Patricia Lee Jackson

TAKES AN UPRISING

A Memoir in Lesbian Parables

Not until nearly three decades into my life could I begin living as my complete self. My journey out of those early years from shame into pride and defiance evolved the way people often come into our own, through movements for social change.

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International Women’s Day

Posted on Feb 21, 2014

International Women’s Day

And

The United Nations 1977 Year of the Woman

 

International Women’s Day is a day recognizing women’s struggles and achievements and celebrated around the world each year on March 8. Women on all continents whether divided by national boundaries, by ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic and political differences come together to celebrate. International Women’s Day commemorates the stories of ordinary women who make history.

             The inspiration for International Women’s Day arose amid terrible working conditions forced on women in the garment factories of New York City. The steel doors throughout the buildings were routinely locked with women and children kept imprisoned for 10 to 12- hour work days. In 1911, a horrendous fire burst out in the Triangle Shirtwaist Shop. One hundred and forty-six women died in the fire. Many jumped to their deaths as a last resort to escape the flames.

            Years before the tragedy, 20,000 shirtwaist workers called a strike and protested these working conditions. This resistance and the founding of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) resonated with socialists in other countries. At the 1911 International Congress of Socialist Women held in Copenhagen, 2 women, Clara Zetkin, Germany and Alexandria Kollantai, Russia, declared forever forward an International Day to honor women. Afterward, rallies of more than one million women and men took place in Austria, Denmark,Germany and Switzerland. In addition to the right to vote and to hold public office, women demanded the right to work, to vocational training, and an end to discrimination on the job.

            In 1917, against the backdrop of a growing Bolshevik Party revolution in Russia, women called a strike for Bread and Peace. The Bolsheviks tried to persuade them to wait, but women refused to wait any longer; their children were hungry. On the last Sunday in February (which fell on March 8 on the Gregorian calendar), women took to the streets to protest. Four days later the Czar abdicated, and within the provisional government women gained the right to vote. Earlier during the French Revolution in 1789, again the shortage of bread led women to march on the Versailles palace of the King and Queen. Women chanted the revolution’s mantra, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and demanded accountability. Thousands of men later marched from Paris to join them. Women took part in all aspects of the French Revolution but women did not gain the right to vote. The revolutionaries’ definition of a citizen, it seems, did not include complete rights for women. Not until, 1944, by the special decree of General Charles de Gaulle, did women of France gain the right to vote.

            After our early feminist heroines endured humiliation and forced feedings in their jail cells, women in the United States gained our right to vote in 1920. Our Congress still has not passed the Equal Rights Amendment, signed onto the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, or even the Convention on the Rights of Children. Our work continues.

     In November 1977, Zoe and I joined many lesbians who traveled to Houston, Texas for the United Nation’s National Women’s Conference. The United Nations proclaimed 1975 to be the International Year of the Woman, and later extended the period from 1976 to 1985 declaring it the Decade for Women Equality, Development and Peace.Prior to the national conference all states and territories elected delegates to discuss women’s issues and bring recommendations to the Houston conference. A series of conferences and conventions around the world engaged women in debates and discussions to formulate and pass a World Plan of Action, and “to establish, under the auspices of the United Nations, an International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women.”[1] The final Plan had 26 planks, ranging from better enforcement of existing laws to broad demands for a national health security system, full employment, peace and disarmament. The conferences culminated in Nairobi, and included in a plank statement “…recognized that gender equality was not an isolated issue, but encompassed all areas of human activity. It was necessary for women to participate in all spheres, not only in those relating to gender.” [2]

Outside the Convention Hall

        

Most of us unofficial delegates held our rallies and meetings outside the convention hall. During one day of the convention, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) arrived and intended to march directly into the hall to disrupt the entire gathering. All of us convening outside spied them and immediately formed a phalanx to confront their entry. The KKK men in turn coalesced into a grunting wall before us and then attacked. They directed their most violent blows at lesbians and women of color. These thugs knocked my partner unconscious. Uniformed police officers directly across the street stood motionlessly and witnessed the scene without intervention. Not until women gained our victory and forced the entire retreating lot from the convention hall down a long, city block and up against a building did the boys in blue come to their rescue.

Inside the Convention Hall

For years, lesbians had tried to join women’s organizations like the National Organization of Women (NOW). Many straight women’s groups were terrified to identify with us. To many grassroots feminists, women of color, lesbians and working class women, NOW represented a white, middle-class, establishment organization. NOW has since become more inclusive. Yet in 2010, when a young, dynamic woman of color ran for the president of the organization, older, white women within NOW rejected that leadership. Today, organizations like, School of Unity and Liberation (SOUL)[3] are supporting young women of color as they train for leadership in all emerging social justice movements.

The demands and resolutions adopted at this1977 Houston convention would become part of the official United Nation’s document. The resolution to affirm lesbians and recognize our rights remained the most contentious one to the very end of that convention. The strongest holdout against adopting the resolution was the famous Betty Freidan[4]. To Friedan, lesbianism was not a women’s rights or equality issue, but a matter of private life, and she warned it might diminish support for women’s rights. She again evoked the term “lavender menace.”[5] In tears, she finally agreed, and women leapt to their feet rejoicing and embracing in an international bond as women. The passage affirmed the commitment by all women to the rights of lesbians. Simultaneously, the entire conference of women inside and outside the convention hall erupted in cheers of excitement, poured into the streets and celebrated the whole night. Had we not had a global awakening of women in the ‘70s, the UN Decade of Women would not have been declared. Women utilized that platform to increase our worldwide political force.           

“Women’s liberation brings to all of us a strength and audacity we have never before known.”

                                                                                             Sheila Rowbotham


[1] UN Documents Gathering (a body of global agreements) Resolution adopted by the General Assembly 3520 (XXX. World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Resolution 9   http://www.un-documents.net/a30r3520.htm

 [2] United Nations Outcomes on  Gender and Equality, http://www.un.org/en/development/devagenda/gender.shtml

[3] http://www.schoolofunityandliberation.org, Last Accessed April 2, 2012

[4] Freidan’s book, Feminine Mystique, 1963. At the time it was groundbreaking on roles of women; also a founder of NOW, and president for 3 years.

[5] http://womenshistory.about.com/od/bettyfriedan/p/betty_friedan.htm, Last Accessed February 20, 2012

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