Taking Up Space

Why International Women’s Day Should Be 365 Days a Year

Every year, March 8 is supposed to break open a day for women. For 24 hours, the word “women” carries more weight, women’s voices sound a little louder and their presence isn’t only felt—it’s demanded. March 8 is International Women’s Day, and somehow this means that, for 24 hours, women deserve our attention.

Focusing our attention on women in this way generally means that we celebrate and recognize women for their achievements and point to specific individuals as inspirational. There is something valuable about these kinds of celebrations, which is why we go through the same motions for events like Black History Month and World AIDS Day. But what perspective can we possibly gain about the struggles women continue to face if we restrict our attention to one day a year?

Our penchant for setting aside days, weeks or even whole months to acknowledge particular groups and causes is really a question of space. It’s about the way space is constructed, promoted and policed. On March 8, it’s a question of women and space, so what does this event uncover? What is it about giving women space that makes this day political?

It’s important to keep in mind that terms like “women” and “space” are loaded and ambiguous at best. Their usage and the symbolism that they call to mind can change drastically, sometimes irreconcilably, from person to person. It also matters how we qualify these terms, since the stakes of conversation change when we move from talking about women as some generic group to talking about racialized women, working women, queer women, mothers, teenage girls—or combinations thereof?

We won’t all think about women or spaces in the same ways, so nothing about these discussions can ever be all encmpassing—we can’t speak for all women, and we can’t speak about all spaces. But with that said, IWD is still a useful venue for discussion, particularly about the many different ways there are to think about who benefits, or who faces the consequences, in occupying a certain space.

Since speaking about the experience of all women is impossible, it might be useful to make a substitution here. The idea of “the university” provides an interesting example for understanding how space operates. Given that most of us spend significant amounts of time on campus spaces, we are all capable of talking about them, though what we are able to say is often limited by the fact that universities operate as very specific and exclusive spaces.
But let’s be critical about classrooms and hallways, university facilities, departments and specializations. Let’s realize what these spaces permit, prohibit or punish. Let’s look around and ask who is missing from the university, and then let’s ask ourselves why we’ve been allowed in.
Physical spaces are easy to imagine, but if we move beyond the concepts of walls and buildings, March 8 gives us a reason to think through other possibilities, allowing us to examine how space is constructed—through time and place, as power.

Getting Specialized (Aren’t You Special!)

The ways we designate and enforce space, in theory, function no differently than the way students are required to specialize in university with a system of minor and major concentrations that dictate not only what we are learning and from whom, but how we are engaging with ideas.
The benefits of specializing are understood as an increased chance of grad school acceptance after university, or the ability to find a job that will pay you more. It can also mean we get to call ourselves experts based on what we’ve learned. The time we spend in university spaces literally makes us more valuable; we are somehow more special for having specialized.

But to be critical of the university as a space that makes this possible, we are required take a step back and look at who has access to specialize. University study means tuition, textbooks and time. If you don’t have access to the resources that make it possible, you won’t have access to the spaces where academic learning takes place, or the benefits of specialization.

IWD takes up space in a very similar way. What’s important about IWD is that it is a day where women’s issues are made extremely visible—literally being brought to the street. But that said, a lot of voices still aren’t heard. The equation seems to look like this: having a space translates into having a voice, and having a voice means having legitimacy. All of this is bound up in access.

What we forget is that not everyone has access to all spaces, and that means there are voices we will never hear on IWD, or events like it that work to give access, however temporary, to the people and issues so often left out.

So how are we—as students or women or just people with access and a voice—supposed to extend these conversations? How can we make space for more voices? How can we extend the dialogue around IWD across the rest of the calendar year?

365 Days of Space

Bringing these issues outside of the spaces that allow us to feel comfortable is hard. Part of the process requires we recognize how much space we take up, which can mean understanding that your voice silences another.

In university spaces, this can be especially challenging. For so many of us, post-secondary education is thought of as an expected next-step and not a privilege that absorbs exorbitant amounts of time and money. The pressure to remain critical of your own position is often lost under the speed of a semester’s deadlines.

The shortsightedness is insufficient. Why does it take a tuition rally for people to realize that education is inaccessible? Why does it take IWD for people to pay attention to the position of women? Critiquing your own position is the only way to understand that we are at once benefiting from the privileges of having access to space, and that our privileged access is always taking space away from others.

For us, this is the difference between accountability and responsibility, which is mirrored in the promotion of events like IWD. When we celebrate, we are only accounting for the existence of a struggle. We name these struggles, and we name them as important enough to warrant honouring—though that doesn’t ensure we are engaging with them.

When we celebrate, and when we limit that celebration to a single day, we often bypass the potential for any kind of real change. Being responsible demands that we commit to doing something to promote change. Being responsible means working through these challenges 365 days a year.

So, if the goals of IWD are to celebrate women and their achievements within fields like fashion, business, industry and politics, then the goals are being met. But celebrating IWD in so many ways legitimizes the erasure of women who struggle during the other 364 days of the year.

Setting, or resetting, the terms of our own engagement in exclusive spaces can be difficult to do. We are given so little space for being critical to begin with, that it’s hard to refuse it when it is offered. Sometimes the space comes in the classroom, sometimes it’s in a newspaper article, sometimes it is literally taken to the streets, but no space is beyond compromise. We need to begin reimagining our critical responsibility, and in doing so, we can start reimagining the spaces we occupy.

Perhaps our built environment would look different. Maybe the posters up in our hallways would feature different images. Maybe universities would replace majors and minors with other requirements of learning. Maybe universities wouldn’t exist at all. Maybe IWD wouldn’t be the only day we mark in our calendars for women.

There are ways we can stop taking up space in a way that takes space away from others, ways for us to become responsible enough to move over and make some room.

But the first step, perhaps, is to stop being satisfied with paying attention for only one day a year.

This article originally appeared in The Link Volume 31, Issue 25, published March 8, 2011.

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