As a man who frequents male circles, I often hear the question ‘why isn’t there an international men’s day?’ As a historian, I find answering this question slightly easier. It is a well-established fact that in most societies, outside of the 20th century, women have been largely excluded from power. International Women’s Day is not, or should not be about, celebrating women because of their innate goodness. I cringe at how patronising that notion is, a clap on the back for having a clitoris. It’s about something quite specific, about women’s capturing of, through admirable displays of force, the rights, liberties and comparative influence they hold today. It’s a celebration of a revolution, of won battles for an oppressed group. It’s a festival that idolises the triumph of the underdog, a 20th century David and Goliath: women pushed against the full weight of society and won.
All women are not saints, nor sinners: there are tremendously evil women and tremendously good ones too. Nor were women placid sex-dolls before they discovered they could make bombs and fashion placards in the 20th century. In all cultures, we see powerful women, from Machiavellian Empresses like Catherine de Medici or Hürrem Sultan, martyrs like Joan of Arc or warriors like Boudicca and Queen Mavia. These women pulled strings, gave orders, wielded the power of the sword and gun. But they shine so brightly in the annals of the past because of their remarkableness. There is no denying that it was, and largely still is, a man’s world.
But why recognise these women? It is simple to say that women aren’t alike, cannot be categorised and therefore cannot and should not be celebrated generally. Perhaps the former title of International Working Women’s Day is closer to the mark in expressing what the day means to me. I tend to see it not so much as an uplifting of one gender – a celebration of all things feminine – but rather a story of how an unfairly oppressed group, against all historical precedents, liberated itself on its own terms. It is a day of victory and freedom, of justice for hundreds of millions of people. Whatever your current opinion is on feminism, everyone should appreciate the work of proud combative women from the past.
One of my favourite examples of the sheer novelty and radicalism of the women’s struggle comes from the Spanish Civil War. Lucía Sánchez Saornil, an anarchist, channelled her revolutionary fervour and enthusiasm into fighting for women. She conceptualised a double revolution, a sexual revolution concurrent with a wider social one. Fed-up with the patronising misogyny of her fellow anarchists she set up the Mujeres Libres, a group of women committed to the double revolution. In the Iberian sun, they worked at building women’s schools, social spaces, newspapers and providing aid and shooting ranges for republican militia women in the fight against fascism. Her organisation eventually attained 30,000 members.
What does this obscure example mean to me? For me, it represents the purest microcosm of why International Women’s Day is an important celebration: it is a celebration of progress. These women fought for what they believed in, with iron and blood and dirt. International Women’s Day is not just a celebration of the phenomenal social progress of women but a celebration for everyone; a celebration of change itself. This is why Saornil, a radical, a lesbian, a poet and a warrior, means so much to me: she is emblematic of change itself, of individuality, difference and just causes. If you have a love for justice and a love for emancipation then you should embrace International Women’s day. It reminds us that huge changes have come before, and will come again. Saornil writes that revolutionary change is entirely necessary as ‘Anything else would merely be calling the same old slavery by a new name.’
If you believe society can change and should change, for the better look to International Women’s Day. The white-hot coals of energy, memory and history light up its banners.
Photograph: Jared Enos via Flickr