100 Years of International Women’s Day: Gender, Leadership and American Foreign Policy

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Heather Hurlburt is the Executive Director of the National Security Network. Picture: private.

By Heather Hurlburt



Days of demonstrations have led to stalemate; the security forces are watching demonstrators closely but the tired autocracy seems uncertain how to respond.  Unexpectedly, just when the demonstrators’ fervor seems ready to wane, a new flood of humanity joins them in the streets; the regime collapses, and the world is changed forever.

Egypt, 2011?

No.  Petrograd, Russia, the celebration of International Women’s Day, 1917.  Women workers chose to go ahead with their planned protest march in honor of the new holiday – a march their male counterparts had urged them to cancel.  Faced with demonstrators who had taken over railroad stations and artillery depots, and begun to fraternize with conscript troops, the military demanded and received the resignation of Tsar Nicholas II.  The Russian Revolution had begun.

It will surprise many American readers to learn that International Women’s Day is an American creation.  The first National Woman’s Day was observed here in February 1909. International Women’s Day was marked for the first time in March 1911, in Denmark, Austria, Germany and Switzerland.  After the historic consequences of the 1917 Petrograd march, March 8 became its fixed date.

What does a holiday established with the specific goal of encouraging women toward socialism, voted on by a committee whose members included Finland’s first three women parliamentarians, mean to us 100 years later, when the United States has had three female Secretaries of State and many young women have ceased to find either feminism or socialism important categories of self-definition? What do those facts themselves mean for American foreign policy, and what do all of them together mean for the future?
The women who created International Women’s Day were themselves ambivalent if not hostile toward what we think of as feminism – because they saw it as potentially distracting women from the larger cause of social and economic revolution. They believed that such a fundamental revolution would advance the cause of women. But from Clara Zetkin to Alexandra Kollontai, they either knew instinctively or came to understand that equality for women would not just happen – and that led them eventually to make common cause with feminists and suffragettes in the US, UK and across Europe.

That same debate might well play out in the US today – and indeed did play out, quietly, during the 2008 presidential primaries. Was it more important to support a woman –  older feminists such as Marie Wilson made the case for “just wanting to see a woman president in my lifetime,” – or was it actually insulting, as many younger women seemed to feel, to suggest that gender alone would move voting preferences?

Certainly, the essentialist expectation that women’s participation in politics and policy-making – which dates back 100 years or more - would bring universal peace has not panned out. But we have more evidence than ever about specific ways in which women’s leadership and political participation does make a difference.

Does It Make a Difference?

From life expectancy to child literacy to job creation, study after study has put it beyond dispute that, as Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, said on International Women’s Day, March 3, 2010:  “The more a society empowers its women, the stronger and more prosperous it will become.”

When Madeleine Albright was sworn in as the first female Secretary of State, in 1997, commentary ranged much more around competence and symbolism than any expected policy dividends.  President Clinton said at the time – years before it occurred to anyone that Mrs. Clinton herself might one day occupy the post – that she had urged him to choose Albright over male contenders because, “Only if you pick Madeleine will you get a person who shares your values, who is an eloquent defender of your foreign policy, and who will make every girl proud.”

But what if in fact growth in women’s formal political power has plateaued? American ambassador, academic and activist Swanee Hunt made the argument in 2007 that, just as global studies were documenting women’s positive effect on governance, women seemed to be consolidating their power just outside the sphere of government:

[M]ost of the best and the brightest women eschew politics. Women are much more likely to wield influence from a nongovernmental organization (NGO) than from public office.

What Ambassador Hunt wrote in 2007 well-anticipates the American scene in 2011.  In addition to Secretary Clinton, the Obama Administration made three high-profile female appointments on the national security field:  Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, Susan Rice as ambassador to the UN and, for the first time ever, a woman as number three at the Pentagon, the highly-regarded Michele Flournoy.  (Flournoy is noted for the depth of her policy savvy, and her commitment to family-friendliness; her team is generally regarded as the best place for women, or parents of either gender, to work in the national security apparatus.)

Beyond those high-profile appointments, however, the picture is more mixed.  Few other women are visible in the photos released of high-level White House meetings, on the roster of the National Security Staff, or at the Under- and Assistant- Secretary levels at State, Defense and Homeland Security.  While women’s representation in the US Senate held steady at 17/100, women’s representation in the House of Representatives dropped for the first time in 32 years.  The number of women governors actually dropped by a third after the 2010 elections, from 9 to 6, despite the election of Republican women governors in New Mexico, Oklahoma and South Carolina.

The Power of Relational Thinking

100 years ago the emergence of International Women’s day, and its importance in the political history of the time, reflected women’s determination to gain rights for themselves but also a larger change in how people thought their governments ought to relate to them, into which women’s struggle easily fit.

The rise – and success – of America’s three women Secretaries of State and their counterparts in other agencies may fit such a broader pattern – one of a globalizing world in which visible hierarchies are replaced by fluid, shifting networks; where power still resides in guns but also flows from cable tv, keyboards and marketplaces; where local authorities and sometimes be unexpectedly trumped by far-away ones – and vice versa.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton, who just completed a two-year stint in government as head of the State Department’s Office of Policy Planning (the first woman to hold the post) has proposed a view that perhaps brings these disparate elements back together:  that the mode of thinking that tends, for whatever reason of nature or nurture, to be more adopted by women is also the mode of thinking that is more adaptive for the highly-connected 21st century. She wrote:

Almost 30 years ago, the psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote about differences between the genders in their modes of thinking. She observed that men tend to see the world as made up of hierarchies of power and seek to get to the top, whereas women tend to see the world as containing webs of relationships and seek to move to the center. Gilligan's observations may be a function of nurture rather than nature; regardless, the two lenses she identified capture the differences between the twentieth-century and the twenty-first-century worlds.

The challenge, then, for the next 100 years of International Women’s Day is ensuring that the women who have moved to the center of our networked world are able to blaze trails and build webs that allow other women to follow them – and that they teach the elements of their networked worldview to not just their daughters, but their sons.

Heather Hurlburt is the Executive Director of the National Security Network; she served as a Special Assistant and Speechwriter to President Clinton and as speechwriter and member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff under Secretaries Albright and Christopher.


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