Hello again. As an Englishwoman childless-not-by-choice, I’ve written here before – especially, about the differences and similarities we share across the Atlantic.
Upcoming International Women’s Day (IWD), on March 8, has inspired me this time. The Day started with the socialist movement. The first international women’s conference was held in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1910, meaning that it enjoyed its 100th anniversary in 2010.
Alongside this, since 1975, the United Nations has held an annual World Conference on Women and backed the IWD movement. Of course, the UN’s support for the rights of women began when it was founded. This was back in 1948. The movement towards an IWD ‘movement’ has moved on a long way since then! Today, an IWD website exists, set up as ‘a non-profit philanthropic venture dedicated to keeping IWD alive and growing’.
IWD aims to have worldwide reach, and to celebrate the achievements – political, economic, and social – of women, past, present, and future. In some countries, such as Vietnam, Russia and China, it is a national holiday.
Not wanting to boast or anything, but there are more IWD events listed on the website for the UK than for any other country. Here’s an (incomplete) league table:
- UK: 37
- Australia: 21
- Canada: 19
- USA: 16
- India: 3
- Malaysia: 3
- United Republic of Tanzania: 3
- Georgia: 1
- United Arab Emirates: 1
- Spain: 1
- Germany: 1
None listed for Italy, for instance, or many other countries. At least, not as of this writing.
As a litmus test of our progress as a gender, in 2010, the theme was ‘Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all’. Themes in subsequent years were equal access to education, empowering rural women, and ending violence against women, whereas this year, it’s ‘Inspiring Change’.
So where do childless women, around the world, ‘fit’ within these celebrations?
I’ve pored over the schedules for any events themed around women’s childlessness – after all, this year’s topic is Change, and we want to bring about change in societal attitudes to the NotMom, don’t we? – but up till now, I’ve found only one. And it’s the UK, again, who takes the lead.
Named ‘Fertility Myths’, and instigated by Jody Day, founder of the online community Gateway Women, it’s planned to be a discussion between some three or four women in the public eye who’ve struggled with childlessness, curated by Jody.
Preceded by breakfast and cocktails for anyone from the online GW community who can make it, it will take place in a large auditorium at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank in London. Next, there will be a reception at the Women of the World Festival – and supper in the evening, before we all part company and go home. I’m going. How could I stay away?!
The whole IWD movement has got me once more pondering the reason for the differences in takeup of this cause on both sides of the Atlantic. And I’ve got more theories this time.
There’s plenty of evidence that women anywhere in the Western world prefer to collaborate than to work alone on a cause, or in their jobs.
And the rise of ‘the women’s movement’ in its broadest sense was more or less contemporaneous in the US and the UK, with America’s first women’s rights convention held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848, and England starting in the 1850s. There were militant suffragettes in both our countries. But the roots of, and influences on, our women’s movements are distinct.
In the US, dare I say that there have been more powerful conservative forces at work than with us: more women’s organizations conservative in their attitudes, some of them extremely powerful, politically and otherwise. And the status quo they have tended to support includes the conventional family structure: husband, wife, and children, ‘motherhood and apple pie’.
You can see this conservative pull very clearly reading about the negotiations over the UN’s recent publication on the status of women, and women’s rights. As Rowan Harvey reported in the UK Guardian, “[There was]… a rallying of conservative forces…. There was a push towards strengthening ‘the family’”– which ended up being endorsed in the final UN document.
But from the outset of the women’s movement in Britain, things were otherwise. Women’s suffrage started through an amazing number of organizations for such a small island, with more radical influences operating on them than on yours in the States.
For instance, some were inspired by the utopian socialist ideas of Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier from France, which had just metamorphosed through the upheaval of the French Revolution into a drastically new political system. Saint-Simon and Fourier attacked the traditional family and favoured communal living; they saw child-rearing as a community task, no longer to be based within the traditional ‘nuclear unit’ of the family.
This was only one influence, but it has stayed as an undercurrent in women’s thinking to this day. For instance, I live in a co-housing project, a self-built community of houses and flats with communal areas and an emphasis on helping our neighbours, childless and parents alike. Places like these are burgeoning in the UK, without financial help from the government.
So, what could you do for International Women’s Day in the States? Is it time to do something memorable to mark your existence on your side of the pond? I think it’s essential to stand together with our maternal sisters on a day like March 8, to marry together the more ‘conservative’ forces of womanhood with our more ‘radical’ hopes for a change in attitudes and greater recognition.
I look forward to seeing what kinds of events you create. There’s still time.
Paula Coston has her own blog about singlehood, childlessness and her puzzling desire for a boy child at Boywoman.com. Her novel, ‘On the Far Side, there’s a Boy’, comes out in April 2014.