International Women’s Day must truly empower, not demean

This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about International Women’s Day — which was yesterday (Friday 8 March). It seems to me its prominence increases with every year . . . and yet I have mixed feelings about the celebration.

Last year, I convinced myself I didn’t like it at all. It appeared out of nowhere on my radar, and a few days before IWD the company I worked for suddenly decided to “do something” to commemorate the event. With very little time to plan, afternoon teas were provided on some of our (male dominated) sites for female employees. It seemed an empty and meaningless gesture, a celebration for the sake of it — a “politically correct” gesture, if you will.

It irked me. Why should the women be singled out for afternoon tea — in itself an event considered largely the domain of women? In my view, it broadened the rift between women and men, and I found it demeaning. Why did our female employees need an afternoon tea to celebrate their value?  (Having said that, I scoffed the delectable cakes — of which there were many — with abandon.)

I projected this negative feeling onto other, more reputable IWD events I heard about. Why did professional women need forums and networking lunches to prove themselves? Surely our modern world now takes it for granted that professional women are the equal of men?

The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth.

And then International Women’s Day 2013 rolled around . . . and I cringed as everyone started going on about it and inwardly railed once more against the fact everyone still deemed it necessary to single us out.

And so I asked the question on Facebook of some of my friends: What did they think about IWD?

Their various responses gave me a great deal of food for thought and shifted my thinking.

One pointed out that women are still frequently not paid the equivalent of men. In fact, a quick Google search just now reveals that Australian women are paid 17% less than men for equivalent work. In what universe is this acceptable? How can it still be the case in 2013? It’s so bad, that we have an Equal Pay Day and a Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Holy firetruck!

I guess we should be thankful that we don’t live a generation ago when — as my mother pointed out — female teachers and nurses had to give up their jobs when they got married . . .

Another friend spent International Women’s Day in Kuala Lumpur, where there was evidently a huge gathering of young women of all different nationalities spreading balloons with the message “Stop violence against women”. She said she found it moving and that being in a muslim country on this day reminded her that women worldwide still have a long way to go.

I am grateful to my friends for their input, because it showed me how narrow-minded and naive I was being.

And somewhat contradictory, considering my participation this year in the Australian Women Writers Challenge, which is about raising the profile of women’s writing. (Stay tuned for my first review soon!)

Whether we like it or not, women don’t receive the recognition they deserve, for whatever reason. Nor should we dismiss the hard work of the suffragettes from ages past. And as for the terrible history of male violence against women — those of us who have not experienced it must never forget the plight of those who have.

So if International Women’s Day can help remember the sacrifices of those who fought (and who are still fighting) for women’s rights, and change a culture of violence, and celebrate the achievements of professional women who don’t receive the recognition they deserve — then I’m all for it.

Even if, for the same reason I got all ranty a few weeks ago about the prospect of women adopting male pseudonyms to sell fiction, I despise the fact it’s necessary.

But no more afternoon teas, OK? Let’s celebrate IWD with grace and dignity and use it to empower women, rather than treat it as a political tick-in-the-box.

What are your thoughts about International Women’s Day?

 

13 comments

  1. Well said Ellen. My hubby and I just watched a documentary about how women are looked upon throughout the world. I must say it was staggering to know how ill treated most girls and women are treated. So, yes, I can see why we may need a day set aside to raise awareness to the plight of the unfortunate woman of the world. We have a long way to go. Thanks Ellen! 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Karen. We do have such a long way to go, and that’s what’s so disappointing! In the end I have to acknowledge that however much i might lament the need, ANY event that reminds people how unacceptable gender inequality is plays an important role. Thanks for visiting.

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  2. I can totally relate to your disdain for the token gestures being handed out for IWD. That said, I also think it’s important to have days like that to continue to shed light on the on-going atrocities against women. I know I tend to forget a) how much the generations before me had to fight for rights I now get to take for granted and b) how many millions of women all over the world won’t ever see in their lifetimes the abundance of opportunities like I have. You also bring up a great point – women are still – STILL! – not paid the same as men. Its appalling. I won’t even go into the insipid marginalization and degradation of women in the media.

    Good for you for examining your frustrations with IWD and being open to other’s input. 🙂

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  3. I should have written about the topic, considering I often write about feminism and gender, etc. But I sort of had the feeling of ‘Why only one day?’

    I’d be interested to know if it’s taught in schools, actually. I think the easiest way to promote equality and acceptance is to teach children about respect and the dangers of discrimination. I sort of feel that the balanced, tolerant, loving people in society will celebrate IWD, whilst the people who are the reason IWD is needed will just roll their eyes, make a few sexist comments, or do something worse.

    It’s a bit like Morgan Freeman said when asked about Black History Month; ‘You’re going to relegate my history to a month…when’s White History Month?’ I understand that IWD is trying to do something positive, and I respect that, but I’m not sure how much change it really introduces to the world.

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    1. Yep, your Morgan Freeman quote summarises exactly what I was feeling about IWD. But no matter much we might rail against it, we can’t unfortunately change the facts. I do think it’s important that people ensure we focus on the important things — such as empowerment for women, and acknowledgement we still have a long way to go (unfortunately!). Thanks for your insightful thoughts, as always.

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  4. I wasn’t aware of IWD until you mentioned it. What first came to mind when I was reading your post was Black History Month, as mentioned above ~ and affirmative action.

    I think that anything causing a larger divide among the people is not a good thing, whatever the original intent. That being said, if IWD was used to expose those companies who don’t give equal pay (for instance) and give women the tools to demand that well deserved equal pay, then I’m all for it. Or using the day to highlight those women or groups of women in the world who are not treated equally and have solutions to fix that problem.

    Just singling out a certain group of people ~ I don’t know ~ doesn’t sit well with me. Like someone patting me on the head say, “We hear you, little Kimi, no need worry your pretty little head about it.”

    I suppose if it’s productive ~ fine. If it’s a tea ~ then shove it 😉

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    1. Yeah, that’s pretty much how I feel. Or at least felt. I really like your ideas for affirmative action. I do think there’s a place for IWD if it can be viewed in the appropriate light. Hence my call for empowerment. 🙂

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  5. I agree with the commenter who said that we should be teaching respect and equality in schools rather than make a Hallmark holiday to celebrate women. Yet, the reminder of where we (US, Australia, UK) are in regard to equal rights compared to other countries does demonstrate need for educating in as many ways as we are able. I also didn’t know the day existed and I feel much as Morgan Freeman feels about Black History month, but I also want to see the shackles removed from those women around the world who have the fewest rights. So if it does something to help raise awareness and inspire change, I guess I’m all for it.

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