March 8, now marked as International Women’s Day, is a day of celebration in America, with motifs such as celebrating the increased proportion of female CEOs. However, this day did not begin as a celebratory one. The first Women’s Day celebration took place in May 1908, when the U.S. Socialist Party led a protest of over 1,000 women. According to Birgitte Søland, history professor at Ohio State University, protests by working-class Russian women on March 8, 1917 helped trigger the Russian Revolution. In those days, Women’s Day was marked as a day of struggle. It is important to remember this context today as we navigate various contemporary women’s struggles.
It is impossible to discuss this issue without addressing that critical buzzword: intersectionality. While there is talk of convergence in the gender pay gap, the wage gap for women of color increased between 2016 and 2017. Within this group, the gap hits black, Latinx and Native women significantly more than Asian women. This seems to reflect the structural disparities among women of different races, a systemic issue that, contrary to Sheryl Sandberg’s claims, simply can’t be resolved by “leaning in.” However, in privileged spaces like Tufts, women of color are encouraged to “lean in” in practically every respect. We are told that institutions are trying to improve on diversity. We are told that we have what it takes to succeed in male-dominated spaces. In particular, we are surrounded by images of female CEOs, investment bankers and hedge fund managers.
Such discourse surrounding feminism has thinned its power and caused a shift away from crucial issues. Feminism should not simply be about adapting to existing conditions. At its core, feminism has uplifting, revolutionary potential to alter the status quo. In her critique of “Lean In” (2013), bell hooks calls Sandberg out as a “faux feminist.” What is a real feminist? Colloquially, people often say that all it takes to be a feminist is to want equal rights for women and men. bell hooks incisively points out that such framing misses the point: “The reality was and is that privileged white women often experience a greater sense of solidarity with men of their same class than with poor white women or women of color.” Sheryl Sandberg’s comments about a lack of confidence are certainly true in some contexts. However, women facing oppression along racial and class lines are not simply hindered by these cultural norms, but by very concrete material barriers that “lean in” feminism ignores.
When Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I a woman?” she spoke to the exclusionary nature of the feminist movement and conceptualizations of gender as a whole. In many places around the world, including Spain and Turkey, International Women’s Day is an opportunity for solidarity centered around strikes and mass resistance. The nature of its celebration in America is an indication of “lean in” feminism’s stronghold in our consciousness, and we should reject it in favor of a more action-based paradigm.