as labor power, unions, and communist and socialist parties’ influence declined, the nature of IWD changed drastically. In the U.S. the day disappeared from most people’s consciousness altogether. In 1975 the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day and encouraging countries around the world to do the same. For those countries that did recognize it in an official capacity, it became a fluffy holiday, something like a cross between Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day, in which women receive little gifts and tokens of appreciation from friends and family. More radical feminist groups around the world have still held annual protests on IWD, but with a few exceptions, they’ve been marginal and routine. Most feminist organizing since the 1970s was happening not through protest, but some mix of electoral campaigning and advocacy.

But last year, a radical current reawakened.

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On the heels of the Women’s March in January 2017, the largest day of protest in American history, several leading feminists called for a women’s strike from both their paid and unpaid jobs on IWD. Although Ximena Bustamante, a New York–based organizer of the International Women’s Strike and a member of the Women’s Strike national committee, says some of those feminists had disagreements with the leadership of the Women’s March, they saw huge potential in the massive number of people it inspired. Despite various disagreements about the place of electoral politics, the centrality of labor and unions, and the importance of the strike as a tactic, the approach of IWS organizers to the more conservative politics of the Women’s March has been one of enthusiasm and commitment to working together and having debates out.

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor at Princeton and one of the signers of the original call for a strike, wrote in the Guardian last year: “The women’s marches were the beginning, not the end. What happens next will be decided by what we do. Movements do not come to us from heaven, fully formed and organized. They are built by actual people, with all their political questions, weaknesses and strengths.” If the march wasn’t radical enough for you, Taylor argued, you should join them and make your case. This is inarguably a positive evolution in since Zetkin and the socialist feminists of the 20th century debated their differences with definitive declarations and separate and sometimes competing organizing.

But by calling for a strike, rather than just taking part in the big protests and marches, Bustamante says the International Women’s Strike “wanted to highlight a feminist politics that addresses the needs of the majority of women. These politics cannot be reduced to just having women in positions of power or in certain institutions, if ultimately the majority of women will be exploited and oppressed.”

So what happened to set off this recent wave of radical IWD celebrations? Bustamante says the call for an International Women’s Strike came in 2017 on the heels of a few key events. In 2016, thousands of women in Poland went on strike to protest a ban on abortion rights. Many international feminists were inspired by the use of a strike, which highlights the value women are contributing to society by taking that value away, even if for a few hours or a day.

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But Bustamante also says the greater context for this renewal of a feminism-for-the-99-percent approach to International Women’s Day has been the overall decline of organized labor in the U.S. at the same time work conditions have become more unstable and precarious. In their first year they held a rally with several thousand activists in New York City, and dozens of labor unions and organizations endorsed the day of action. They worked together all year to help make this year’s strike even bigger.

“The strike is a proxy of the politics we want to advance. It’s a symbol of the ultimate way the international working class can make their power be felt,” said Bustamante. You might hear echoes of the holiday’s original charter.

But not all feminists see the international working class as their target audience. In the year since the Women’s March, they’ve focused on exactly what Bustamante and the IWS organizers find to be inadequate—elevating the visibility and power of women in business, in the media, and in politics. Given the number of those who rallied with IWS last year compared with the massive turnout around the Women’s March even in its second and smaller year, it’s reasonable to guess the feminist politics of IWS are still in the minority, even after the flash of radicalism we’ve seen in recent years.

But that’s just a snapshot. Where International Women’s Day and the feminist movement as a whole go next is up for debate. And onlookers should take comfort in that. Just as critics have said, the debates that have been with us for over a century were getting too harsh and feminism itself too divided, feminists have pulled off some of the biggest and most ambitious organizing we’ve seen in decades.

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