In February 2012 I faced an impossible choice: watch the Sydney International Women’s Day March, an institution of local feminist history and activism, die from neglect, or step up and organise it by myself.
It was very short notice. The people who had run the march very well the previous year, a Sydney feminist collective, had decided that organising a march was either too hard or not worth their time, and elected to instead organise a picnic in First Fleet Park at Circular Quay.
We’d just celebrated the 100th IWD the year before, delving into the legendary revolutionary socialist history of the day, both internationally and locally, and the logical progression for Sydney feminists was a picnic?
I was ropable. I told them. They got very cranky at me. But they would not budge. There was no march happening.
So I decided to go it alone.
I say “alone”, but that’s not entirely accurate. I had my seven-month-old son in tow. Also I don’t think I would have thought it even remotely possible without the support and encouragement of my partner Luke, a former union organiser and veteran of many a protest.
But I also had Sally McManus beside me, who was then NSW State secretary of the Australian Services Union. As soon as I raised it with her, Sally backed me 100%. She agreed to be the guest speaker, she hooked me up with a member of her team to give me a hand, she took care of the insurance, and she liaised with comrades at the mighty SEARCH Foundation, who provided us with in-kind support like our PA system.
It was a mad scramble to organise the march. I was still on maternity leave and, while I’d previously organised protests at uni and run for parliament, I’d never been responsible for an event this massive and important.
The Sydney IWD March was an institution. Women had been meeting at Sydney Town Hall on that day (or the closest Saturday!) to march down George Street for decades. Women would still turn up, I knew. The March simply had to be organised.
To the chagrin of police, I insisted that we would be marching down George Street, as was traditional. That way we could rendezvous with the picnic that the collective were still organising. (Boy did the collective have the shits with me. One of them even called me demanding an apology after I’d called them out from my personal Facebook account.)
I made a poster and sent it round the Unions, and other organisations and individuals in the progressive movement.
It was my job to liaise with the police, organise guest speakers, organise the PA system, put out press releases, and negotiate with the lovely events people at the City of Sydney and the woman who managed the church-owned portion of St Andrews Square so that we could gather there.
On Saturday March 10 2012, hundreds of people packed in to St Andrews Square.
The Sydney International Women’s Day March was alive and kicking.
In the years I organised the march, the issues of the day that we were talking about included (but were not limited to):
- Stopping the harassment of breastfeeding mothers and children
- Saving women’s only services
- Defeating Fred Nile’s anti-reproductive choice “Zoe’s Law” (which would have enshrined foetal personhood, thus making it easier to restrict abortion in NSW)
- Equal Pay for Equal Work
- Ending male violence against women
- Funding women’s shelters
- Parenting payments not Newstart
- Increasing paid parental leave
We had some fantastic speakers, including Sally McManus, Tara Moss, Anne Summers, Natalie Lang, and many more outstanding women.
We also had support and participation from Lina Cabaero and the team at Asian Women at Work, who brought the spirit of IWD alive with their choreographed dancing at the start of each march.
Organising IWD became the thing I did between September-March each year.
I also gathered a crew of women who would come to meetings and take on very important tasks, like booking stalls, booking the stage and food trucks and finding musicians. ?
My very talented sister-in-law Isabelle Whitington stepped in to design posters that people were excited to share with their friends.
In all, I organised IWD four times (2012-2015) on an entirely voluntary basis before delivering our revived march into the capable hands of Unions NSW.
While I have a lot of problems with how IWD is often appropriated by corporate groups and various political splinter groups, reviving the Sydney IWD march with my little ones in tow, and seeing my mum, my sister, my in-laws, my comrades, and ordinary people marching down George Street as a result, remains one of my proudest achievements.
International Women’s Day protests have a solid revolutionary and progressive history, and we need to support and participate in them whenever we can.
International Women’s Day protests must never be allowed to die.