|Posted by Carolyn Byerly|
March 8th, 2008
Why do the news media ignore our annual March 8 commemoration of women, International Women’s Day?
My own hometown newspaper Washington Post had not a single op-ed piece today, nor national or local news. IWD doesn’t exist here in the nation’s capital, as far as this agenda-setting paper is concerned. My neighborhood paper the Gazette carried only one item, an announcement on the weekly calendar for a “Women’s Day celebration” at a local AME church.
This is a trend across the United States, as I will discuss momentarily.
Back in the 1970s, second wave feminists made IWD a big deal. We found all kinds ways to celebrate it – films, lectures, marches, workshops. Our local groups used the day to focus on violence against women, women’s low wages, and other forms of discrimination.
IWD has had a longer history. March 8 was adopted as an international event in Copenhagen in 1911 by socialists advocating for women’s labor rights. In the US, in March 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a presidential message encouraging the recognition of women’s historic accomplishments during the week of March 8.
That same year, five women, led by feminist leader Molly McGregor, founded the National Women’s History Project in Santa Rosa, Calif., to provide a national clearinghouse for general information about women’s history and for specific information about National Women’s History Week celebrations.
By the end of the year, then-Rep. Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from the state of Maryland, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from the state of Utah, had co-sponsored the first Joint Congressional Resolution to declare the week of March 8 in 1981 as National Women’s History Week. The Project chose the week of March 8 to illustrate women’s international connections, and as a result of the congressional action, the day gained ground in the United States.
We have no real record of whether the news media have paid much attention to “our day” through the years. What appears to be the first academic study was done by my colleague at American University, Danna L. Walker and myself two years ago. Walker and I took part in a study in 2006 in which feminist researchers in 12 nations examined print and broadcast news coverage of IWD. Coordinated by French scholars Simone Bonnafous and Marlène Coulomb, the study was looking both for the amount of coverage and the kind of coverage media afforded the annual event.
Among the four major national dailies (LA Times, New York Times, Washington Post, and Washington Times), two major news magazines (Time and Newsweek), a major Spanish-language weekly (El Tiempo Latino), a major Black newspaper (Chicago Defender), and six broadcast news sources (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX), that Walker and I examined, we found only 17 print stories and 3 broadcast programs (all on CNN).
Most of the print stories fell into four categories.
• International stories of women outside the US. One story, e.g., by the LA Times was about police crack-downs on Turkish women trying to celebrate IWD.
• Conflict-oriented domestic stories related to the activities of the Bush administration’s representatives at the Beijing+10 UN women’s conference going on in New York. Most of these focused on the administration’s efforts to place anti-abortion measures on the agenda of that week-long event, scheduled to coincide with IWD.
• Domestic feature stories about women in which IWD was used only as a convenient hook. One example was of a new woman chef at a local elite restaurant.
• Small announcements of local IWD activities (e.g., an event at a local college).
All of the broadcast coverage we found was on CNN and comprised several 15-50-second pieces about either First Lady Laura Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking about IWD, but always in relation to policies the Bush administration was sponsoring in other parts of the world. Ironically, neither woman has had any connection to the women’s movement (one wonders if reporters even cared who was speaking for women in this instance). Neither Mrs. Bush or Ms. Rice said anything about women in their own nation, even though there was much to say, both about what women were achieving and contributing, and what still keeps them second-class citizens.
One clear exception to these trends of ignoring IWD was found in the Spanish-language newspaper El Tiempo Latino, a Washington DC weekly owned by the Washington Post Company. Numerous short and long articles, accompanied by photos and placed on the front page of El Tiempo, celebrated women of varied social classes, nationalities, occupations and accomplishments.
A second exception was found in the feminist source, Women’s eNews, which circulated two stories related to IWD. One of them was an overview of the politics of the Beijing+10 meeting at the UN in New York; the other, a first-person account of publisher Rita Henley Jensen’s travels and observations of women’s status in Saudi Arabia. Though the first of these was conflict-oriented, it also offered in-depth examination of the meaning of the UN women’s meeting, and included a historical look at the abortion controversy in the US from different perspectives.
A synopsis of Walker’s and my research was published by Media Report to Women in Summer 2007.
Feldt is right – women still need a day of our own, and I would add that we also need spaces of our own – like this WIMN’s Voices blogsite – to talk about our issues, goals, and analyses of the world. The mainstream news remains (collectively) a space dominated by men, even on the one day each year that should show gender diversity.