Today I went to a luncheon for International Women’s Day (IWD). The room was full of hundreds of (mostly) women, from many different sectors in the community. Being there, listening to speakers on the topic of “women” (mostly focusing on the need to enhance the lives of women in developing nations), I had some deep pangs of uncertainty. As I sat there, eating my posh lunch and sipping Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what does it even mean to be a woman? Should I be proud? What does it mean to be an “empowered” woman? Where do men figure into this?…
It felt to me like the “feminist” bent of the meet was to say “look, there’s still work to be done sisterhood, keep up the good fight!”. Not a single speech considered the relevance of feminism or the importance of challenging gendered assumptions. But I was torn – while I sat there wishing we could instead have an “International Question-the-Binary Day”, I was also struck by the fact that the lived experience of many women around the world is profoundly disturbing and must be addressed (and, admittedly many women in need may not be helped much by my proposed academic gender-deconstruction talk-fest). I think that some of my existential angst sprung from the fact that I felt a deep concern over my relationship to the women overseas being spoken about, considering my apparent academic Western ivory tower.
Though I didn’t quite come to terms with these cultural qualms, I was also still stuck on the issue of the day being so overtly gendered. The old adage often brought up on this day is, “why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” with the reply “every day is International Men’s Day!” This oft quoted interlude is problematic for several reasons:
1. There is actually an International Men’s Day. November 19. Look it up. This is not to be confused with Men’s World Day– an event celebrated in Austria in the early 2000’s, awarding “exemplary” men (including the Bee Gees). Funnily enough the day was criticised for it’s gender-exclusivity and after being renamed, the main event is now (rather ironically) called the “Women’s World Awards“.
2. Promoting the idea that every day except this one is a default men’s day kind of reinforces the whole notion that every day is men’s day. It’s a catch-22. At what point do the days stop being gendered? Is there a point of “progress” where we finally sit back and go, “yep, equality achieved!”?With these points in mind, I think that there is a fundamental problem with the current approach to women’s “equality” in the Western world, in that it often involves a tactic of “tipping of the scales“. This is an affirmative action strategy that says: to make up for all of the years of oppression and male privilege, women are now the ones that should be privileged. And often IWD involves celebrating the achievements of women, which is great, until it slips into essentialist generalisations about how women “keep the world together“. The thing that this particular mode of feminism overlooks is, well, men (and don’t even get me started on how this whole thing forgets people that don’t fit neatly into the man/woman gender binary!). Instead of focusing solely on “empowering” women to do anything, shouldn’t we be doing the same for men (and actually everyone despite gender), so that we achieve some balance and so that women aren’t expected to do everything?
We should be supporting men (and everyone!) in parental roles, men as caregivers and carers, celebrating the men that are community sector workers, teachers and nurses – i.e. men that do “traditional women’s roles”. As well as promoting women to be engineers, we should encourage men to enter primary school teaching. Instead, we just focus on the women – and that, I think, puts both a burden on women and denigrates men (and everyone outside the binary) in our society.
What about the men that we love? What about the men in our lives that are gentle and caring and believe in equality, but that get overlooked for scholarships, jobs and other positions because they are not women or are not cut throat competitors? And how on earth can we really empower women around the world, if we turn a blind eye to the role of men in these societies? What about the men in the world that are feminists? Surely we should celebrate and encourage them too. In the end, I appreciate International Women’s Day- I just don’t want to forget about men along the way.
Patriarchy does more than keep women out of traditionally “masculine” roles; it keeps men out of traditionally “feminine” roles, mostly by devaluing such roles and shaming boys and men who show any desire or proclivity for them. I think the greatest step toward equality would be, more than “allowing” women to fill formerly male-dominated roles, to place equal value on formerly female-dominated roles.
Huh. “But what about the men?” doesn’t really seem like a question that needs to be asked more in discussions on feminism. But perhaps differently.