What, exactly, is International Women’s Day about?
The short answer is equality and solidarity. The first International Women’s Day was celebrated on March 8, 1911, when the women’s movement was agitating for legal equality and the right to vote in Europe and the US. Over a century later, it’s evolved to mark the achievements of women and the demand for gender justice across the globe. The celebration has changed as our experiences have changed; the first time we celebrated, it was about one fight. Each year since, we’ve fought for something else, something more.
And yet, despite its historical significance, the modern approach to International Women’s Day is in a gray area: we know it’s important enough to acknowledge and share, but that acknowledgment can feel like a dry ritual. Beyond a hashtag or an earnest post about girl power on social media, what are we actually talking about?
It’s a particularly difficult question for a brand to answer, and many miss the mark. A cursory glance at different brands’ approaches to International Women’s Day yielded some bleak results. A major retailer sent an email that said “International Women’s Day is coming. What will you be wearing?” with a link to a shopping page. Another dedicated a spot on their homepage to the holiday; I clicked on “Let’s Celebrate,” and was redirected to a page full of tops and absolutely nothing else.
For US, celebrating women of any gender experience is part of our mission and ethos. We do our best to contextualize and humanize the women we photograph, and our editorial platform gives us the unique opportunity to tell their stories.
That’s why, for International Women’s Day 2020, we wanted to connect with women who inspire us, to talk about the women who inspire them. Yes, the holiday is about the fight for gender equality, but none of the work we do to contribute to that fight happens in silo. For every woman contributing to a more equal future, there are women we look to for guidance and inspiration. Below are 11 interviews with the women who, in some way, have served as a guidepost. They’re talking about their work, and the women who inform and inspire it.
If you do nothing else this International Women’s Day, we encourage you to scroll through this story and stop on the women who intrigue you. Read their stories, in their words, and Google the names they mention. Find a woman who inspires you (and maybe even tell them so). The holiday is all about solidarity, and solidarity equals strength. The more we discover and connect with one another, the stronger we become.
Lauren Jade Kelly - Gallery Director
I work in the art world, which historically has been a space in which women are underrepresented both as artists in museum collections and as working professionals. Sean Kelly Gallery has a long tradition of championing women artists, so it is essential to us that women are strongly represented, not only as an integral part of the gallery's program but also as employees of the gallery. I think it is important not only to consider the ratio of men to women working within any type of establishment but to also work with a diverse community of women. Within the art world, there is a stereotype of what a “gallerina” should look like and it is very important to me that we ensure all different types of women are represented within our gallery. I hope eventually this will lead to a more diverse, interesting and equitable art world.
As a new mother at the moment I am continuously inspired by working women with children who are open and honest about the realities of creating a healthy work/life balance. Of course, it is hugely inspirational to see women like Serena Willams win her first grand slam title after giving birth, but I am also inspired by my peers who are striking a healthy work-life balance as new mothers. There are so many examples one could provide but for me personally within my immediate community, this includes Whitney curator Rujeko Hockley, artist Sam Moyer, and the new Curator at Large of ICP, Isolde Brielmaier. These are all women who are ambitious and inspirational professionally but are also leading rich personal lives with their children and families.
Ronan McKenzie - Photographer
I hope that my honest images of women are a breath of fresh air in a world saturated with so much imagery that is created with the sole purpose to sell material goods. My work is always created with love and appreciation of each woman, which I know makes this a better world for myself and the women around me. I hope that the women I've photographed know that I really care about their well being especially at the time of the photo taking, and this in turn protects them. My images are real but they find and create moments that encapsulate the beauty inside each woman I photograph and seeing themselves through my eyes often creates a sense of happiness and confidence.
My mum is a huge inspiration to me because I see so much beauty and strength in her that it makes me want to share it, and has made me look for it in others. My relationship with her has taught me so much especially the importance of listening and understanding, and this directly translates into my style and rhythm of working. I'm also incredibly inspired by women who exemplify what it means to set high goals and continually achieve and adapt; Serena Williams is someone I look up to massively.
I created We Testify to build the leadership of people who have abortions and ensure the stories we hear are as diverse as the people who have abortions. Too often people who need and have abortions aren't met with the compassion and respect we deserve during our experiences and when we share our stories with loved ones. When I had an abortion when I was 19, I felt so lonely. So many people do. I want to create a world where people know how to show up for us when we have abortions. We deserve to be loved out loud, in public, by our community and loved ones. The way our experiences are depicted on television, in films, and in the news should fully reflect the expansive spectrum and nuance of our experiences. We deserve to see ourselves thriving.
