by Karen Bojar
International Women’s Day, which arose in response to a strike of women workers in 1909, is celebrated around the globe on March 8, both as a tribute to women’s achievements and as a call to action in the ongoing struggle for gender equality.
On Sunday, International Women’s Strike in Philadelphia hosted various events incuding a march and rally in Center City, organized by a coalition of largely socialist feminist groups while more locally, Mt. Airy Art Garage (MAAG) in Mt. Airy marked the occasion with a day of feminist art and achievements.
Arleen Olshan, the founder of MAAG, first organized an International Women’s Day march and rally in Center City in 2008 and 2009, in collaboration with Sha’ifa Malik, Soda Nobuhle, and Sherrie Cohen. Olshan then held the celebration in Mt. Airy when she opened MAAG as a non-profit arts hub and these celebrations continued until 2016 when MAAG was forced to find a new location. It now has a permanent space at 7054 Germantown Ave., where Sunday’s all-day celebration was held, featuring an exhibit of women artists, poetry readings, music by local artists and a round-table discussion with local artists and politicians.
The Center City rally, in addition to the feminist groups, was also hosted by multi-issue socialist groups and progressive organizations focused on single issues such as immigrants’ rights. The event drew a much younger group than those at the MAAG celebration, which included many veterans of second-wave feminism.
To my surprise, the crowd in Center City was half male, with young men holding up signs with feminist slogans such as “La revolucion sera feminista o no sera” (The revolution will be feminist or it will not happen). Increasing numbers of men now see gender equality in their interest, as this was also the case in Mt. Airy. Michael Huff, who attended the MAAG event, said he was there as an ally of women in their fight for equality, but also saw gender equality as in his interest as well.
“If my wife is making 70% of what a man would earn, that hurts my family,” Huff said. “I also want my wife and my daughter to have the same opportunities as men have.”
Economic justice was a major theme of the women activists who spoke at the rally. Councilwoman Kendra Brooks, who was also on the panel at the MAAG event, stressed the importance of a living wage for all workers, noting that women are oppressed as workers and also as women. Marty Harrison, a nurse at Temple University Hospital and a union member, spoke from her perspective as a healthcare worker about the urgent need for Medicare for All, and called for “a feminism that is socialist and a socialism that is feminist.”
The women and men then marched through Center City, concluding with a dramatic call for an end to violence against women. In the middle of a street intersection outside the Unitarian Church, Refuse Fascism performed “The Rapist is You,” a Chilean protest chant and dance has been performed all over the globe to protest gender based violence.
Sherrie Cohen, whose activist history spans second-wave feminism through the radical movements of the 21st century, applauded the sense of urgency and commitment to action of the march sponsored by the socialist feminist coalition.
“It is time that International Women’s Day return to its radical roots and call us to action in mass protest,” said Cohen.
The list of sponsors for the Center City event suggests a return to feminism’s “radical roots.” Many groups sometimes referred to as mainstream feminist organizations (Philadelphia NOW, Coalition of Labor Union Women, Women Against Abuse, Women’s Medical Fund, Women’s Way) and usually found on lists of sponsors of feminist events, were not part of the coalition sponsoring this International Women’s Day event. Instead, sponsors included groups such as Philly SocFem, Global Women’s Strike, Philly Socialists, Party for Socialism and Liberation, Philadelphia Socialist Alternative, Temple Young Democratic Socialists of America, Refuse Fascism, Reclaim Philadelphia and Abolish ICE PHL.
I have long thought that 21st century feminists were not organization builders like second-wave feminists; however, I may have been looking in the wrong places. True, young feminists for the most part have not been forming explicitly feminist organizations. However, young feminists are playing a leadership role in multi-issue progressive organizations, such as Black Lives Matter and Sunrise, and bringing a feminist perspective to these organizations; much feminist organizing now occurs within multi-issue rather than explicitly feminist organizations. In the complex and shifting landscape of 21st century feminism, this may be the new face of feminism.