What Is The Good Fight? Colombian International Women’s Day, Performative Activism, and Socialism

What Is The Good Fight? Colombian International Women’s Day, Performative Activism, and Socialism March 8, 2019

Let’s begin with a story. Last year around this time I was in Bogotá, finishing the CELTA training I needed to seek out English-teaching jobs in Colombia. I’d had a few difficult experiences in my first few weeks in the country, but quite a few culturally humbling ones, too. And so, with rose-tinted glasses, I witnessed my first International Women’s Day in Colombia, a day everyone seemed super excited to be celebrating. Every feminized person who entered my school received a rose. Girlfriends on the street sported roses, teddy bears, and chocolates. And even the Venezuelans begging with candies or pencils or songs in the TransMileno seemed genuine in their introductory appeals to be able to treat their partners, the women raising their children in the most arduous of displaced-person circumstances, the same way everyone else could on this day of days.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t realize March 8 was plainly Colombia’s Valentine’s Day (although Colombia has its own day for that, too: Día de amor y amistad, “Day of Love and Friendship”, on the third Saturday of September). But I was still wide-eyed and wonderstruck by all the differences between Colombia and Canada, and wanted to believe that maybe, in a culture with recent laws expressly against femicide, a place where men hold their mothers’ hands with confidence in the streets, and a country where signs of Marian devotion appear everywhere–there could be a different and meaningful conversation about the problems facing feminized persons in the world.

This year, though, I’m a little more measured in my response–and absolutely elated to find many local women equally dissatisfied with a day in which romantic displays stand in for serious discourse about gendered relations.

But what can we do with days like today? What issues, as globally minded humanists, can we use this collective prompt to advance?

The answer, I think, lies expressly in that “globally minded” component: because when we consider the world, suddenly approaches to activism and societal reformation that seem so obvious within one political context… might not anymore.

Women’s Day: Socialist Roots for a Reason

There’s a lot of socialist talk in U.S. right now, which is always fascinating for a Canadian, because it feels as though many parts of the U.S. have this discussion to the exclusion of the rest of the world. (Canada in particular is that tedious kid in class frantically waving their democratic-socialist hand even as the teacher tries desperately to coax the basic definition of socialism from a reluctantly participating classmate.)

And yet, for all that the U.S. spins Women’s Day around more mainstream political narratives (including a Cold-War myth about an uprising in 1857), the roots of the March 8 event are socialist. The Socialist Party of America hosted the first in 1909, thanks in strong part to the work of Theresa Malkiel. The International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910 made it annual. The 1917 suffragist movement in freshly socialist, “bread-and-peace!” Soviet Russia made it a national holiday there, too… and so the event continued most prominently among socialist and communist countries, until taken up by the U.N. in 1975 as a more officially international affair.

Does that seem odd to folks today? “Intersectionality” is often treated like a hot new take on societal discourse (in politics, in academia, on Twitter), but we’re being sorely ahistoricist when we use it as such. Of course class and socioeconomic discourse go hand-in-hand with gender activism.

Because underpinning most political discourse about, say, the efficacy of socialist and capitalist policies is a baseline of socialist practice: cultural spaces, that is, in which labour for a specific community is not given monetary value, and fitness for individual inclusion in redistribution networks is measured by more than economic potential.

I’m talking, of course, about domestic labour in the home and local community.

And whether or not one supports broader socialist policies–welfare states, wealth redistribution through taxation, highly regulated economies–or capitalist policies–libertarianism, globalized free-markets, highly deregulated economies–that body of unpaid domestic/familial/local-communal labour persists. And not done entirely by feminized persons! But certainly done in significant proportion by them.

This makes the state of political discourse, then, rather like a game in which we wilfully ignore whole sections of the board.

But why? What do we focus on instead?

Lessons from the Colombian Contrast

Colombian currency features three feminized persons from history:

  • Policarpa Salavarietta, seamstress and Revolutionary Forces spy, on the old 10mil note;
  • Virginia Gutiérrez, celebrated for her advocacy on behalf of single mothers and against religious-colonial pressures on women’s outcomes, on the new 10mil note; and
  • Débora Arango, a painter whose work on the female body developed into artistic witness to government massacres and the plight of sex workers and prisoners (often against extreme Catholic church condemnation), on the 2mil note.

Canada only added its first national female figure, Viola Desmond, last year. The U.S. has currently placed on hold plans to add its first, Harriet Tubman, to the line-up. But what does this variation in representational outcomes, which we tend to hype immensely whenever there’s the slightest whiff of novelty to it (apropos of nothing, Captain Marvel is out today, too!) actually mean?

After all, Canada has had a woman on its currency for quite some time–the Queen–so if there were some special benefit to feminized persons being seen on the currency, it would have shown up already, wouldn’t it?

Now, we certainly don’t see that benefit in the case of indigenous women in Canada. As The Guardian noted last year,

Indigenous women are also overrepresented in [Canadian] prison[s] – a grim trend that shows little sign of abating, she noted. Between 2001 and 2012, the number of incarcerated indigenous women increased by 109%. Indigenous women now make up 33% of the country’s inmates, despite the fact that indigenous peoples account for less than 4% of the Canadian population.

But other Canadian trends are more promising, like the Pan American Health Organization’s observation that “[i]n Canada, physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence decreased by 50%, from 2.2% in 2004 to 1.1% in 2014.” Canada has also seen a marked decline in “intimate partner homicide” from 1975 to 2015.