I am deeply inspired by Black women who live unapologetically and work in service of Black liberation. I do this work in the footsteps of artists like Nina Simone who encourage us to be curious about ourselves, writers like Ida B. Wells and Raquel Willis who uncover important truths and honor our ancestors' lives and memories, changemakers like Amber Phillips and Marsha P. Johnson who remind us to live authentically and abundantly, artists like Rihanna, Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes who are creating multimedia that reflects our visions for the future and the full range of Black experiences, and courageous politicians like Representative Barbara Lee who has been steadfast in her vision, open with her abortion story, and is fighting to end the Hyde Amendment. I'm also moved to keep doing this work in the memory of women like Rosie Jimenez who died because of our nation's unjust anti-abortion laws. I just want to create campaigns, art, and conversations so that people of color who have abortions know that they're seen, supported, and loved. We are special and deserve to be met with nothing but love and care before, during, and after our abortions. Like Marian Wright Edelman said, "It's hard to be what you can't see." People who have abortions deserve to be seen, loved, and heard.
My work focuses on liberation by and for trans people. As a trans woman, I know firsthand how trans people fight every day just for basic respect. In 2011, at age 16, I founded Trans Student Educational Resources, the only national organization led by trans youth. Within just a few years, it grew to be one of the largest trans-led organizations in the US. In that time, TSER has reached hundreds of thousands of schools in every state and dozens of countries. It also created the only national fellowship program for trans youth and helped establish trans-inclusive policies around the country.
Trans women have historically been removed from every aspect of life despite. Did you know a trans woman, Marsha P. Johnson, helped start the LGBTQ+ movement? Wendy Carlos, another trans woman, helped popularize electronic music. Sophie Wilson invented the processors in 95 percent of smartphones. Unless you're part of the queer or trans community, it's likely you haven't heard of any of these figures — but trans women are part of your everyday life. I’m also always inspired by the young trans girls who stay true to themselves despite the world telling them they don't exist. Their determination, outspokenness, and strength keeps our movement strong.
My work gives women context, and reminds them that everything about them — their lives, their experiences, their voices, their thoughts, their perspectives — is worthy of high art.
I'm endlessly inspired by other women writers; those who have left us — Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Octavia Butler, Nancy Hale, Patricia Highsmith, Toni Morrison, Lucia Berlin, Joanna Russ — and those that I am lucky to call my contemporaries: Roxane Gay, Melissa Febos, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Namwali Serpell, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Helen Oyeyemi, Kristen Roupenian, Jenny Zhang, Andrea Long Chu, Sofia Samatar. They make me feel like beautiful, smart, incisive writing is possible; they light my brain on fire, they alter my perspective. They make me a better artist and thinker and person. I am unspeakably grateful for their work.
Naj Austin - Founder, Ethel’s Club
There is both power and safety in shared, collective experience. People of color deserve a space where they can show up and not fear being excluded, considered or discriminated against. The creative, professional, and social potential that comes with being able to bring your full self to the table is what we hope our members can access and achieve through a people-of-color-centered space. Our clubhouse and brand are inclusive spaces that center everyone through intentional celebration of identity.
I was most inspired by my grandmother -- so inspired that I named my company after her.
Ethel was a powerhouse in so many ways. Her home was always a place that was full of family, conversation, community and food. So many aspects that she carefully nurtured in her home were built into the fabric of Ethel’s Club. It was important to my grandmother that her home be catered to and centered around the people inside, who made it home. I wanted to make sure Ethel’s Club was built with the same intention, always thinking about how we can be a safe space that empowers, uplifts and makes space for communities of color.
Rachael Wang - Stylist & Consultant
Supporting and uplifting women is in everything I do and everything I love. From writing about sexual and reproductive health topics, to building a magazine for women of color and non-binary people, my life is dedicated to the betterment of women — in mind, body, and soul. My specific work as a musician, writer, and content creator is to build thoughtful and relevant projects that women (especially women of color) can see themselves in. I also love to provide space for others to tell their stories, to be seen in their art and their life, and to impact others in their community and beyond. Every day in my work I see the need for other women to be listened to. Mainstream media has come a long way, but there is still a significant gap in inclusivity and representation.
Womanly Magazine, like every project I throw myself into, hopes to fill that gap and create opportunity for other women and non-binary people. The women who inspire me the most in my work are the women I do this work for. Those are the women who raised me, the women who are incarcerated, the women who are disenfranchised, and every woman who has been marginalized and mistreated in this world both past and present. Especially on the basis of race, country of origin, language, disability, or economic status. They are motivation for me to keep seeking justice and providing access for a more liberated world.
Jenny Kaplan & Shira Atkins - Co-Founders of Wonder Media Network
Jenny: We've created a platform for stories that are often missing from the media landscape. I strongly believe in the power of storytelling to inspire and enact change -- it's how we connect as human beings and it's the best tool we have to expand people's perspectives. Our shows cover topics that range from the historical to the current, highlighting people — particularly women — who we too often forgotten or ignored.
