By Jessica Grey
A bit of background
International Women’s Day was originally named “National Woman’s Day” and honored the garment workers’ 1908 strike in New York City. Over the course of the 20th century, the holiday existed in various iterations; it picked up broad international traction—and its place on the calendar—when the UN marked March 8 as International Women’s Day in 1975; that year was also celebrated as International Women’s Year. In 1996, the UN started adopting themes for each annual celebration; this year’s theme is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” Gender parity in 14 years? That is no small goal!
I will ask for your indulgence while I backtrack to 2015 for a moment. Last year saw some pretty intense disappointments: For one, it was Back to the Future year and there were no legit hoverboards publicly available!—Come on, science! But aside from the squashing of one of my childhood dreams, there was a greater disappointment: The World Economic Forum reported that its 2014 estimate that gender parity would be reached by 2095 was wrong. If things continue as they are, the gender gap isn’t estimated to close until 2133. Not to super nerd-out on you good folks but, according to the canonical Star Trek timeline, we will have created an engine that can sustain warp factor 2 before we achieve gender equity.
The lack of gender parity isn’t a superficial issue. It impacts every single part of our world: from representation in government to representation in entertainment; from education and employment to health and safety. It even impacts who we think of as experts. And the gender gap becomes even more pronounced when you take account of how other factors—race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity, economic status, etc.—intersect with gender. I could provide you with all kinds of numbers and a lot of pretty, pretty pie charts, but I won’t do that. Not because I don’t like pie charts—I love them!—but because they make me want pie and I don’t have anything in the pantry with which to make pie and I don’t plan on grocery shopping until tomorrow.
So, instead of continuing to sit here in a puddle of drool while daydreaming about key lime pie, I will point you to just a few of the many incredibly rad people who are working, in their own ways, toward a goal of gender equality.
Janet Mock is a talented journalist and author, the host of a digital MSNBC show, and a tireless advocate. She also happens to be a transwoman of color whose identity and lived experience informs her writing and her activism. As a contributing editor for Marie Claire, the host of MSNBC’s digital program So Popular!, a member of the board of the Arcus Foundation, a correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, a frequent guest on the tragically now-defunct Melissa Harris-Perry show—all this aside from her numerous guest appearances on other television shows, her years as staff editor at People.com, her status as a much sought after public speaker, and her own autobiography, Mock has an incredible platform from which to speak.
And speak she does: So Popular!, in particular, showcases her ability to look at popular culture and unpack it through a lens that allows her to speak to the gender and race politics that are hiding in the media we consume and advocate for equity. She founded the social media project #GirlsLikeUs that is meant to empower transwomen, particularly transwomen of color; and in her public speaking engagements she focuses on LGBT, transgender, race, and feminist justice and inclusivity. To learn more about Janet Mock, check out Autobiography: http://janetmock.com/books/ and So Popular! http://www.msnbc.com/so-popular/about
The next person on my list is someone you have probably already heard of and someone you probably admire, but I since I also stand in awe of her, I’d be remiss to not include her here: Malala Yousafzai. Just in case you need a quick refresher as to who Malala is, she happens to be the world’s youngest Nobel Prize laureate. Now 18 years old, she was bestowed with that award two years ago for her human rights work for women, especially around girls’ education, in Pakistan. That work began when she started blogging for the BBC about her experiences living under the Taliban and promoting her ideas about the necessity of girls’ education.
Over the course of a few years, Yousafzai started gaining some prominence after having been interviewed by the press, as well as being in a documentary; she was even nominated by Desmond Tutu for the International Children’s Peace Prize. After a period of receiving death threats, when she was 15, Malala boarded her school bus and was shot by a gunman affiliated with the Taliban. Since her recovery from her wounds, Malala has been hard at work: she’s co-written a memoir, confronted President Obama on his use of drone strikes, spoken to the UN, donated money to help rebuild schools in Gaza, co-founded the Malala Fund that seeks to enable girls to receive a quality 12-year education in safe conditions, and she’s opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugees that is specifically dedicated to the education of girls (and those are just some of the highlights). To learn more about Malala and the Malala Foundation, check out: https://www.malala.org/malalas-story
Finally, I want to introduce you to Beverly Jacobs. She doesn’t have the media attention that Mock or Yousafzi have, but her work is no less important. Beverly Jacobs is a member of the Bear Clan of the Mohawk Nation. Her activism began when she was in law school: Not only was she juggling school with her responsibilities as a single mother, but she was the only Aboriginal student in her class, so she founded the First Nations Law Students Society on her campus. After graduating, she started a consulting firm and began working on issues including residential schools, Aboriginal women’s health, and helping to address the lack of legal protections for those on reservations with regard to property after the death of a partner or the dissolution of a marriage.
It was through her consulting work that Jacobs ended up penning the Stolen Sisters Report for Amnesty International in 2004. This report was groundbreaking in that it exposed the safety gap that Indigenous women in Canada face: Racialized and sexualized violence against First Nations women has resulted in hundreds of murders and disappearances. The report inspired the Sisters in Spirit movement and it inspired her to get involved in Indigenous politics.
Jacobs ran for and was twice elected president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Among her other achievements during her tenure with NWAC, Jacobs also negotiated and secured federal funding for researching the disappearances and murder, establishing a hotline, a national registry, and a public education campaign. She decided not to seek a third term and instead returned to practicing law part-time while also working toward her interdisciplinary doctorate in law, sociology, and Aboriginal women’s health and participating in grassroots activism with Families of Sisters in Spirit. To learn more about the Stolen Sisters and the Families of Sisters in Spirit, check out:
These three amazing and radical women are just a few of the multitudes of activists working to get us to gender equality before the launch of the spaceship USS Enterprise. Who are some of your favorites? What kind of gender parity goals are you inspired to work toward?
Here’s to Planet 50-50 by 2030! Happy International Women’s Day!