“Welcome to our corner!” called out Women in Black organizer Barbara Upton on March 9 to a crowd of several hundred celebrants gathered in front of the Elting Memorial Library. “We’ve been here every Saturday for over 17 years.” Indeed, the presence of a handful of black-clad protesters carrying placards with slogans promoting peace and justice has become a commonplace sight at the corner of Main and North Front streets. But this particular Saturday meant something special: the day after International Women’s Day, and an excuse to demonstrate solidarity on a long list of issues impacting women, locally and around the globe, with a rally and march.
Women in Black and International Women’s Day have certain aspects in common that make such an action a natural fit, including the fact that both have been around quite a long time. The first Women in Black were Israeli and Palestinian peace activists who founded the tradition of bearing silent witness on a street corner in Jerusalem, a quarter of a century ago. The first Women’s Day observance happened in New York 110 years ago, organized by the Socialist Party of America. The idea to make it an international event was broached one year later at a Socialist women’s conference in Copenhagen, and delegates organized demonstrations in 1911 in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland.
International Women’s Day migrated to Russia in 1913 and England in 1914, when March 8 became the accepted date that has stuck ever since. But it was really the rise of communism that fueled its spread thereafter. In fact, the Russian Revolution was ignited by female textile workers in St. Petersburg marking International Women’s Day with a “Bread and Peace” strike on March 8, 1917.
After that, the holiday gained popularity throughout the Soviet sphere of influence — less so in Western capitalist democracies, until Second Wave feminists in the US decided to make International Women’s Day their own, circa 1967, forging alliances with labor and peace groups. It is now an official national holiday in 27 countries. By 1975 the annual celebration had been endorsed by the United Nations, which now assigns it a different “theme” each year.
“Think equal, build smart, innovate for change” was the 2019 UN theme, suggesting a focus on women in the tech workforce; but the activists in New Paltz had a more overtly political agenda in mind. Indeed, “intersectionality” could have been the word of the day. More than two dozen local and regional organizations were listed as co-sponsors with Women in Black of the New Paltz International Women’s Day March, with areas of concern ranging from health to labor to poverty to immigrant rights to the environment.
A bright blue late-winter sky shone down on hundreds of eager faces as one representative of these organizations after another stepped up to take a turn at the megaphone on the library’s old front porch. Anique Nicholson of Mid-Hudson Planned Parenthood delivered the unwelcome news that President Trump had just implemented an abortion information gag rule on health service providers receiving Title X funding. She promised that Planned Parenthood clinics “will not withhold information,” and drew cheers with the announcement that the Planned Parenthood Federation and the American Medical Association had jointly decided to file a lawsuit challenging the new rule.
While a demonstrator stood behind her holding a sign depicting an indigenous version of Rosie the Riveter and the caption “A woman’s place is in her union,” Janette Clark of the Hudson Valley Area Labor Federation traced International Women’s Day’s roots in the garment workers’ strikes of the early 20th century. Lisa Lindsley of the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network spoke of local efforts to resist deportation by ICE agents of undocumented members of our communities. Several speakers urged support for the Green Light NY bill, which would make drivers’ licenses available to all state residents regardless of immigration status. Joanna Dempsey of the Campaign for New York Health touted the proposed New York Health Act, pointing out that a single-payer system would ensure that “Women will no longer have to stay in bad marriages because they need the health insurance, or stay in jobs they don’t like.”
Domestic violence, rape and sexual abuse were on the minds of many speakers as well, and the diverse crowd totally seemed to agree that race, poverty and sexual orientation/gender identity were all interwoven with other issues impacting women. “Intersectionality is the only way to have a peaceful future,” SlutPaltz organizer Shanique Alladen said.
Tanya Marquette of Concerned Parents New Paltz observed, “The structural aspects of various forms of oppression are pretty much the same.”
Once the speeches were done, the activist brass band Tin Horn Uprising cranked up a spirited marching tune to propel the protestors down Main Street to their next stop at the Water Street Market. Strains of “Down by the Riverside” and “Get Up, Stand Up” alternated with chants such as “Whose street? Our street!” and “The women united will never be defeated.” Marchers waved signs and sported tee-shirts with political slogans and artwork, including a diagram of the female reproductive system wryly labeled “No Country for Old Men.”
Afterwards, many of the marchers dispersed, while others returned to the Elting Library to continue their usual Saturday midday vigil.