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I Am Not a Party Dress

It is International Women’s Day in the midst of Women’s History Month. February was Black History Month. In May we’ll celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage. In September we recognize Hispanic Americans. In November we give a nod to American Indians. Probably I’m missing a few. For years I worked at public television stations where these designations drove programming decisions. We’d create spots featuring brown people and women, and we’d run these spots for 30 days, except for the ones featuring black people—they only got 28 days most years. When the month was done, the spots would go back in the vault and we’d continue to fill the airwaves with our ordinary mix of white men, the occasional woman, and token appearances from people of color. Year after year after year.

I am not opposed to these months or days of recognition. To the contrary, I believe it is important to recognize the contributions of people from all communities. I just hate that we still have to compartmentalize the recognition. It is insulting to believe that the accomplishments of an entire race or gender can be trotted out for a month and then neatly folded away for the rest of the year like some fancy piece of clothing.

I am not a party dress. My womanhood is with me every day. It isn’t something that needs to be preserved or displayed only on special occasions.

Today many women will stay home from work to demonstrate the impact women have on society and productivity day to day. There is no doubt that a Day Without Women would be devastating for America. There would be no childcare and many schools would cease to exist. Hospitals would be thrown into chaos as everyone from top doctors to lab technicians to nurses to the reception staff disappeared in great numbers. Imagine a nursing home with no female staff. Imagine a preschool. Imagine a courtroom.

We are necessary. The world doesn’t work without us. But I don’t think that will be made clear today, because so many women cannot afford the luxury of protest. When you work a job where you receive hourly wages and no benefits, a day off is a day without pay. Many women run the risk of being fired for participating in a strike or a march. If you have to choose between feeding your children and taking a stand, you’ll feed your children every time.

Years ago, when Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was at the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists, I remember feeling a bit queasy about the notion that women only needed to be more ambitious to get ahead, that they only needed to speak up and seek challenges and take risks. I’m simplifying things, but that’s how the conversation sounded to me at the time. It sounded like a certain type of woman—educated, financially stable, privileged—was telling other women to work a little harder to move up the ladder. The thing is, I was raised in a home with a hardworking woman. My mother worked full time in an office—at an insurance agency, at my junior high school, at a chicken plant—and she often worked part time at some sort of retail establishment in addition to her full-time job. I mean, how much harder was she supposed to work? How many additional challenges was she supposed to take on?

My mother is smart, but she didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. As a result, there were whole categories of jobs not available to her. She often trained new management hires on the office computer system. She could have done their jobs and in some cases she did do their jobs, but she didn’t have the diploma that qualified her to hold their positions. If all the women like my mother took off for an entire day, business would grind to a halt. No one would have the passcode for the payroll account. No one would know which file held the arbitration agreement. No one would have the building alarm codes, the phone number for the CEO in Japan, the name of that video conferencing company, the check for the big order due today. But women like my mother don’t take off and if they must, they leave a ream of instructions and a phone number in case of emergencies—usually with some other woman in the office.

These women don’t have the luxury of striking or leaning in. Work is not a passion project, it’s a necessity. It’s a way to afford food and clothing, to send your kids to summer camp, to send your kids to college. I salute all the women who are striking to make a point today and all the teachers who will spend this month talking about Susan B. Anthony and Emma Goldman, but I wish for more. I wish we didn’t need to disappear to be noticed. I wish we could stop relegating women to a month or a day on the calendar. I wish we could recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of women, of African Americans, of Native Americans, of Asian Americans, of Hispanics, and more all year round. And I wish, while we’re hailing the accomplishments of Sally Ride and Shirley Chisholm, we could also find a way to recognize the contributions of people like my mother who worked her ass off so her two daughters could have more. Maybe my mother didn’t break any glass ceilings for herself, but she put some strong cracks in that ceiling for her daughters.

She deserves more than a month or a day on the calendar. She deserves more than a special occasion. We all do.

Published in Feminism Politics Writing

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