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This International Women’s Day Ask: “Where are the women?”

This year's International Women’s Day theme is Inspiring Inclusion. A mid-career woman reflects on two decades of work and what it takes to be truly inclusive.

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March 8, 2024, is International Women’s Day focusing on a theme this year of Inspiring Inclusion.

March 8, 2024, is International Women’s Day focusing on a theme this year of Inspiring Inclusion.

The fight for women's parity and equality won't slow down to celebrate on this global day of reflection when working women know the gender wage gap hasn’t improved much in two decades and it yawns wider when factors such as motherhood, age, race, and ethnicity are factored in. I have always thought of International Women’s Day as a day of action—however small that action, whatever you can commit to, do it. Need an idea? Ask, “Where are the women?” I’ll explain. 

When it comes to including everyone who identifies as girls and women, I challenge you to ask, “Where are the women?” in all the various spaces you inhabit. For myself, and most women I know, this is second nature. It’s a reflex to wonder, an instinct to immediately seek the presence, the influence of women.  

In the media we consume, we ask this every time there’s a photo of men signing legislation governing women’s bodies or when an all-time best athletes list doesn't include Serena at the top. When Oscar season rolls around we wonder what happened to all the talented women who wrote movie scripts or directed culture-shifting films. When the number of women CEOs in the Fortune 500 barely surpasses 10%. Unless women and their allies regularly ask where the women are, inclusion will be impossible. 

First, we must include each other

Women, as a group, have habitually been divided into warring factions by misogyny, education level, race, age, misunderstanding, or their own doing. Think of the working mom vs. stay-at-home mom; the Madonna/whore complex; white women vs. non-white women, and so on. Attempts to unite these so-called dichotomies are often based on a fallacy like, “Superwomen can have it all—a successful career and be an omnipresent mother!” When, in fact, these two distinct, hard things are only able to coexist with the type of sacrifice, help, and compromise that hardly ever resembles a singular superhero feat (I know from my own imperfect efforts).  

Since 2003, when I started my career working at the original feminist magazine, Ms., I have, to some degree, remained involved in feminist work and activism. Back then I was idealistic about what feminism meant. Still wearing college-grad naïveté, I entered the working world as a junior editor floating on a cloud of untested theories about what it meant to be a successful woman. Surely, I thought, here was a glittery female utopia where sisters blithely helped sisters and a Lilith Fair soundtrack filled in the gaps between the brilliant mentorship moments I was about to benefit from. I was shocked when my older, wiser women colleagues acted out of line with my fantasy, wondering—how can they be feminists and be threatened by other women’s success? 

The reality that admirable women weren’t perfect examples of feminism eventually shook the stars right out of my eyes and I learned two lessons that have remained with me. First, no woman should be defined by one bad day in a history of being made to feel like we must compete against each other, often for meager prizes. Second, I needed to ask better, harder questions like—Why isn’t there room for all of us women here? And over there, and there, too? How do we change that?

No one is free unless everyone is free

Before Ms. published its first issue in 1971, the “women’s lib” movement took off in the 1960s largely led by white women seeking freedom from real, everyday oppression and the tyranny of housewife expectations as detailed in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. What they failed to consider as their cause gained attention were the centuries of oppression endured by women of color, especially Black women. Essentially, early feminism reduced the struggle to women vs. men when, in fact, it was far more complex, including class and race distinctions. 

In response, a group of Black women penned The Combahee Statement in 1978 to position themselves as integral figures within the feminist fight, famously writing, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” 

In modern feminism, we talk about the importance of “intersectionality,” a theory coined by law professor, Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, which pulls together multiple feminist thought frameworks and, like the Combahee group, posits that any discourse that doesn’t take into account all oppressed people marginalizes the singular group on which it focuses. Today, the word has become synonymous with “inclusion,” functioning almost like a semantic caution against the failures of early feminism—although inclusion remains an issue. 

Inclusion is inspiring… or, the night I met Gloria Steinem

In an essay for the New York Times, cultural critic, Rebecca Carroll, considers archival photos of white woman and Ms. founder, Gloria Steinem, standing shoulder to shoulder with Black women like Shirley Chisolm, Anita Hill, and Eleanor Holmes Norton, evidence, she writes, that intersectionality existed in the earlier days of feminist activism. “In each photo, there is ease and intent, focus and fury and, perhaps above all, a nearly palpable, unprompted sense of racial solidarity that makes me wonder why it’s still so hard for us to get it right today.” 

For Carroll, a Black woman, Steinem inspired the confidence that true racial intersectionality could exist. For me, Steinem inspired the belief that women belong everywhere and that change is possible if we unite and commit. 

I met her about 20 years ago at a work party in New York hosted at the Spielbergs’ apartment in Trump Tower. I was in a bedroom reapplying dark red lipstick while I recovered from a particularly sneering comment about my high-heeled shoes from another important feminist figure (“How do you expect to run from danger in those things?”). Gloria walked in and said, “Oh, excuse me!” And, I immediately sputtered, “Oh my god, it’s Gloria Steinem! I work at your magazine! I love you!” Her laugh was genuine when she responded, “Well, I love you, too!” She complimented my lip color and left the room. 

Later, I joined a group in the living room literally gathered at her feet, and more than I recall what she was talking about, I remember how she made me feel. I felt a swell of hope and relief at witnessing the pure empathy emanating from her. I sincerely believed, and still do, that she personified everything she stood for—fairness, determination, inclusion, and the inspiring belief that women should take up space.

Find more ideas on how to inspire inclusion visit InternationalWomensDay.com where you, too, can make your own "heart hands" social media image, book a speaker, download educational materials, and more.

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