This blog was written by Hazel Gavigan, Fórsa Communications Unit, for Fórsa’s International Women’s Day series.
What was once a radical feminist movement is now on its way to becoming nothing more than a hallmark holiday. How can we reclaim the true motivation behind International Women’s Day and continue down the path towards equality?
This year marked 110 years since International Women’s Day was first celebrated. An event borne out of the women’s labour movement where in 1908, thousands of underpaid female garment workers took to the streets of New York in protest over low pay and poor working conditions. International Women’s Day and trade unionism go hand in hand, yet over a century later it seems to have morphed into an occasion where everyone talks about how fantastic women are, but nothing tangible is done to enhance their circumstances.
The 8th of March is usually a date I look forward to. It’s an opportunity to hear from, learn from and celebrate inspiring women. And more importantly, it’s a chance to refocus our efforts and organise to tackle prevailing injustices. However, in recent years I’ve found myself growing increasingly disillusioned with the whole affair.
While it shouldn’t be left entirely to us to change the status quo, activism helps shape the narrative and with enough sustained pressure, those in power will eventually act based on those demands. Therefore, we need to be extremely conscious of empowering the most vulnerable women when having these conversations.
We need to be extremely conscious of empowering the most vulnerable women when having these conversations.
This year in particular should have been exciting, what with our newfound access to a myriad of speakers on a wide variety of issues thanks to society’s astuteness surrounding online events (one of the few pandemic-perks). However, I found the diversity of panellists and topics discussed left a lot to be desired. Women are not one homogenous group and it’s vital we use our privilege to platform our marginalised sisters and be led by them. While there was a solid effort made in some jurisdictions, many events were centred around issues we’re already familiar with, hearing from those we’ve heard from before and presented zero new solutions.
Corporations don’t care
Just like what happened with Pride, corporations are now capitalising on the movement and feigning solidarity through superficial ‘girl power’ campaigns. This year, there was a particularly sharp parallel drawn between the origins of International Women’s Day and fast fashion brand, BooHoo. Customers were offered an IWD shopping discount, when only last summer the company was investigated for ‘modern slavery’ after allegedly paying garment workers just £3.50 per hour. Their ‘boss babe’ sale code was nothing more than a publicity stunt to distract from exploitative practises. While some argue that these brands could do some good by donating the proceeds made off such sales to women’s organisations, I think a better place to start would be paying their workers a living wage.
Their ‘boss babe’ sale code was nothing more than a publicity stunt to distract from exploitative practises.
Another initiative from this year’s ‘celebrations’ that was in particularly bad taste was Burger King’s campaign. The fast-food chain tweeted ‘Women belong in the kitchen’, followed hours later by an announcement of a new scholarship programme set to enhance female representation in the culinary industry.
Brands being controversial for PR purposes is one thing. We’ve come to expect that. But brands being controversial under the guise of female empowerment is nothing short of disgusting. For Burger King to insinuate that their campaign was anything other than a profit-driven marketing stunt is insulting. And whether a handful of women benefit from the initiative or not, it will just be a consequence of an insidious campaign executed under the guise of feminism, all the while boosting the company’s bottom line. Don’t be fooled. Big corporations aren’t going to make any real changes without us forcing their hand.
On the eve of Mother’s Day, when timelines tomorrow will be flooded with praise for Mammies around the world, keep an eye out for all the tributes to ‘strong women’. I’d like to take a moment to reflect on and discuss this. Women are strong because we spend our lives picking up the slack, carrying more than our fair share of the load when it comes to caring responsibilities, household duties and emotional labour. Women are strong because we’re constantly faced with adversity, at a perpetual risk of attack simply because of our gender, as events covered in the media this week have poignantly and tragically illustrated.
We should instead lament the reality that women have had to build up such resilience to overcome these barriers inflicted upon us, and demand equality. I don’t want to have to be strong. I want to simply exist the same way as my male counterparts do. Yes, women are strong, but we shouldn’t have to be and it certainly shouldn’t be romanticised.
Yes, women are strong, but we shouldn’t have to be and it certainly shouldn’t be romanticised.
Instead of lauding mothers for rearing children, catering to every emotional need of the family, taking responsibility for a disproportionate amount of caring and household work, whilst also holding down a job, why don’t we demand that the load is lightened? Thank you for your #IWD and #MothersDay social media posts. But what I would really like is universal access to childcare, flexible working options, job security, enhanced maternity, paternity and parental leave, but to name a few. And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to achieving equality.
Gender quotas across all sectors of society is another measure which would ensure women’s voices are heard. It’s taken a Cabinet minister getting pregnant for government to even consider maternity provisions for elected reps. This is living proof that representation at the top matters. Those with power aren’t going to give it away. We have to take it. And the best way to do that is by organising.
A corporate mass email wishing female employees a Happy International Women’s day is a nice gesture. But what’s the organisation’s family-friendly work policies like? What measures have they in place to champion diversity and inclusion? How transparent are they with salaries and rates of pay? This year’s International Women’s Day theme was #ChooseToChallenge. I choose to challenge the day itself.
Those with power aren’t going to give it away. We have to take it. And the best way to do that is by organising.
In order to reclaim the primary motivation behind the movement we must reverse back up the whitewashed path we’ve descended down, change the narrative and demand better. Gender equality starts at work and it simply cannot be achieved without the labour movement. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too. If you consider yourself a feminist, join a union and next year on International Women’s Day we will achieve genuine change, together.
Hazel Gavigan, Fórsa Communications Unit