A crowd of over one thousand women, men, children and dogs brought traffic to a standstill as they marched from 2nd Avenue to Times Square to celebrate International Women’s Day. Everyone else in the city, it appeared, had no idea today was International Women’s Day.
The march participants not only knew what day it was—many of them had traveled thousands of miles to march in New York. I saw groups and individuals from Turkey, Bangladesh, South Africa, Colombia, Iraq, China, Canada, India, and Afghanistan, Nigeria and Egypt. Some said they had traveled to participate in a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women conference, such as one woman from Egypt who told me she had come for the “CSW” conference, and then exclaimed “you don’t know the CSW??” when I admitted to not knowing the acronym. Others had traveled here just for the march. One Canadian student told a reporter she had always wanted to participate in the New York City march, so had seized an spur-of-the-moment opportunity to travel down when her university closed for strikes.
Like every demonstration I’ve ever participated in, it began late. Reporters moved through the crowd asking people why they’d come out to the march. The answers were mostly predictable: we’re fighting for equality, we want women’s rights, we want a better world for our daughters. These answers don’t get at the questions that are most interesting to me, such as why these goals and dreams translate into this particular form of activism: marching. What is the value of putting over a thousand people on the streets of New York City on Women’s Day? The few people I asked replied that it was a celebration of accomplishments so far and a statement of commitment to change more. But those answers still don’t really get at what I want to understand. A celebration and statement could be done with a party, a ceremony, a picnic, a series of speeches. Why march?
If the goal was to convey a message to bystanders, I have a suspicion the take-away message most bystanders walked away with was: “oh! It’s International Women’s Day!” Personally, I’m wondering whether marches like this one are most valuable not for the message they send outwardly but rather for the show of solidarity that can strengthen the resolve of participating groups and individuals. For instance, the group from Turkey honouring the young woman killed on a bus in recent months can return to their activism with a renewed sense of confidence in international support. The greatest value of marching through streets could be that participants share this experience of occupying public space in order to send a message together. They are linked not only with their fellow marchers, but with protesters and activists from previous eras and various parts of the world who have chosen to march to protest. Could that experience be more important than the message that bystanders, or authorities, receive?
This idea applies less to marches in which the very right to protest peacefully is contested, or where people occupy spaces from which they are usually excluded. In these situations, the statement of solidarity among participants remains immensely important, but the act of marching is also a protest and message in itself. Today’s Women’s Day march was the opposite, organized by the United Nations and the City of New York. It concluded with participants having to squeeze in to a pig-pen of fences in Times Square to listen to speeches from City First Lady Chirlane McCray and others.
Fun fact some of today’s participants may not have known: International Women’s Day was established in 1911 by the Socialist Party of America, before spreading to communist and socialist countries.