Revisiting International Woman’s Day

IWD: what's it really about?

IWD: what’s it really about?

Every year on March 8 International Women’s Day rocks around and each time I find myself deeply troubled by events being held in its name. I’ve written about IWD before (which, upon re-reading led me to the awkward realisation that keeping an academic blog means that any early or continuing naivety is laid bare before the world). To save you from reading it: I had attended a luncheon being held in my city that I found irksome for its ethnocentric focus on the foreign woman as “Other” – the (apparent) victim of sisterhood’s failure to go global. I also had a problem with the speakers’ general reinforcement of the binary man/woman given that there was no critical discussion of the concept of gender. Then (and this is the bit I feel retrospectively weird about) I went on to lament how bad it is to exclude men because we’re so busy shoring up women’s rights.

Successful old white guys: usually the best feminists?

So a few of those qualms hold true: I still find the championing of “look how far we’ve come, let’s go save those women over there!” problematic, and I wish that there were more focus on debates about gender on this day. But I feel strange about my “what about men too” plea because I think that really missed the point of what I was trying to say – and it took an IWD event planned for 2014 to make me realise this. I won’t name the event, or who’s organising it, but basically they’re holding a IWD talk with two notable and powerful men and one less notable but still “successful” woman as the key speakers (does this not remind anyone of that episode of Parks and Recreation where Lesley Knope creates a committee for women and all of the people elected to it end up being men?).

Not wanting to prematurely judge this lineup, I called the event organiser to see what the reasoning was for these keynotes. The organiser told me that originally they had planned to have just one woman and one man, and then another prominent man had contacted them and they couldn’t say no. They told me that ultimately it was a great thing, because they are big names and are attracting lots of people for the event. I was also reminded by the organiser that men should be champions of gender too, and that the burden of change for women should be on everyone’s shoulders.

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Women originally had to be champions of change because no one else cared

Now of course I agree that far too often in history the question of gender has been imagined as solely the domain of women. But let’s not forget that the women’s movement (at least in its second incarnation) emerged in part from men in the 1960’s New Left dismissing “women’s business”. For example, when Shulamith Firestone and Jo Freeman proposed that women be equally represented on the committee of the National Conference for a New Politics in Chicago in 1967, they were told to “cool down”. In other words, women became the spokespersons for gender issues because nobody else would take them seriously. So of course it’s great that men are taking it on board now, but does it not seem absurd that as part of this men would actually be allocated a greater amount of time to speak on a day when we should be challenging norms of representation?

The "successful" woman: is this what IWD is about?

The “successful” woman: is this what IWD is about?

And I’m not suggesting that this conundrum would be fixed by a 50-50 split: the problem is much deeper than that and at a fundamental level involves (from what I can see) a dominant picture of IWD as a day to celebrate “successful” women and consider how we can make other women “successful” too. The problem with this narrow raison d’être is that it then seems reasonable that men are the notable speakers – hell why not an entire panel of men championing women? If all we care about is promoting women to be successful, it doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing from women. It doesn’t matter that we’re not hearing about the lived experiences of gender from people in community. It doesn’t matter that the panel is all white, all straight, all “successful”. Who cares – all we want to talk about on IWD is getting women up that ladder.

What could we do instead of this same-old neoliberal IWD claptrap? Well, we could hold a range of talks or events that would actually apply some ideas from gender studies to IWD. Basically my ideal IWD would include discussion of these kinds of topics:

– The colour of feminism: intersectionality and feminism’s blindspots (e.g. different women of colour talking about their experiences)
– Queering feminism: where does LGBTQI fit in to the feminist movement? (e.g. LGBTIQ people talking about feminism)
– Why feminism is a radical idea (e.g. some second wavers and some young feminists talking about their perspectives)
– Genderism vs. feminism: how should we talk about gender? (e.g. some academic and/or community perspectives)
– Gender in the everyday (e.g. single mums speak out)
– Embodiment: how do bodies matter to gender? (e.g. trans women talking about their experiences)
– Gender roles vs. expression: what are masculinity and femininity? (e.g. trans people, femmes, academics, etc talking about different ideas)

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

IWD could involve discussions with and by a whole range of people from the community

This could include people of all different backgrounds and notoriety. You could have people with fiercely different ideas about what gender means, what being a woman means and what feminism should hope to achieve. The day would probably be full of severe debate as we realise our radically different perspectives on these issues and listen to people’s lived experiences. It may sound arrogant to propose involving people from across the community in some discussions which would be quite academic – but don’t forget, feminist writing has always straddled the popular/academic divide. And why not invite people from the community to speak instead of just women who have “made it”? Usually we only consider women who are earning lots of money and are well-known names to draw a crowd. And while men would be involved for sure, these might be trans men, gay men, young men in a new age of masculinity…men with diverse experiences of gender too. One thing’s for certain, the event would not be 2/3 old white guys. 

Men, and International Women’s Day

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.