Celebrating Feminism for International Women's Day

03/08/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2015


March 8 is International Women's Day.

It is a day set aside to speak out for issues of justice for women -- specifically issues related to women's economic, political, and social freedom and equality around the world. Its origins lie in the socialist movement of the early 1900s (it was first celebrated in 1908) and the emphasis is political, activist, and oriented toward social change. I MUCH prefer it to Mother's Day! While mother's day is nice, it has been co-opted by capitalism and turned into another event celebrating consumerism. It can also be difficult for women who struggle with infertility or miscarriage; for people whose relationships with their mothers are less than perfect; for mothers who have lost children; for single women or women who have chosen not to have children; and for a host of other reasons. International Women's Day, however, celebrates all women and seeks to promote ways to make life for women better.

As a child of the '70s and '80s, I was vaguely aware that feminism existed but I didn't really know anything about it. Like the college students that I teach today, I associated it with bra burning and radicalism. I continue to introduce my students to feminism, just as my professors introduced it to me -- as a way of looking at history, scripture, tradition, and the world around me with a critical eye. With an eye oriented toward women's perspectives, women's experience, and questions of justice as they relate to women in a variety of settings and locations. With the knowledge that our identities are multiple and that the intersections of race, class, and gender matter when think about privilege, poverty, discrimination, racism, and power.

When talking with groups or classes about feminism I often ask people, "Do you believe that women and men are equal?" The answer is usually a resounding "Yes!" When I follow-up and ask them if they believe that our world should reflect that equality, again, most people agree. When I explain that, for the most part, this is what feminists are fighting for, they are often surprised. This is not what they had in mind, not what the media and spin-doctors have made feminism out to be. Few people associate the adjective "reasonable" with feminism, as in "feminists make reasonable demands that the structures and institutions of our world (Congress, the legal system, welfare, job benefits, etc.) reflect the socially accepted fact that men and women are not only are equal, but ought to be treated equally."

In my experience, when feminism is explained in these kinds of simple and easy to grasp terms, most people find themselves more favorably disposed to it. Some of my students have argued that they find the term simply too divisive and that while they agree with the ideas, feminists ought to just drop the word itself and still try to fight for the ideas it embodies. Not only do I find this suggestion unsatisfactory, I think it is a naïve expression of conflict avoidance that fails to recognize the powerful forces that continue to oppress women in our world.

One must choose to be a feminist. It is a political and spiritual choice that must be made in the full knowledge of the forces that you are up against. What truly separates feminists from the majority of the students that I teach and most of the people in congregations I have met is the issue of confrontation and advocacy. On one side are those who expect the ideals of feminism to be reality in our world but reject the label of "feminist" and on the other are people who recognize that we have not yet achieved these realities and who claim the label of "feminist" and the agenda of advocacy that accompanies it.

Those who reject the label of feminist are often afraid of making waves, afraid of challenging the status quo -- even if they do not agree with it. Confrontation is not always negative and it can be quite important if your cause is just. There will always be people who fight against any kind of change and change for the sake of change is not necessarily good, but thoughtful, reasonable change can be worth the fight. Ultimately, it is only those who are willing to stand up and speak out who are actually willing to claim that they are feminists. Those who are able to self-consciously describe themselves as feminists are more politically and socially savvy and aware of the fact that we still have a long way to go before women and men are treated equally in our world.

So, this Sunday, on International Women's Day, I encourage you to speak up and speak out for feminism. Share or retweet this blog with someone you know. Find an event in your community to attend in support of women or International Women's Day. Read this great piece about the importance of keeping intersectionality at the heart of our feminist analysis. Find ways to embody justice for women and all people in your own life and in the work that you do in the world.