2017-03-08 / Opinion

Happy International Women’s Day!


What a pleasure it is to greet women in Maine on the very day of International Women’s Day. If you ever have been in countries elsewhere in the world on March 8, you were probably surprised by men and women, strangers passing in the street, calling out with a smile, “Happy International Women’s Day!” This historic event is largely overlooked in the United States, unfortunately. Here in Midcoast Maine, however, we celebrate. Members of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) hand out flowers to women and girls along with information about the day and about our peace-making activities. WILPF grew out of the gathering in 1915 in The Hague of 1500 women who met to try to mediate an end to World War I. Jane Addams of the United States was chosen to lead the meeting. She became the first president of WILPF, and in 1931 Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize. For the past several years members of the Maine Branch of WILPF have gathered on Maine Street in Brunswick to celebrate International Women’s Day. This year, though, we are bringing our flowers to Bath. At noon today we’ll be on the corner of Front and Centre Streets.

International Women’s Day started in Russia in 1905 and was first celebrated in the U. S. in 1908, when 15,000 women marched in New York City for better working conditions. Celebration of the day lapsed in this country until the 1960’s but remained strong in many other countries around the world. In 1975 the United Nations set March 8 for the recognition of women’s work and their causes. In most countries around the world celebration of International Women’s Day is more public and exuberant than in the United States. Everywhere, women continue to work for equal rights, for safety from violence, for the environment, and for peace. The UN theme for the 2017 International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change.”

This United Nations theme seems particularly appropriate this year following the astounding turnout of women across our nation for the Women’s March in January. Here in Brunswick the Mall was filled with women, children, and men, even dogs, of all ages carrying bold signs supporting social justice for all people. There were signs seeking justice for indigenous peoples, for immigrants, for prisoners, for the planet, for the poor, the sick, the hungry, the homeless among us. One sign that sticks in my head said: “I can’t believe I’m still carrying this same sign after 50 years.” We can’t pretend that we are going to cure all the injustice in the world. But we can’t forget that if we stop trying to change injustice, if we go home and take these signs away from public view, the injustices will get worse. We must Be Bold for Change.

As Karen Wainberg pointed out in this column recently, too little was said about peace in these demonstrations. Karen made the case specifically and powerfully that our “endless war” economy overwhelms the possibility of resources becoming available to tackle the issues of human rights and the environment. She concludes: “I've written this commentary in the hope that understanding the impacts of war will be at the heart of the growing resistance movement here in Maine. Resolving environmental and human rights issues depends on it.”

We, like Jane Addams and all the women and men before and after her who have worked against war and for social justice, must Be Bold in our quest for peace and a just society. Addams believed “there could be no peace without social and economic justice.” She not only chaired the peace efforts at the Hague Convention in 1915; she also in 1889 co-founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house in an immigrant neighborhood which brought together women with means and immigrant families, working together to make lives better. Addams was a peace worker and a social worker.

Today, a century later, as our economic choices lead to the destruction of the planet, a new generation of young people is focusing on the needs of the environment and is full of energy and Boldness. If we do not turn back the destruction of our planet, human rights and even war will become irrelevant. The issues are linked; the military is the greatest destroyer of the environment, both in its use of financial resources and by its pollution footprint on the earth. We are not in an either/or position, forced to take on one issue and abandon others. Ultimately, we must work with each other on all fronts, making alliances and collaborations with other groups, having a central focus but seeing the connections with other issues. We must abandon the either/or position that leads to dualistic thinking – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, us vs. them -- and embrace both/and thinking that can hold what seem to be opposing or competing positions in tension in our minds until new thinking emerges. Then, seeing the whole, we can work together to promote peace and social justice and the environment. Be proud of what women have achieved and of our determination to persevere. Be Bold for Change.

Happy International Women’s Day!

Jean Sanborn is a member of PeaceWorks. She lives in Harpswell.

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