Dr. Mary Walker Wore Pants, Fought for Vote in 1800s

In February 1870, while visiting New Orleans on a speaking tour, the activist and medical doctor Mary Edwards Walker was assaulted and arrested by a police officer. As he twisted her arm and dragged her away, the irate cop hissed something to the effect of “Have you ever had sex with a man?”

He asked this because Walker was wearing what had become her standard uniform: men’s trousers under a knee length skirt and a top hat. Such progressive fashions were just one of the many ways Dr. Walker fought patriarchy circa the late-eighteenth-to-early twentieth centuries, and this was just one of the many situations in which Walker’s non-conformity inspired invective. But this manhandling by an angry man didn’t dissuade her then, nor would it in the decades that followed.

Walker, who was born in this day in 1832, had faced down such sneers for years, ever since she began wearing men’s trousers in her youth. Her parents, progressive Christians who taught Mary and her six siblings to always question authority, encouraged this rebellion. They didn’t subscribe to gender norms — her father did the “woman’s” work at their family farm in Oswego, New York — and believed that women’s wear was not just oppressive, but unhygienic.

Mary took these lessons to heart, and for the rest of her years she argued against corsets, long skirts and all other prescribed women’s wear that hindered their movement, physically and metaphorically. Wearing pants showed patriarchal America she wouldn’t be held down. She even wore pants at her 1855 wedding to Albert Miller, an event at which she refused to include the word “obey” in her vows. As she would say later, “[Men] are not our protectors. If you were, who would there be to protect us from?”

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International Women’s Day’s Labor Origins

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today, as we celebrate women around the world, let’s not forget that today’s commemoration owes its existence to the labor movement: The first unofficial women’s march associated with this date was organized by the Socialist Party of America, in 1909. But it wasn’t a “women’s” day back then. It was “National Woman’s Day,” which is quite a bit different. Appearing at the event, activist Charlotte Perkins Gilman declared that day, “It is true that a woman’s duty is centered in her home and motherhood but home should mean the whole country and not be confined to three or four rooms of a city or a state.” And that was progressive for the time.

Gilman’s kitchen-centric thinking aside, female activists from The International Conference for Women organized a similar event celebrating working women in 1910, in Copenhagen, and one year later the event grew to one million working women in four nations across Europe, but on March 19, not the 8th.

But the date March 8th didn’t gain importance again until 1917, the year Russian women walked off their jobs as part of the February Revolution that ended Czar Nicholas II’s reign, ushering in the Soviet era. From that point on, every year, Russian women were celebrated for their role in enacting the revolutionary cause.

But Women’s Day was thus largely relegated to Soviet Russia for years; though it spread into China and other communist nations over the decades, IWD didn’t go global until the United Nations adopted it as an annual event in 1975, the international body’s so-called “year of the woman,” part of the broader “decade of the woman.”

From the UN’s contemporary documents on the female-centric initiative:

The World Plan of Action consisted of recommendations for national and international action, including economic, legal, social, administrative and educational measures. The Plan suggested, inter alia, that Governments set up national machinery to promote and oversee their national efforts to advance the status of women…

Looking at the socioeconomic and cultural landscape of today, in particular the persistent gender wage gap and very real need for the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, it’s clear that the “year” and the “decade” of women weren’t successful.

The mission won’t be truly accomplished until every day is “women’s day,” that is, free of harassment, rape, degradation and economic inequality, and the mission won’t be accomplished until every “Women’s Day” is a day celebrating victories won, not fighting for what should have been a reality decades ago.