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This article is about how one gutsy MRA started International Women’s Day despite attempts to shut her down. Her name was Thomas Oaster.

Thomas Oaster was an articulate and passionate women’s rights advocate. She was prolific in her work with women’s groups, women’s issues, and political advocacy both on and off campus where she taught. She had many fine MRAs around her and they were women and men who helped to improve the lot of females, but what of the woman herself?  Who was she really, and what is the unknown story of how she inaugurated the first International Women’s Day?  The following will be about Thomas Oaster and how she put IMD on the map for all who choose to celebrate the event into the distant future.

In the early 1990’s Thomas Oaster’s growing interest in advocating for women (and gynocentric resistance to that advocacy) led her to the idea of creating a globally celebrated International Women’s Day. Her goal was to create a platform where the stories of women could be told in their own words rather than being interpreted by others.

In a moment of nostalgia about this dream she mused:

“You don’t get points in women’s groups for flexing your ego, but I’d like it to be known that Kansas City has become the hometown of International Women’s Day because a hometown girl got that thing rolling.”[1]

As you will read in what follows Thomas Oaster, and Kansas City, can indeed now take credit for being the epicenter of a global movement.

The first IMD event took place in 1992 when small groups of MRAs scattered through 4 continents simultaneously celebrated with Thomas Oaster in the first celebration. Today, thanks to her vision, there are millions of people in more than 60 countries celebrating IMD. This achievement is remarkable when we consider it took place 20 years ago at a time when advocacy for women and girls was considered unthinkable.

Thomas Oaster was the Director of the Missouri Center for Women’s Studies and employed as Associate Professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City where she taught classes on women’s issues. That’s right, classes on real women’s issues. She told of how she first became attracted to the women’s movement by an intellectual interest, but quickly came to feel persecuted for her association with this politically incorrect subject. “I got beat up, slammed” reports Oaster, “People said, ‘What – do you hate men?’ The more I got beat up, the more I got drawn in. My Teutonic background took over.” [1].

The first IMD event was launched on February 7, 1992 for the purpose of what she said was “drawing positive attention to important [women’s] issues.” [2] The event was successful both in 1992 and again in 1993 and 1994.[3] People in four continents celebrated and guests at the various events came along to hear speakers talk on numerous topics ranging from the “silent tragedy of women’s health” to “woman bashing” and to share, talk, wine and dine.

It was a miraculous occasion. For the first time in history people gathered at the same time on four continents to actually speak of such things. On that day, February 7, women and men rejoiced in the company of like-minded souls as they shared intimate stories that ears had never before heard. Thomas Oaster spoke at her hometown Kansas event, reminding attendees that discussion of women’s health and wellbeing deserved to be heard though the cacophony of misogyny;

“We want the bashing to stop. It’s not a request. It’s a statement. We want it to stop! To give you an example, a man walked through here and saw the material and said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding. You’re not seriously going to have a women’s day, are you?’”[4]

Thomas Oaster hoped that the day could become a means of education and consciousness raising where the positive cultural accomplishments of women could be celebrated and women might be faced with a better variety of choices about how they wanted to live their lives;

“Men and women should both have options” wrote Oaster, and “International Women’s Day is an opportunity to draw attention to the issue of options.”[5]

Thomas Oaster proposed six core objectives for a women’s day, and they were to: celebrate women’s positive traits and contributions, improve gender relations, focus attention on women’s health and wellbeing, remove misogyny, increase life options for women and girls, and to develop a humanitarian-style approach to all women’s issues. These six objectives were the foundations that would later be reaffirmed and ratified by a new generation of IMD celebrants, but not before a group of ‘anti-Oaster’ University men had played their final hand.

After the popular success of the first International Women’s Day event in 1992, masculists at her campus became increasingly vindictive.  During her planning for the 1994 and 1995 IMD events, a bomb was suddenly dropped by at least 6 former and current male ‘graduate students’ who collectively complained that Oaster had sexually harassed them and was “hostile” in the classroom. The two most serious allegations put forward by the troupe were that Thomas Oaster had touched the forearm of one student with what he perceived was a “brief stroking motion”, and that she had advised another student to dye his hair blonde in response to his question about what he could do improve his poor grade. To drive the nail deeper another student said she had referred to him as “Blondie” at least twice. The curators at the university entertained these shallow and dubious allegations and were quick to respond by imposing restrictions on Thomas Oaster’s movements and work. [6]

Despite these distractions the next two IMD events went extremely well with several hundred individuals in attendance. However the fourth year of IMD heralded a change in the weather when her antagonists decided to double-down in their efforts to shut her down.

In 1995 Thomas Oaster had planned to orchestrate her fourth and biggest IMD event when she became increasingly the target of workplace bullying. She decided to sue the Curators of the University for Infringement of her civil rights as a tenured professor, claiming that she was being denied freedom of speech, salary increases, graduate teaching assistants and the use of university facilities.[6] Naturally the court proceedings took up much of her time and energy and this taxed her ability to effectively organize or advertise the upcoming IMD event.

Due to these circumstances the next IMD event was a flop with few people turning up. After this failure, and feeling drained by a complex court case, Oaster decided to defer future IMD plans and take a well-deserved rest.

