Elevating Feminist Leadership and Thought on International Women's Day
By: Sarah Edkins, Director of Communications, Rockefeller Brothers Fund. This piece was originally published on March 6, 2023, by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
March 8 is International Women’s Day. First recognized by the United Nations in 1977, this global holiday celebrates women’s achievements and issues a call to accelerate gender equity around the world.
While the Rockefeller Brothers Fund does not have a specific program dedicated to women’s issues, many of our grantmakers have dedicated resources to elevating feminist thought and leadership as critical components of transformative social change. Three of those grantmakers—Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, director, Democratic Practice–U.S.; Karen Karnicki, program officer, Peacebuilding; and Mia Vukojević, director, Western Balkans—joined in a conversation to explore the evolution and significance of International Women’s Day. The transcript that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
International Women’s Day stems from 20th-century labor movements and struggles for women’s suffrage. How is that relevant to the progression of the women’s movement and women’s issues more generally?
Keesha Gaskins-Nathan: At least in the United States, the history of the labor movement is the history of movements. Women are labor leaders and movement leaders. These leaders are inherently intersectional. The Combahee Woman’s Collective for the first time really understood identity politics; Black Lives Matter was led by women and queer women of color. But once the movement has become professionalized and—dare I say—better paid, we tend to see men step in, often in singular leadership with less community connection.
Why is it important to elevate women’s voices in peace and democracy?
Karen Karnicki: Women have an acute understanding of structural inequities and injustices and, particularly for women who also identify as people of color, of how societies privilege one group over another. Because of that unique position, women have the most to lose in conflict and so have traditionally been on the front lines of the peace movement. Women leaders envision the most expansive definitions of peace, democracy, and inclusion.
Mia Vukojević: Women are half the population. They rarely start wars, but so many consequences in conflict and post-conflict societies end up on women’s shoulders. Then women are, in most cases, excluded from peace processes.
Keesha: We know that when women do better, everyone does better, entire communities do better. International Women’s Day is an opportunity to elevate that understanding, repeat those narratives, and carry the work forward.
Given what you have just said about women’s role in peace and democracy, how do your grantmaking programs elevate women?
Mia: The Western Balkans program focuses on democracy, peace, and sustainable development—issues considered topical and thus not gendered. But none can be properly addressed without the whole of society. While we support some organizations that focus on women’s rights specifically, we also look for opportunities to talk to grantees that do not to ensure they consider women’s roles in their work.
Karen: For the RBF, peace is not just a cessation of violence but a society without structural discrimination and inequities where people can lead full, happy, healthy lives. That vision of peace aligns with what feminist activists and scholars have been describing for a long time, so there is a natural relationship between the Peacebuilding program and support for women activists. In some cases, the aim is to increase women’s meaningful participation in spaces from which they have been excluded. But we recognize that simply adding women doesn’t necessarily lead to transformation, so we also focus on adding feminist or gender perspectives to the substantive content of the work
Women’s rights and inclusion are at different stages in the geographic contexts where the RBF works. How do you measure progress when the starting points and the scale differ so dramatically?
Keesha: We see resonance across geographies. Reproductive rights, for example. In the Western Balkans, narrow concepts of reproductive rights and bodily autonomy weren’t questioned for a long time; that is now becoming a contested political space. In the United States, it has always been a contested political space. In Afghanistan, Iran, and other places, the notion of bodily autonomy is beyond the pale. From a global perspective, the very act of being a woman is a politically contested space.
Now, it seems, we’re measuring by how quickly we’re backsliding.
Mia: Or by how much we can hold the line.
In deeply traditional or conservative places, progress could also be women elected to office—despite their politics. But we need more women to actually hold power, not just decorative positions. Changing that is so slow. It requires decades of work.
Keesha: One of the challenges is representational. We need to be cautious about equating the progression of women’s rights with women’s leadership. There are feminist leaders that stretch across the gender spectrum, so we perpetuate challenges when we think in terms of the binary. International Women’s Day is framed under a kind of binary—we have to talk about the gender spectrum if we’re talking about feminist leadership. What does it mean to advance women’s rights and elect feminist leaders, regardless of gender, while recognizing that representation matters?