My mom, Kathy Manning, is an integral part of WMN's founding story. It was her decision to run for Congress in 2018 that inspired me to quit my job and start WMN with our flagship show, Women Belong in the House. Throughout my life, I've watched her balance and excel at everything she takes on — from professional and volunteer efforts to personal relationships. She gives her all to everything she does and makes a significant impact everywhere she goes. I also must say that I am constantly inspired by my co-founder, the one and only Shira Atkins. Her strategic brilliance, big ideas, confidence, and compassion fuel our growth daily.
Shira: On a day-to-day basis I feel really connected to the ways in which we have created a brand, a team, and a disposition whose fabric is so deeply feminine, bold, and powerful. So it's not only in the stories we make but in the space we take up as two young women, venturing into a traditionally male-dominated ecosystem and working on new kinds of partnerships, sharing new perspectives, and including voices that have never been centered before. We also pride ourselves on having a really strong, mostly female team. How cool to start a company on the values we hold dear, powered by amazing, diverse women? A new kind of work environment, that if successful, stretches far beyond our growing team.
Jenny inspires me in more ways than I can count. She not only came up with the vision for WMN, but she literally inspired me to drop what I was doing to join her in the venture. And she inspires me every day, in the way she runs our company, balances 10 million things on her plate, and still manages to be a deeply empathetic friend, partner, and daughter. I've also been deeply inspired by the work of Virginia Woolf since my college days. She was a total visionary, who had a profound connection with the temporal, untethered universe, and was able to capture and convey it in pure poetry. Her work, to me, is more than gorgeous language, it's a manifesto for how we can create worlds with our artistic expression.
Monica Singh - Founder & President, The Mahendra Singh Foundation
I understand what women need to move beyond being a survivor, after being subjected to violence in their lives. I am a survivor of an acid attack, and have had many, many hardships along the way. I truly believe that the right resources and knowledge can change women’s lives. Their lives as they previously knew them are shattered, and these women consume so much pain and agony that the strength they had before becomes invisible to them. The Mahendra Singh Foundation provides guidance and assists in giving them direction towards taking their power back through education in leadership. Education is the key. After my experience with such violence, I continued with my education and earned my degree in Fashion Design and Business & Marketing. It gave me a sense of direction. This is only possible when you are aware that you were always strong and can learn to make decisions that lead you on a path forward.
Many women inspire me. I’ve been in situations where I needed guidance in my own life, particularly after my experience with extreme violence. Women are projected as being too sensitive and emotional to deal with in society, particularly after they experience violence. However, that’s not at all true. I’ve heard many stories from women while speaking at the United Nations; every woman is trying to breakthrough and find the inner strength that moves them forward from their current situation. Strong women in leadership positions influenced me, and it became clear that this was the path I was meant to be on. The work became my calling and with whatever knowledge and strength I have right now, I'm working towards supporting other women and girls.
Sara Li - Journalist, Founder of Project Consent
Project Consent was never originally intended to be a long-term organization. I had shot this photography project about victim-blaming when I was young because I was in a lot of pain and art was the only way I knew how to channel those feelings. I was 17 when I did that project and when it went viral, I knew I had stumbled onto something big, even if I didn’t know what it meant yet. Strangers from all over the world were emailing and DMing me about their own experiences. Being a survivor is incredibly lonely — because we’re so conditioned to repress and internalize our own hurt — but seeing the response was monumental. The reaction from that one project changed the trajectory of Project Consent and it also gave birth to the organization as a whole. I followed my gut instinct of ‘this is what people need to hear because it’s what I needed to hear’ and it led to some really incredible work by me and my team. Out of all the things we’ve done, I’m most proud of our sex education curriculum — a free resource that schools can use to teach their kids about consent and how to report assault and how to talk to survivors. We wanted there to be room for survivors to be seen and heard and if it wasn’t going to be given, then we were going to create it. And so we did.
I wouldn’t be here without the women who championed for Project Consent in its beginning days (specifically: Caitlin Stasey, Rosianna Rojas, and Gaby Dunn). I’m impressed by Nancy Lublin, who founded Crisis Text Line to provide free and confidential mental health support via text. Outside of the important work Crisis Text Line does, it’s inspirational to see a female founder who doesn’t see impossibility. I adore Chanel Miller, who, in addition to being a survivor, is such a phenomenal artist and writer. I think I’ve watched Miss Americana (by Taylor Swift) at least once a week since its premiere and Taylor herself has been such a big influence in my life. Her music reminds me why it’s powerful to stay vulnerable and I think she is just the most phenomenal role-model anyone could have. I also want to shout out Johanna Maska, Arielle Kebbel, Jessica Littrell, Chelsea Fagan, Claire Dodsen and Allegra Kirkland at Teen Vogue, the ladies behind We The Women, and Cheryl Strayed (I read Tiny Beautiful Things like a bible). Lastly, I want to thank all the women who have shared their lives with me through Project Consent. You were the reason behind the work. We did this together. Thank you for everything.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.