International Women's Day

by Jewelles Smith / 03.08.2012—International Women’s Day

This Year marks the 101st  International Women’s Day, in Canada the theme is:  Strong Leadership. Strong Women. Strong World: Equality. With this in mind, I am going to do a small homage to my late grandmother who inspired me to be the woman I have become. As well, a shout-out to all the mentoring women and (S)heroes that continue to inspire and mentor younger women. We have come a long way in the fight to gain equality, and this fight continues here in Canada, and around the world. As Judy Rebick said in her keynote speech last Friday in Vancouver: “We’re stalled, it’s true, but we still have those gains and most important we have a new generation of activist women that’s stronger, more powerful, more sure of themselves and increasingly willing to fight…and they don’t have the insecurity that we had.”

My grandmother, born Senta Shramm in Denmark, journeyed to Canada in the mid 30s following her family who had come to Canada before her. She was the woman who first inspired me to stop at nothing less than what I dreamed. she passed away in 2000, just  over six months after I began university. I am so happy that I made the decision to embark on that journey in time for her to know. However, as great a woman as she was, in many ways my grandmother was set in her ways and understanding of the world. And as much as I railed against her, I know that the sad truth is that in ways my youth could not comprehend, she was correct in seeing the world as a man’s world where women may fight for their dreams, but all too often at great cost. My grandmother bore five children–one out of “wedlock”, she survived three marriages and tuberculosis. For a time she raised me and I will forever be grateful for her tenderness during that very difficult ordeal in my life. I will never shake the sadness of our last conversation where she praised me for my university goals and advised me that my decision to permanently end my reproductive years would leave me alone as in her words: “no man will want you if you do this”. For a time she was correct, the man I was dating at that time broke it off as he wanted children of his own. I wish she could have lived to see me happy in a relationship with a man who adores both my children and I, just as we are.

This past week, I met my (S)hero, Judy Rebick in person at the “Celebrating Women with Judy Rebick: International Women’s Day 2012 Dinner” in Vancouver BC. When I think of the strong women leaders who have inspired me, she is among the first that I defer to, right after my grandmother. For decades, Rebick has worked tirelessly to campaign for women’s equality. Publishing Transforming Power, Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution and most recently, Occupy This! and founding Rabble.ca. In person, Rebick is just as dynamic and inspiring as she has been when I have read her articles and books or watched her public speeches.

One of the challenges of the feminist and the disability movement, that I see, is the lack of mentors. Too often, women fighting from the margins work so hard to demand and fight for the rights and equality of their group, that they are too exhausted to take the time to be leaders and mentors to the upcoming generation. In the disability community especially, the tragic reality is that  women who have thrown all of their energy and health into speaking out for equality, literally are too exhausted to pass on the lessons they have learned. We have seen it too often, health fails and women sometimes die before they finish their fight. I do believe that the internet is changing some of this isolation in the activist community. Women and allies can reach out to one another via Facebook, Twitter, and email. I believe my grandmother would have been right in there online tweeting away!

Oftentimes I have ranted with love on this failing of our groups to first, take the time to take care of ourselves, second, to reach out to those in our networks to shoulder and share some of the collective burden, and thirdly, take the time to mentor and foster leadership qualities in the generation coming behind  us. In a group where too few have not, for whatever reasons, been able to do the public activism, those that do need to connect with those who wish to. I do not want to neglect to mention the many women both public and private who inspire one another everyday. It is the loud and strong  voices of these women who have kindled my own voice to raise up, inspired my hands to pick up a megaphone, type out a letter, pursue my studies in feminism and disability rights, and speak out when I see injustice.The women I meet and rally with at so many events, over coffee, and via social media continue to motivate and galvanize me. And for all my soul sisters, the private women who have traversed many roads with me and with whom I share my dearest thoughts, feelings and memories, for the many times when I have been down and you clambered down beside me and worked through the darkness, thank you.

As much as I despair of the continued inequality, I want to take a moment and celebrate the successes of our foremothers. Take a moment to go to the Status of Women in Canada site and review the many hurtles we have leapt: the right to own property, the right to equal guardianship of our children, the right to vote and the right to run for and hold office, access to abortion and contraception, and recognition under law that women are persons, to name but a few. On this day to celebrate women and address inequality: Bread and Roses, Bread and Roses.