Originally known as International Working Women’s Day, contemporary International Women’s Day (IWD) has deep roots in the worker’s rights movements of the early 20th Century. IWD was marked for the first time on March 19, 1911, with over 300 demonstrations in the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone. This saw women in the streets demanding the right to vote, to hold public office, and protesting against employment sex discrimination. IWD was a call to action, a set of demands to improve the lives of women, and wasn’t often glamorous.
These days, International Women’s Day has come to represent something different, and more commercial. Today, it looks like expensive high teas, breakfasts and seminars where privileged women can rub shoulders. It looks like big business producing high quality videos and pumping out the annual hashtag (this year, #EachforEqual) in an effort to prove how socially conscious they are. It looks like discussions about quotas, about getting women onto ASX 100 boards or how we can get more women studying STEM disciplines.
In this way, IWD has become something that is dainty, clean and easily digestible. It can be placed in front of the public like a small scone you might find at these expensive high teas, consumed without mess, the plate neatly put away until the next year. But when one in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime, when one woman is killed per week by her current or former partner, and when 33 000 girls become child brides every day, are these corporate conversations the types of conversations we really need to have?
The commercialisation of IWD has made gender equality a product for the upper class. When we insist on things being easily digestible and marketable, we reduce a day which should be powerful to something that is comfortable. It means we spend March 8 reflecting not on the messy grassroots action that has won so much for women, but on the “structural change” that needs to occur so that more women can climb the corporate ladder. What we don’t consider, is who is responsible for this structural change? If it’s a matter of waiting for wealthy, white men to extend their hands down and help wealthy white women up the ladder, I’m not sure I’m willing to settle for that.
Reducing IWD to women’s corporate success allows us to avoid responsibility for perpetuating gender inequality in our everyday lives and actions. It means men can lament the structures that be, but still head into those board meetings and speak over the top of women. It means we, as a society can spend this time speaking comfortably and sensibly about quotas, but remain silent in the face of casual sexism. It means we forget about women of colour, the women who don’t have jobs, or women in lower socio-economic situations, the women who make up the two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults, the women who are just trying to survive day to day in a world systemically built against them. If we really care about gender equity, we also need to care about its intersection and history with race, class and the labour movement.
We hear all the time that the conversation of International Women’s Day needs to continue beyond the day itself. If we want to achieve gender equity we need to do much more than that. We need to be willing to expose ourselves to much more difficult conversations. We need to allow women to be something other than the conventional, neatly packaged, easily marketable people we are expected to be, and we need to continue the discussion all year-round.
~ Bre Shanahan
Images via gettyimages