Sisterhood Blog

International Women's Day: Whom Should We Celebrate?

By Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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Today is International Women’s Day, a day to – what? I’m not really sure. It is, according to the [official site] of the day, “a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. In some places like China, Russia, Vietnam and Bulgaria, IWD is a national holiday.”

This is its 99th year, after being established by a German socialist politician and agitator for change, Clara Zetkin. She established the first International Women’s Day in Germany.

Zetkin came up with the idea in 1910, at the second International Conference of Working Women. According to the IWD site:

She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day - a Women’s Day - to press for their demands. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries, representing unions, socialist parties, working women’s clubs, and including the first three women elected to the Finnish parliament, greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.

It’s hard to tell from her image on a German stamp, reproduced on Wikipedia, but Zetkin must have been a hottie patatie in her day. She took the last name of her Russian revolutionary lover, with whom she had two sons. A decade after he died, she married an artist 18 years her junior.

This year’s IWD theme is “Equal Rights, Equal Opportunities: Progress for All.”

It’s not much a celebration here in the States, unless you’re heavily involved in feminist organizations that make a point of noting it, but internationally it seems to be a bigger deal.

Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Service, arguably the most important and impactful international aid organization rooted in the Jewish community, sent out an email describing IWD as “a global celebration of the achievements of the women who shape our world.”

Anat Hoffman, executive director of Israel’s Religious Action Center sent out an email in honor of the day urging us to think about our notions of Israeli Women. She wrote:

What first comes to mind when someone asks you to describe an Israeli woman? A tough kibbutznikit? A beauty in army uniform? Golda Meir? I’d like to march out of your mind these three stereotypes of Israeli women – because they no longer apply – and introduce you to three new Israeli heroines fit for today.

Hoffman wrote about the popular image of the “chalutzah,” or pioneer from Israel’s pre-state days, draining the swamps and replacing them with the fertile groves of fruit trees (which have now been replaced by shopping malls), saying that it’s mostly false. In reality, most of the women at the time were still relegated to “women’s work,” and weren’t in the fields with the men. She wrote about the strong young women in Israel’s military uniform, but notes that 80% are still assigned to clerical work. Then Hoffman said, of the model presented by Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, that today just 2 of Israel’s 345 municipalities have women as mayors. She did acknowledge, though, that of the 120 Members of Knesset, 20 are women, which “isn’t bad.”

She proposes three new categories of Israeli heroine: Orthodox feminists, Israeli Arab feminists and the women who work hard to build a more civil society through non-profit organizations. For the last group, she notes that 86% of organizations funded by the New Israel Fund are run by women.

Now, dear Sisterhood readers, I put the ball in your court. Who from the American Jewish community should we be honoring on International Women’s Day?


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