International Women’s Day 2021: Who inspired us over the past year?
11th March 2021
Looking back over the most unexpected and unprecedented year in living memory for people all over the world, it is important to remember all the loved ones, jobs and other life experiences that have been lost during the pandemic. But days like International Women’s Day also allow us to reflect on the opportunities for change that have been afforded by the complete overhaul of our day-to-day lives. The STAND News Women’s Section looks back over the change-makers and revolutionaries who have made a difference, however small or big, to our lives this year.
2020 was a year of reckoning for people across the world about some of the injustices in our society which had been bubbling under the surface for many many years. During the summer, when Ireland as a nation was exploring the experiences of different marginalised communities, Eileen Flynn became the first Traveller woman to enter the Oireachtas when she became a Senator in June 2020. A fierce advocate for both Traveller and women’s rights, Flynns short tenure in the Seanad has already proved that the activism which she has dedicated her life to is at the heart of her role as a Senator.
Flynn grew up in the Labre Park halting site in Ballyfermot, and over the past decade has been involved in activist organisations such as the Irish Traveller Movement, and the National Traveller Women’s Forum. In November 2020 Flynn was elected as chairperson of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Key Issues Affecting the Traveller Community. Despite claims by some members of the political community that Flynn was a ‘token’ nomination, it is clear that she is a genuine force for change in the Oireachtas. She is a strong and necessary presence not only for the Traveller community, but for the fight for equality in Ireland as a whole. People like Flynn highlight exactly why opening up a seat at the table is the only way of truly improving the lives of Irish Travellers, and her passion and dedication to her heritage and to equality is sure to make Ireland a better and more welcoming place for everyone.
Agnes Chow – By Alisha Lynch
In recent years, Beijing has tightened restrictions on Hong Kong’s freedoms, enforcing a national security law that gives China extensive power to censor critics and prosecute activists. In spite of these turbulent times, Agnes Chow has fought tirelessly for Hong Kong to become an autonomous democracy. As a teenager, she started her social advocacy, campaigning against proposed reforms to the national curriculum that were deemed “nationalist brainwashing.” This was eventually abandoned by the Beijing government.
She has since been a key figure in the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and two years later she co-founded the pro-democracy organisation Demosisto. In August 2020, Agnes Chow was one of a handful of critics and activists detained under Beijing’s infamous new security legislation. Her supporters have nicknamed her “Mulan,” after the legendary Chinese heroine, with media outlets declaring her a ‘Goddess of democracy’. Agnes has exuded strength in times of adversity, dedicated herself to benefit the greater good and has dared to attempt the impossible in Hong Kong. It is no wonder why Agnes Chow, now only 24 years old, has inspired people across the globe, and why she featured on the BBC 100 Women 2020 list.
“Having a female leader does not mean anything for women’s rights. We need a change in the system, and genuine democracy” – Agnes Chow
One of the most important events of 2020 was of course the US Presidential Election, which saw the defeat of Trump and the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The state of Georgia, historically a red state during presidential elections, turned blue in 2020 and may have handed the election to Biden, due in large part to the efforts of Stacey Abrams. Abrams has been a campaigner against voter suppression, particularly in her home state of Georgia. Her work to counter the disenfranchisement of, particularly black, voters in Georgia increased the turnout in the 2020 Presidential election and helped to swing the state. Her organisation Fair Fight Action, founded in 2018, has been credited with turning not only Georgia blue, but also crucial states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Abrams’ commitment to democracy for the most disadvantaged people in her community is an inspiration for the type of America that could be possible under President Biden. While the past four years of Trump’s presidency and the increasing prominence of far-right elements in US politics, figures such as Abrams create a path for a more inclusive political project in the US, and a future in which every person can feel represented and heard in the democratic process.
Alok-Vaid Menon – By Róisín O’Donnell
Alok-Vaid Menon, known also as Alok, is a gender non-conforming artist, writer and performer from the United States. They have published two books, including Beyond the Gender Binary in 2020. Alok’s central commitment is to start conversations about the limiting and destructive impact of the gender binary. Celebrating Alok on International Women’s Day is about more than recognising our need to expand our understanding of gender; it is about the right to define, evolve and claim central aspects of ourselves, beyond stereotype and category.
One of the most interesting and compelling aspects of Alok’s work is how they draw on history to reveal the presence and power of transgender and non-binary people across time and culture. They emphasise the legacy of colonisation and a historical adherence to category that was as much about race as gender. Our current circumstances can make us feel increasingly atomised, but Alok’s activism and work provides important lessons for this moment. For them, the power of the everyday is essential to their work, embodied, in part, by their beautiful outfits. It involves a recurring commitment, often in the face of violence, to expression and authenticity. Alok makes clear it goes beyond how we present; it is about continually engaging in conversation and connection.
The coronavirus pandemic was originally posed as the ‘great leveller’ this time last year. But it soon became clear that this was not the case, and that in fact the virus was simply widening the cracks in society which some communities of people had been falling through. One of these communities is disabled people. While disability activists have been gaining visibility in recent years, the coronavirus pandemic really pulled back the curtains on how many countries around the world have been failing their disabled citizens. Alice Wong is a disability activist who has been trying to raise awareness of the extra burdens placed on people with disabilities both during the pandemic and before.
In June 2020, she edited an anthology, Disability Visibility, which brought together dozens of personal essays from people with a variety of disabilities. She has been active in campaigns for vaccine access for disabled people in the US, and in raising awareness for the isolation and fear experienced by high-risk people who have been shielding for almost a year now. She has spoken and written about the idea of which lives were seen as disposable during the pandemic, and the danger of rhetoric which passes off the deaths of disabled or high-risk people from Covid-19 as a necessary sacrifice.
Kamala Harris – By Ruby Cooney
Kamala Harris made history in November of 2020 when she became the 49th vice president of the United States of America. Not only is Kamala Harris the first female in the role of vice president, but she is also the first Indian and African American to hold the post. In her early career she worked as a deputy district attorney fighting cases involving gang violence, drug trafficking and sexual abuse before becoming California’s attorney general. She then served as a United States senator as a member of the Democratic Party.
Kamala Harris is a big advocate of women’s issues such as reproductive rights and introducing the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act ensuring “that women get the care, support, and knowledge they need.” Kamala Harris stepping into the role of vice president of the United States of America represents monumental progress and change in a society where racism and misogyny continues to exist. In her victory speech, Kamala Harris credited the women who paved the way for this moment, saying “Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision—to see what can be unburdened by what has been—I stand on their shoulders.” Representation is hugely important in high positions of power, showing that this is achievable to young women of colour all around the world.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last” – Kamala Harris.