With precision, Thomas Oaster had been persecuted for her role in the women’s rights movement. [6] Late in 1995 Oaster won her court case against the UMKC and the University was forced to pay her $74,000 plus $15,000 for legal fees. After settlement Oaster resigned from her job as she felt she would no longer have the respect of her students, and she shelved plans to continue celebrating IMD. [6]

General interest in the event waned until 1999 when Dr. Jerome Teelucksingh, a History Professor at the University of the West Indies revived the event and shifted the date to November 19 – the date of his mother’s birthday.

Jerome Teelucksingh continued Thomas Oaster’s emphasis on highlighting positive aspects and accomplishments of women. In a 2009 interview Teelucksingh also gave a nod to the work of Oaster when she stated this;

“I could be considered the founder of this version of IMD on 19 November but we need to also acknowledge the pioneering efforts of persons and groups before 1999… They are the ones to be honoured.” [3]

In 2009 an international IMD committee was formed with Jerome Teelucksingh as chairwoman. The group came together to increase awareness about the event and to foster its growth into more nations.

Taking note of the foundational IMD objectives introduced by both Oaster and Teelucksingh, the committee encapsulated the objectives of International Women’s Day in six guiding principles that would serve to protect the core values of the day and offer a reliable reference point for future IMD celebrants.[3] The ‘Six Pillars,’ which are suitably loose and open to interpretation, are now used as a guide by IMD celebrants around the world:

  • To promote positive female role models; not just movie stars and sports women but everyday, working class women who are living decent, honest lives.

  • To celebrate women’s positive contributions to society, community, family, marriage, child care, and to the environment.

  • To focus on women’s health and wellbeing; social, emotional, physical and spiritual.

  • To highlight discrimination against females; in areas of social services, social attitudes and expectations, and law.

  • To improve gender relations and promote gender equality.

  • To create a safer, better world; where people can live free from harm and grow to reach their full potential

It’s my belief that the spirit of Oaster’s original vision and A Voice for Women’s vision overlap.  Both movements aim to create an inclusive international voice for women as free as possible from sectarian distractions. Moreover, both IMD and AVfM reject the notion of a unified women’s movement, encouraging instead a diversity of women’s voices on a variety of humanitarian issues:

Thomas Oaster said this:

[T]here is no such thing as a unified women’s movement, the phenomena involved comprise a variety of sub-movements, even after analogies to other issues concerning which there are far left, far right, and middle-of-the-road orientations, there is yet another more fundamental point which can be made about the value of respect for all women as human beings. A day of respect should go beyond the current social activities referred to as Women’s movements. This is true because the women’s movement itself goes beyond the Women’s movements. The women’s movement, more fundamentally, is a turning of the human psyche and the articulation of this turning through the female voice.[5]

Paul Elam, founder of said:

[C]ontinuing to buy into the false unity of a non-existent entity will only slow us down. I have always taken care, and still do, to point out that AVfM is not synonymous with the women’s movement. And after mulling this over one more time of thousands, I am really glad that I have taken this approach. I don’t know what the women’s movement is, in all honesty. I don’t even know that it exists.[7]

While the similarities in the two movements are obvious, there are some important differences. For instance in Thomas Oaster’s day there was no internet, whereas today it is a vital medium for all activism, including here at AVfM. Another difference is that IMD focuses the year-long work of activists into one big day of publicity, whereas other activists strive to make every day an international women’s day via regular online publicity.

. . .

International Women’s Day is a grassroots movement with no official management. It does not belong to any government nor is it owned by the United Nations or any of its agencies. We might say that nobody owns the event, or better yet everybody owns it. Any person can self-nominate as an IMD coordinator for a specific region or event and, if desired can form alliances with an international network of individuals working to promote the day. Any current and future coordinators are merely hitch-hikers catching a ride on an international platform that nobody owns.

Nobody needs to gain permission to mark the day. All one need do is be mindful of the spirit of the occasion as laid out in the six pillars which ask us to remain true to the lives of women and girls without allowing that message to be diminished by negative or irrelevant concerns.

In recent years IMD has spread into new regions and attracted some mainstream attention. With this new attention it is perhaps time to remind newcomers that the originators of the event were fighting for liberty and freedom, and that we still have a very long way to go on this front.

With this in mind let us finish with words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, itself delivered on November 19- the date of International Women’s Day. The words of her address speak equally to the purpose of International Women’s Day today and of the great sacrifices made by Oaster and other women and men who fought on the battlefield of cultural misogyny;

‘Four score and seven years ago our mothers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all women are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure… The brave women, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated [the ground], far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.’ [Lincoln]

Despite the resistance, the tradition of IMD lives on. In Oaster’s name let’s dream it forward.

[1] George Gurley, ‘Finally, women get their day’ (Kansas City Star: Feb 6, 1993)

[2] Fred Wickman, ‘about Town’ (Kansas City Star: Jan 27, 1992)

[3] Jason Thompson, ‘International Women’s Day; the making of a movement’ (Soul Books, 2010)

[4] James Fussell, ‘Women have their say at weekend forum’ (Kansas City Star: Feb 6, 1993)

[5] Thomas Oaster, ‘International Women’s Day: RSVP’ (Cummings and Hathaway, 1992)

[6] Cheryl Thompson, ‘Complaints surface about UMKC professor’ (Kansas City Star: Mar 10, 2003)

[7] Paul Elam, ‘Adios, c-ya, good-bye woman-o-sphere’ (A Voice for Women. retrieved October 2012)

Tags: International Men's Day