Comment: Celebrating International Women’s Day 2019

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As in the last few years, all day this International Women’s Day, Friday 8th March, my social media channels overflowed with posts by many of the wonderful women and men that I know/have-never-met-but-monitor-intently-on-the-internet, seizing upon the opportunity to shout out to the females they love, admire and respect: celebrities, icons, historical figures, friends, mothers, sisters, daughters and workplace proximity colleagues.

I, too, fully intended to post one of these effusive woozy love letters, broadly encapsulating my many (endless!) positive feelings about the magical women I know. But I had a busy day at work, and I kept putting it off. It got to 11.58pm and I still hadn’t done anything, and I felt I couldn’t let the day pass me by with nary a mention. In a panicked fluster I ended up posting, alongside an embarrassingly generic “Happy International Women’s Day to my ladiessss” style caption, a picture, not even of my fabulous friends but in fact of…myself. That’s right. International Women’s Day 2K19, deeply entrenched in fourth-wave feminism, and I just thought I’d take the time to witness…me.

My snap decision has been bothering me ever since. I started to wish I had done a quick google image search for an iconic Frida Kahlo shot, or looked for a pithy Gloria Steinem quote. And then I started to question where this impulse to post something was coming from, and who I wanted to post it for? And then I started to look around me, and I saw myself surrounded by posts and campaigns and promotions and gestures that had absolutely nothing to do with gender equality, which I was pretty sure was what IWD was meant to be all about.

So I looked some more. For context, a (very) quick history lesson: International Women’s Day has existed, in one guise or another, since the Socialist Party of America held a ‘National Woman’s Day’ on the 28th February 1909. By the 19th March 1911 it had built momentum, and over a million women came together to rally in solidarity. Then in 1914 Germany decided to switch things up so moved to the 8th March, the date stuck, and we have celebrated IWD on that glorious date ever since. Between then and now, it has grown and developed in many, many stages (read more about the evolution here). Throughout its hundred year history one thing had remained the same; the purpose of International Women’s Day was to fight for and promote equal rights for all women.

Seemingly in the last few years, this purpose has become a little lost. Thanks to the expansive social and cultural awakening that exploded upon us following the “Me Too” movement, IWD was celebrated by more people than ever before this year, and that cannot be anything other than great. But (much like the first time I saw the ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’, expecting a horror film, and was instead confronted by Tim Curry singing in lingerie) there is a muddied confusion about why it is happening.

I want to be clear that I think that all of the posts recognising and highlighting women’s achievements are vitally important, and raising awareness of the incredible things women have achieved is a wonderful use of the power of social media. But these shouldn’t be reactionary posts on a specific named day. The world would be a much kinder and happier place if we all took the time more often to turn to those we love, and express to them the joy they bring us. The outpouring on social media is one of the ways the true meaning of the day has become distorted, and it is too easy to dish out online affection to our nearest and dearest and somehow feel like we’ve contributed to the global movement of IWD, while serving only ourselves.

Of course, the much, much bigger problem is not us taking a moment for a cute if somewhat extraneous appreciation post, but rather the way that countless businesses and brands have taken it upon themselves to ham-fistedly re-purpose IWD as a marketing tool, no matter how irrelevant their product or how problematic their advertising history or company ethics. These clumsy advertising tactics were everywhere, being carried out by companies local right through to global. Some of them were sweet, or well intentioned. Some of them were delicious but patronising, like the doughnuts my friends boss bought for the companies female employees (sorry about the gender pay gap, will this Krispy Kreme fill the hole?). Some of them were jaw-droppingly irrelevant, like this series of Budweiser ads from the 50’s that have been re-imagined to show the ‘modern woman’. Like, look, ladies, it’s finally ok for us to stay in and order takeaway by ourselves! We can even have the girls over for some beers! We’re not incomplete without men as long as we have pet dogs who can love us! (Side note: I don’t have time right now to get into the fact that the ‘modern’ Budweiser poster girl is still slim and white with idealistic beauty standard features, but I see you Budweiser, and your Budweiser Girls).

I’d be here all day if I started listing the brands that the above applies to. The Drum have done a handy round up and I’m sure you won’t have trouble finding literally thousands more, especially once you start playing by the rules of Katie Martell’s ‘femvertising’ litmus test. On the flip side, there are also many examples of companies that have really thought about their campaigns, and are trying to make a positive contribution. Given that in December of last year the World Economic Forum said it would take 202 YEARS for the gender pay gap to close, we need all the help we can get.

So as always the question remains, what do we do? Do we boycott these brands? Do we need to start researching company ethics before making purchases? Where do we find time in our already packed schedules for that? And how do speed up the journey to the place where International Women’s Day can actually be a celebration of the equal rights we hold with men, not just the name of one day a year in our ongoing crusade? I’m sorry to say I don’t have these answers (all tips welcome). As is clear, I am still very much working out how to use the power and privilege available to me, to make change in the most effective way I can, starting by questioning more closely the things I post and the motivations behind them. For today at least, I’m going to forgive myself my rushed Instagram moment, give Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s We Should All Be Feminists another read before passing it on to my friend’s doughnut-giving boss, and redouble my efforts to encourage and highlight the incredible women around me all of the time. Because as we all already know, every day should be International Women’s Day.

Originally posted on WXMB 2

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