Today is March 8, International Women's Day 2006. But before getting into that, let's think back to September 1995.
Spin the globe and stop the world on China.
It's the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, where hugely ambitious and thrilling goals were set for improving the lives of women, and by extension their families and the world.
The official conference was in Beijing, but the much larger convocation of activists from nongovernmental organizations was literally stuck in the mud in Huairu, a suburb an hour's drive from the city.
Thousands of us had arrived early on the morning of Sept. 6, to stand packed together under a roof of brightly colored umbrellas, jockeying for the few hundred seats inside the auditorium where then first lady of the United States Hillary Clinton was slated to give a speech.
I was fortunate not only to get inside but to get a seat. The program was running late; Hillary was running even later and the crowd was getting restive. Just as it seemed a revolt might be brewing, Shirley May Springer Stanton, the cultural coordinator of the conference, walked onto the stage and began to sing a capella, ever so softly: "Gonna keep on moving forward. Never turning back, never turning back."
Then she asked the audience to join her. Pretty soon the house was rocking. By the time the first lady arrived and gave her brilliant "human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights" speech, it truly felt like the global movement for women's rights was unstoppable. It was, you might say, an ovular moment.
Other Countries Take the Lead
Here in the United States, that moment can seem long ago when we consider our administration's federal budget and see how it slashes funding for international family planning services that could reduce the millions of unsafe abortions and risky pregnancies that cause 500,000 unnecessary deaths each year globally.
But the U.S. women's movement can take inspiration from working in sisterhood with women from around the globe. While the United States fails to meet its commitments to the global public-health community, many developing countries are funding these essential women's health services beyond all expectations and the European nations step in to fill much of the void left by America's abdication of leadership.
Women's development projects are also fueling economic growth around the world while bringing greater equality to the women in their societies. Sex trafficking and other acts of violence against women, long merely routine facts of life for women, are becoming subjects of international media attention and human rights action. And female heads of state are being elected in Europe, Africa and Latin America this year.
No movement for social justice moves forward without struggle, nor does forward movement necessarily go in a straight line. Yet, the movement for women's liberation in the U.S. seems to be the only one about which it can be said with impunity, "Enough now, we must go backward."
In her 2004 book "The Boundaries of Her Body: The Troubling History of Women's Rights in America," author and lawyer Debran Rowland delineates in crushing detail "cycles of advances and digressions characterizing women's rights in America."
Throughout these cycles, the rhetoric of opposition to the women's movement has been consistently pejorative. "Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote," President Grover Cleveland said, arguing against the suffrage movement prior to 1920.
Vilifying the Movement
Today, televangelist and political power broker Rev. Pat Robertson calls feminism a "socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians."
In the pressure cooker of such vilification and political retribution, U.S. women's rights activists sometimes succumb to squabbling about strategy. Instead of pushing ahead with passionate commitment, we debate the merits of retreat, reframing and retrenchment.
A prime example: John Kerry failed to articulate his own passionate commitment to women's rights during the 2004 presidential campaign. After his defeat, Sen. Hillary Clinton--the inspirational speaker at the Beijing meeting--chided New York reproductive health care providers, telling the very people who invented prevention--to change their agenda to prevention.
"The best way to reduce the number of abortions is to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies in the first place."
(Well, yes, Hillary, that's why providers asked you to co-sponsor the Prevention First Act, which calls for increased funding for family planning services and access to emergency contraception that could prevent half of all abortions. You did and thanks for that, but now, how about giving the bill another big political push?)
Similarly, reproductive rights advocate Alex Sanger, in a Women's eNews article last month, charged feminists with having too narrow an agenda. To muster political clout in the next election, he said, we have to broaden our message to policies that affect entire families.
In truth the feminist movement--not the anti-feminists--has always advocated for the full panoply of just social policies from child care to pay equity and universal access to quality health care.
The Agenda is Not the Problem
The problem is not the feminist agenda. The problem is that all of us who support it need the political will, courage, commitment, stamina and a never-ending creation of inspiring initiatives that touch real people's lives. A movement, after all, has to move.
We who call ourselves feminists must remember, proudly, that we have changed the world, much for the better in terms of justice and equality. That's exactly what scares our adversaries so much.
A group of African women at the Beijing conference told a story about how they stamped out spousal abuse in their village. It bears repeating in this muffled era for women's rights activism.
The women said they banded together, took their cooking pots and took up positions outside of the homes of men who had committed violent acts against their wives. They banged on those pots so loudly that the whole neighborhood came out and took note of them and the men agreed to change their behavior.
Each country today has different reasons to bang their pots on this International Women's Day 2006. But the refrain for all of us who aspire to global justice for women is the same.
"Gonna raise our voices boldly, Never turning back. Gotta keep on moving forward, Never turning back, Never turning back."