Today is the 100th Anniversary of International Women’s Day, founded to celebrate the achievements of women. Founded in Europe to advocate for greater participation of women in the public sphere, International Women’s Day focuses heavily on those public sphere accomplishments of women – as political leaders, in education, in activism. Those are important and powerful things, the more important because most of us still have visceral memory of women’s past. Consider this Guardian interview with women talking about what has changed in their lifetimes.
At the same time that we speak about the public accomplishments of women in Science, Art, Education, Politics, Social Justice, Law and more, we need to speak of something else – the degree to which the accomplishments and shifting roles of women over the last century and more have tracked and been transformed by not only our own intention and activism, but by cheap energy.
This is the unexplored history of women – and perhaps the most significant unexplored segment of women’s history of all. To precisely the degree that our accomplishments are accomplishments that rely on seemingly infinite flows of cheap energy, they are vulnerable to being lost as energy supplies tighten and hard choices have to be made. To precisely the degree that energy flows, rather than actual political enlightenment underlie women’s current status, that status can be lost. To precisely the degree that we attribute all to our own achievement and none to the resource base and ecology that underlie, is the degree to which our lack of examination endangers women’s future.
The documentation of this is very clear. We know, as the UN has demonstrated that women and children are likely to be the primary victims of climate change. It does not take a rocket scientist to be able to track the degree to which modern assumptions about women’s lives and work are dependent on personal transportation and modern industrial infrastructure. It does not take much clarity to observe that things are already changing – that gains in food security and wealth made among the poor of the Global South have been lost as world energy and food markets fluctuate, or that in the Global North, male unemployment and the reshaping of families is transforming us.
Yet we have only just barely begun to speak of this – perhaps because we are afraid that suggesting that women’s political, economic and personal freedom is in part a consequence of huge inflows of energy demeans women’s accomplishments – and we are very nervous about those. Why else do we emphasize the women who became doctors and lawyers, scientists and politicians – but not the women who excelled in traditional “women’s work?” Why else have women so eagerly and enthusiastically accepted categorizations that make traditional domestic labor into “meaningless drudgery?” In some measure, we have gone forward only by betraying what we had before. This is reflection of a kind of fear – and admitting that some of what we have made was made for us by an industrial economy that profited enormously by the flow of women into the formal workplace, by flows of oil and burned coal that made possible lives for women that have never existed before, we fear we must admit that we didn’t really change the world.
That is nonsense. There is nothing in this that erases the tremendous courage and accomplishment of women. There is nothing in this that implies we must go back on the promise of women’s education or political power in a smaller, less affluent, less energy intensive world. Those things could happen – they could happen, particularly if we do not speak and write about them explicitly, if we do not risk acknowledgement of what was us and what served the corporate economy and what was the flow of cheap energy. Without that acknowledgement, we cannot work to remake a world with less, in which men and women stand equitably.
We do not go back simply because we use less energy as we have in the past – the people we become are shaped by biology, custom, sex, gender, family, and history as well as the physical resource base that fundamentally underlies us. The people we become are shaped also by the people we choose to be.
Yes, let’s celebrate women’s accomplishments – in the public sphere and in the home, in reshaping and making laws and reshaping and making family, as more than half of the world’s food producers, the people who keep us fed, as the people who do almost 2/3 of the world’s informal economy work – the informal economy that itself accounts for almost 3/4 of the total world economy. Let us do so with a clear-eyed recognition that modern industrial feminism will have to change in response to material limits. Let us do so with a powerful commitment that those changes take us forward to greater equity, lowered consumption and justice.