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On a Grim and Bloody International Women’s Day, Let’s Build Feminist Solidarity

What can we do on International Women’s Day to honor the legacies of feminist internationalists?

Rio de Janeiro's councillor and activist Marielle Franco is remembered during a demonstration to mark International Women's Day in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 8, 2019.

On this International Women’s Day, as the world watches a historic and bloody war unfold in Europe — while people in the United States and Europe largely continue to ignore the suffering of the millions of Black and Brown people who have been rendered stateless by war, corruption and the climate crisis, many of them women — we need to fortify ourselves, pump up our optimism and bolster our resolve to fight for a better world.

Women are always vulnerable to sexual violence and abuse in the context of war and occupation. War is both a spectacle of toxic masculinity, expressed through the use of state power to dominate, conquer, occupy other territories. Even as some women are also soldiers (militarism is not solely a cis male phenomenon), women still are for the most part collateral damage in wars launched by men.

So, this year I invite us to celebrate feminism by remembering women who were internationalists, solidarity builders and peacemakers, who crossed borders to undermine borders, who built trans-national bridges based on shared vision of post-capitalist and post-colonial futures, women who resisted empire with every fiber of their beings.

I invite you to remember those women who do not have monuments built to honor them, but who left legacies of resistance to patriarchy and defiance of the roles that were designated for them. With each woman profiled here, say her name, and then say Presente!

These are movement rituals of remembrance, and a way of disciplining our hopefulness (to paraphrase Mariame Kaba).

One woman who comes to mind who rarely gets recognition is Nigerian feminist activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (1900-1978). Historian Cheryl Johnson-Odim wrote a powerful biography of Ransome-Kuti some years ago entitled For Women and the Nation, which introduced many of us to the amazing life of this woman. Ransome-Kuti was a women’s rights activist, suffragist, educator, political leader and self-proclaimed African Socialist. She is perhaps best known as the mother of the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. She was also a member of the internationalist group, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and traveled around the world. A staunch and outspoken critic of Nigerian military rule, Ransome-Kuti was harassed and targeted for her activism. In 1977 the military raided her family home, attacked family members, and threw Ransome-Kuti from a second floor window causing injuries that lead to her death in 1978. Her courage and tenacity provide inspiration, not only to Nigerian and African feminists today, but to all of us.

A second woman who influenced me as a teenager growing up in Detroit in the 1970s was Grace Lee Boggs (1915 -2015). A Chinese American philosopher, leftist, writer, humanist, organizer and visionary, she built her political life inside of Detroit’s Black freedom movement for over 60 years. When we think of Black and Asian solidarity and women who boldly stepped outside of the limited role society may have assigned them, we cannot help but think of Grace Lee Boggs. She was life partners and political collaborators with Black auto worker, organizer and intellectual James Boggs. Together, they coauthored the provocative political tome, Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, which is read in study groups and classrooms to this day. Engaging in a life of struggle, Grace Lee Boggs worked alongside, debated and built campaigns with the likes of C.L.R. James and others. She hosted Freedom Summers in Detroit where young people around the world came to work in community gardens and study political history. Stephen Wards’s book In Love and Struggle is a great testimony to Grace and Jimmy’s egalitarian marriage and lifelong comradeship.

Finally, there is Marielle Franco (1979-2018), the young queer Brazilian political leader who was brutally assassinated in the streets of Rio de Janiero in 2018. Franco grew up in the favelas outside of Rio and was an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and for the poor. She won election to the city council as a part of the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). Her work, including opposition to militarism and state violence, focused on Brazil, but in death she became an international symbol of feminist resistance. Murals, street names, gardens and scholarships have been created as tributes to her in countries around the world. In protests after her murder, thousands of voices roared through the streets of Rio, saying “Marielle lives!” in Portuguese.

In the work and sacrifices of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Grace Lee Boggs and Marielle Franco, we are reminded not only of brutal repression but also of endurance and perseverance, of the spirit of women’s resistance transcending borders and transcending individual lives.

So, what can we do on International Women’s Day to honor the legacies of feminist internationalists? Here are three ways to begin. Go to the website of Grassroots Global Justice Alliance to learn about and support their work to build grassroots feminist networks around the world. Learn more about groups like Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) that are supporting feminist resistance to war in Russia and Ukraine today. And join us at the Portal Project this afternoon for a conversation with feminist abolitionists, Angela Y. Davis, Gina Dent, Beth E. Richie and Erica Meiners.

Despite narrow and disparaging reductions of left feminist politics as “identity politics,” left feminism demands that we infuse all of our organizing with a spirit of internationalism, with radical democratic practice, and with a deep and unshakeable commitment that we throw no one under the bus in our envisioning and fighting for a better world.

Looking ahead, we need a revolution of values, systems and cultures. And feminist organizers and cultural workers must, as the late writer-activist Toni Cade Bambara reminded us, “make revolution irresistible.” That is our task. Let’s embrace it.

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