American Exceptionalism Leaves International Women’s Day Blank

International Women’s Day march When searching for information about International Women’s Day (IWD) 2018, I knew I would not find details from the U.S. government. It doesn’t coordinate IWD events or recognize it as an official holiday, unlike 26 nations that include Afghanistan, Cuba, Laos, Russia and Uganda.

However, I was surprised when I had to make a concerted effort to locate the United Nations website even though it established the day in 1975. The UN IWD site also links to UN-Women and its ongoing “Planet 50-50 by 2030” campaign for gender equality.

But a private partnership in Australia, supported by several large corporations, appeared higher in the Internet search – someone bought the right domain name. Their website sells Event Packs filled with plastic flags, balloons and bracelets. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also has a page promoting a two-day forum with the State Department. Registration costs $375.

The Time Is Now

The three pages announce different themes for the 2018 IWD – Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists (UN), #PressforProgress (the Australian private partnership), and Partner with Purpose: Business for Gender Equality (the U.S. Chamber). In previous years, articles for Time magazine and the History channel used information from the Australian partnership site when describing IWD. I might have fallen for the site’s lively certitude as well if I had not been trained as a historian to seek out the creator of every source.

The thematic divergence derives from a lack of coherence regarding IWD and reflects its appeal for both reform efforts and marketing. Since the U.S. government does not coordinate with the official UN IWD, the name stands open for any imposition of meaning.

Last year, Michelle Obama used her status as the former First Lady to bring attention to girls’ education and immigration. The AFL-CIO issued a brief statement about pay, sexual harassment and the Women Workers Rising rally.

Breitbart, on the other hand, used IWD to highlight five women: three it connected to its sweeping attacks on Islam, a professor who critiques college rape investigations and Kellyanne Conway.

The Official vs. Unofficial U.S View of IWD

A historic thread of American exceptionalism allows for the U.S. dissociation, which leaves IWD without clear context. But IWD emerged in the early 1900s from activism specifically linked to economic priorities. It was not a loose celebration, free-floating for any use. In the United States, however, many imagine economic equity arises from inevitable progress, not from relentless labor organizing, grievances, walkouts, lobbying, petitions, legislative demands and court cases.

A historic thread of American exceptionalism allows for the U.S. dissociation, which leaves IWD without clear context.”

The 2018 UN theme of Time is Now: Rural and Urban Activists brings attention to poor and working women seeking to improve their livelihoods.  The UN aligns itself with women demanding food security, access to land, and infrastructure improvement as well as responses to climate change, violence and lower pay. Such overt calls for structural change do not suit American exceptionalism, with its notion of the United States as a land of endless free opportunity.

IWD Is About Equity

The most recent visible discussion of women’s pay equity in the United States has come from celebrity actresses, members of the powerful SAG-AFTRA union who earn $10 to 30 million a year. Many of these women at the highest income levels will speak on behalf of IWD.

But they will most likely not connect to the UN and its demands for intensive structural change to affect the lives of working women at the lowest levels—women in every country without access to basic nutrition, safe housing, clean water, land and fair wages. When the U.S. government does not formally recognize IWD with the UN’s goal of economic equity for the most precarious women, we not only lose an opportunity. The concept of IWD stands blank, open to manipulation.

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