Mia, you mentioned that this work doesn’t happen overnight. You’ve been working in this field for several decades—what changes have you seen over your career?
Mia: Women from Western Europe and North America—white women—used to control the movement. There has been a sea change in that respect: Women from the Global South, women of color, women from the peripheries of Europe are becoming recognized leaders of women’s rights movements globally. This speaks to maturing of the feminist movements over decades. If you look over 30 or 40 years, there has been lots of progress in terms of women’s rights. In some places, it means girls are going to school; in other places, that women are getting into parliament; and in others, that women have a right to decide what to do with their bodies. But now we are seeing this backlash and need to find ways to hold the line.
Karen, I know that you work with the new generation of women leaders that Mia mentions. How do you think they are shaping the peacebuilding movement?
Karen: For years, the peace and security field focused on increasing women’s participation in existing systems; it prioritized, for example, increasing the number of women in the military rather than feminist critiques of militarism. So this question is tricky because there is so much historic feminist thinking and activism, particularly from the Global South, that has critiqued traditional power structures. That is now moving more into the mainstream. But it is also being co-opted by white-led organizations. Examining the role of race is also becoming more mainstream in the peacebuilding field. How does it show up? What are a conflict’s colonial roots?
Backsliding on women’s rights in the United States, perhaps most visibly with the overturning of Roe v. Wade through the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, is happening as the massive public energy for racial justice that emerged in 2020 is also starting to fade. What do you think philanthropy can do to support women with multiple identities who experience the compounding effects of marginalization and discrimination?
Keesha: There is a need and demand to reshape how we talk about gender and even the notion of women’s rights. It is often the binary itself that often defines the oppression, so we recognize how the other compounding problems show up.
The issue with Dobbs is that it reduces the conversation about women’s rights to whether or not women can have an abortion. What we’re really talking about are autonomous rights. These are issues that are practical as well as legal and social.
Just last week, for example, the Missouri House of Representatives changed its rules so women can’t show their arms on the house floor. Usually, by the time we see things like this formally, norms have been moving in that direction for a while—women have been constricted in what they can do and how they can be seen. This is especially true for women of color, who research shows are seen as “less ladylike” for being assertive.
How are longstanding women’s groups adapting to new challenges and realities? Where do you see opportunities for women-led organizations?
Mia: There is more nuance, maturity, and connection. That’s one opportunity: working across issues with the rest of civil society. For example, there is a group of 18 feminist theologians from the Western Balkans that are trying to bring feminist values into religious spaces. Religion is still important and can define not only women’s lives but their positions on war, on democracy. More spaces are opening up for them.
Karen: Women-led organizations in conflict contexts are focused on daily survival. At the same time, these women-led organizations are the ones who are at the forefront of advocating for different visions for the future, calling attention to the various structural challenges and inequities. Within that, there is a real opportunity for the international community to find ways to be in solidarity, whether that is through funding, advocacy, or strategizing.
Keesha: Young women are not waiting for the old leadership to step back. Their creativity is reflected in strategy as well as organizational shape. They’re saying, how do we shape the ecosystem differently? The notion of “women are resilient” is also being challenged. Women are tired. More women are saying, “We’re not doing this. We’re stepping back.” So there are more codirectors, more nondirectors—shared leadership that is a different model than some of the patriarchal structures that have dictated how organizations lead and are led.
What role can American philanthropy play in preserving hard-won progress and continuing to advance women’s rights worldwide?
Mia: Money, money, money! The backlash is fueled by extreme funding from the far right, much of it from the United States. It’s not about philanthropy doing something for women’s organizations or governments doing something for women. It’s about supporting women to do things for themselves.
Keesha: The goal is not to define the shape of women’s rights movements but to understand what they’re telling us they need. We have a definite orientation within philanthropy, but it is guided by our grantees.