Conversely, Latin American violence statistics against feminized and transgender persons are generally grim, possibly the worst as a collective region in the world. And yet, for Colombia–where young men dying of violence related to other criminal enterprise has sharply skewed local homicide statistics for decades–you can find some really weird points of comparison.

For instance, the Organization of American States’ most recent data on intimate partner homicide shows that, in 2016, 62% of all female homicides in Canada were intimate partner homicides… and only 9% were, in Colombia.

But, okay, that’s just internal comparison between different female homicides. What about the total homicides? Well… four years ago Reuters reported that in Colombia a woman was killed every two days in this population of 47 million. And the Canadian data for 2015? We had 148 female homicides for a population of 36 million… which works out to about one death every two days, for a population 10 million smaller.

So who’s “better”? Who’s “worse”? And even if gendered relations are improving, what’s driving the transformation?

Performative Activism and Genuine Change

I was in grade five or six when I was selected to attend a Women in Politics conference that my teacher thought would inspire me. It was my first moment of doubt about the whole approach of statistically moored feminist practice. I distinctly remember one of the presenters rattling off statistics about gender-representation percentages in various levels of government, and when she reached one in the mid-forties, she stumbled and said something to the effect of “So that one’s close, but we still have work to do.”

Close to what, I wondered. Would parity mean that everything was fixed? Was that what this panel was suggesting? And how do you retain that fixation on perfect parity while still accommodating the slings and arrows of candidate competency from one season to the next? Granted, there is a staggering amount of gendered rhetoric that determines “candidate competency” in the first place, but my concern lay then with the fixation on perfect parity as our benchmark of success. Would egalitarian participation in a fundamentally flawed system actually fix the underlying issues?

Speaking generously, I think most of us understand that gaining more diverse representation in systems of power is only one part of the equation. But all the world over, women are gaining larger seat shares in their national parliaments, so now is a very good time to talk about next steps. If feminized persons have more of the public platform, what are they doing with it? And what should they be doing with it, when we consider our history?

Colombian Libertarianism

I’ve been ruminating quite a bit recently about Colombia’s laissez-faire approach to legal accountability and regulation. Those posts are still 100% in the contemplative phase (and I thank my readers for their patience with them), but they attest to the striking reality that Colombia is more libertarian than the U.S. in a number of ways… and yet, even this sort of individualism requires a safety net, which most Colombians have in the form of a family that will expand and contract to assist in times of considerable individual strife.

In this way, Colombia’s economy reveals humanity’s socialist underpinnings more plainly, perhaps, than the U.S. and Canada, where it still for some reason makes headlines that (in Canada) half of all parents are still financially supporting children into their thirties, and (in the U.S.) parents give $500 billion annually in support to their adult children. Forget the faux outrage and shock that families aren’t all living by-the-bootstraps: what is the worker-employer relationship between parents and children?

My first books were Ayn Rand’s Anthem (1937) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), which were no doubt chosen in part to inculcate in me a properly anti-socialist mentality. Anthem in particular I highly recommend to children under six, as I was, because it’s a great depiction of the development of the self. But after six? By then we’re supposed to become a little more cognizant of the communities to which we belong; communities in which there will be times when we are small, and vulnerable, and if we’re very lucky, old. We could all make those times even harder for ourselves by adopting a starkly individualistic philosophy… but very few of us ever do. Rather, we form systems of local support–naturally, without formal economic parameters, through families, friends, and neighbours–because we are a mammalian group species. Because we have the evolved ability–in everything from neotonous features to the development of mirror neurons–to support each other through the variability of our triumphs and hardships.

And yet for some reason this obvious fact is relegated to the realm of “women’s issues”, a radical subset of politics. “Gender politics”, and not “all of us” politics.

No wonder, then, that on a day ostensibly about women’s issues, so many around the world have a confused sense of its call to arms. It’s not just about reducing violence against women (in a world where masculinized persons murder each other at far higher, staggering, unconscionable levels every year). And it’s not just about trying to see more representation of women within our existing systems (whatever any given culture considers to be the “right” amount therein).

In fact, funnily enough, I wonder today if Colombia, and other countries that treat today like another Valentine’s Day, aren’t actually closer to the mark after all.

Because here they are, handing out chocolates. And teddy bears. And roses.

An exchange of goods for an implicit underlying system of services that are not properly accounted for in our economy.

Now if only those “roses” were the ones feminized persons have been asking for all along.

“Bread and Roses”

In 1911, Helen M. Todd noted the following in a famous women’s suffrage speech:

No words can better express the soul of the woman’s movement, lying back of the practical cry of “Votes for Women,” better than this sentence which had captured the attention of both Mother Jones and the hired girl, “Bread for all, and Roses too.” Not at once; but woman is the mothering element in the world and her vote will go toward helping forward the time when life’s Bread, which is home, shelter and security, and the Roses of life, music, education, nature and books, shall be the heritage of every child that is born in the country, in the government of which she has a voice.

There will be no prisons, no scaffolds, no children in factories, no girls driven on the street to earn their bread, in the day when there shall be “Bread for all, and Roses too.”

I didn’t set out today to write about the specific strengths and weaknesses of various levels of socialist/capitalist policy, or even to suggest that a complete deconstruction of current political and economic infrastructure is possible.

I set out simply to ask what a day like today can mean for a globally minded humanist.

And for this Canadian feminized person in Colombia?

It means an opportunity to remember that we compartmentalize our social crises to our own detriment.

And that an activism of myopic comparison between specific statistics–past vs. present, culture vs. culture–might well be distracting us from a far more relevant whole.

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