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By Dr. Sonja Boon

On Jan. 21, 2017, millions around the globe joined the Women’s March on Washington to rally in support of women’s rights.

In preparation for the event, thousands took up their knitting needles, pulled out their sewing machines, fished out pink yarn and fabric, and stitched up some pussy hats. News images showed bobbing oceans of pink flowing through city streets and the pussy hat quickly became the symbol of a new social movement.

Needles and yarn

Here in St. John’s, march plans were disrupted by a raging winter storm. Instead, more than 1,300 people watched the proceedings online, via Facebook Live.

What would cause women to come together this way? Why would so many pick up knitting needles and pink yarn? Why did this march matter so much to so many?

After all, as the famed Virginia Slims cigarette advertising campaign of the late 1960s and 1970s stated: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

And if we’d already come a long way in the 1970s, what were we still jabbering on about today, 40 years later?

100 years on

International Women’s Day emerged in the early years of the 20th century.

Affiliated with the labour movement, it was designed as a day to celebrate women’s achievements and to work for women’s rights — among them the right to vote, and to hold jobs.

But International Women’s Day has also been about social justice more broadly speaking; during the First World War, for example, rallies protested the war.

Looking back over a century of International Women’s Days, we could indeed say that we’ve come a long way. Reproductive health. Divorce. Domestic violence laws. Suffrage. Working conditions. Education . . .

But some of us have come much further than others.

And many of us still have a long and difficult road to travel.

Challenges remain

Reproductive justice remains elusive.

While PEI is finally offering abortion services to island women, and while abortions are legal across the country, they are very hard to come for those who live outside of urban areas, and even then, wait times are long.

Forced sterilization remains an issue of concern, particularly for Indigenous women and, even in the aftermath of the ’60s scoop, Indigenous children across the country are disproportionately removed from their family homes.

Violence remains a far too frequent occurrence for many women.

“Such violence is sometimes enacted by the very people who are sworn to protect communities.”

Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to face violence than non-Aboriginal women, and are seven times as likely as non-Aboriginal women to be victims of homicide.

Queer and trans women and women of colour are also exponentially subject to violence, particularly if they occupy intersecting identity categories.

And such violence is sometimes enacted by the very people who are sworn to protect communities.

Much more to do

Consent, as a spate of recent court cases across Canada suggests, remains murky, despite the viral tea and consent video produced by Thames Valley Police and Emmeline May, and guidelines within the Canadian Criminal Code that outline limitations to consent.

Sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war.

“Questions of bathroom access, which should be simple and straightforward, become heated sites of political struggle.”

Gender identity, and the rights of trans women, remain at the forefront of political debate, to the extent that questions of bathroom access, which should be simple and straightforward, become heated sites of political struggle, in the process undermining deeper and richer conversations not only about what it means to be trans or genderqueer in a cisgender world, but also about how a rethinking of gender might benefit us all.

Sex workers, meanwhile, continue to struggle for dignity, respect and safety, and continue to work under labour laws that do not recognize and/or acknowledge their agency in choosing their work.

Universal rights?

What all of this suggests is that rights that were hard won are all too easily eroded, and perhaps, were never really as universal as we’d hoped in the first place.

So put on your pussy hat, and wear it with pride. But wear it also with humility. We’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s still much to do.

This International Women’s Day, take a moment to tip your pink cap in honour of all those women who have come before you and to those in your communities and beyond who continue to work for a socially just world.

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