Who is International Women’s Day for?

This blog is based on a talk delivered to a private business who commissioned my services in commemoration of International Women’s Day. 

Featured image by rawpixel

In this blog, I want to examine why we attend International Women’s Day breakfasts. I want us to consider what International Women’s Day is, who it is for, and how it has become the event it is today, namely a celebration of women we know and an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of, mostly individual, women. To answer these questions, it is necessary to consider what popular feminism (Banet-Weiser 2018) is, what ideas are popular, and the legitimacy of these ideas.

What is IWD?

International Women’s Day began as International Working Women’s Day and was not a celebration of working women so much as a way to memorialise women who had died due to unsafe working conditions and through the suffrage and labour rights movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The day was instigated by socialist women and only celebrated in socialist and communist countries until it was co-opted by the feminist movement through the 1960s and 1970s. United Nations also began celebrating the day during this time period. Although International Women’s Day was borne out of the socialist movement, today it is traditionally associated with feminism. As feminism has become more popular and therefore more palatable, more and more workplaces are under pressure to hold International Women’s Day celebrations.

Triange Shirtwaist Factory Fire
154 garment workers were killed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, largely due to unsafe working conditions. The majority of workers who died were women and the factory employed mostly young immigrant women. 

Modern iterations of International Women’s Day generally consist of morning teas, breakfasts, or luncheons and are usually important networking opportunities for women in business. These events often celebrate women’s achievements, particularly in business and corporate sectors. Some workplaces whose core offering exists in social justice play a more active role in the day by using it as an opportunity to educate others about gender-based discrimination, and particularly violence against women. There is also an annual march held in cities around the world to mark the day, where women and other genders come together to listen to speeches from local social justice advocates and march peacefully. This kind of an occasion is sombre but celebratory.

In a call-out on social media, women and some men responded to me with their experiences of celebrating or commemorating International Women’s Day in the workplace. These are current examples from real people who work in Australia across a variety of industries. I received mixed opinions. One woman said that their workplace did not celebrate or mention International Women’s Day, and this was fitting with their experiences of work and women being required to be seen, i.e. look pretty, but not heard. I learned that some women dread International Women’s Day because their workplaces engage in tokenistic celebrations, such as a morning tea, and their colleagues, mostly but not only men, treat the occasion as a joke. In this case, the ‘jokes’ surrounding International Women’s Day were sexually charged, such as suggesting female colleagues sit on their male colleagues’ laps for a “happy women’s day”, or overtly demeaning, such as lamenting why women should be celebrated if they add nothing to societal achievements. Others, including one man, said that their workplaces engaged with International Women’s Day in meaningful and tangible ways, which usually involved community engagement and education and helping to facilitate important events such as the annual march. These discussions of peoples’ experiences of International Women’s Day in the workplace brought up some key themes, around how workplaces can help women to be seen and feel safe in the workplace and the ways that engagement with International Women’s Day can help or hinder those experiences.

The many, many valid critiques of the feminist movement mean that feminist ideology is home to an incredibly diverse group of people with equally diverse ideas. Even forms of feminism that commemorate and centre working women and focus on social problems such as gender-based violence have long histories of being exclusionary. In particular, certain sects of feminism actively exclude trans and gender non-conforming people, especially trans women, and sex workers. The kinds of feminism imbued in different kinds of engagement with International Women’s Day show us which women are valued in workplaces and hint at why that might be.

Examining how International Women’s Day is celebrated outside of workplaces also gives some insight into which women are actively included and celebrated on the day. The tagline for International Women’s Day this year is ‘Each for Equal’. This slogan is based on a push for gender equality, meaning equal rights and opportunities between men and women. However, how International Women’s Day is celebrated does not extend equal rights and opportunities to all women. An advertisement for a Sydney International Women’s Day event titled ‘Courageous Conversations’ focuses on gender equality in the workplace and argues that gender inequality means that women earn less than men and are slower to advance in their careers. The solutions that their speakers are expected to pose will address overcoming challenges, dealing with stereotypes, and driving advocacy. Benefits to attendees include a gourmet breakfast cooked by chefs, shopping vouchers for an International Women’s Day marketplace, networking, and supporting a “good cause”. The ‘good cause’ that ‘Courageous Conversations’ will support is an Australian charity that runs orphanages for children in Thailand. The childrens’ stories and faces are plastered on the charity’s website along with opportunities to participate in ‘experiences’ such as home renovations. This kind of ‘voluntourism’ has been extensively criticised for its short-sightedness and lack of benefit to local communities. If events such as these hope to achieve equality by ‘driving advocacy’, ‘dealing with stereotypes’, and ‘overcoming challenges’, they should begin by considering themselves and their actions. In Adelaide, Business Chicks are hosting a breakfast that costs just under $4000 for the best tables, closest to speakers and the most desirable people to network with, or $1450 for regular table tickets. The overarching International Women’s Day campaign is sponsored by companies like Amazon, who have been subject to a boycott over worker exploitation. One of the most disturbing examples of exploitation to come out of the boycott campaign detailed how employees were urinating in water bottles to avoid taking breaks and being penalised. The limitations of International Women’s Day seem surprising given the origins of the day and the prevalence of feminism today. However, a closer look would reveal that feminism has always been a profoundly unequal movement.

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The global International Women’s Day campaign is sponsored by corporations such as Amazon, a company renowned for exploiting its workers.

Feminism is a broad church even within conventional definitions of the feminist movement as organised actions, beginning with efforts to gain women voting rights. These movements have traditionally been led by white middle- and upper-class women despite many other groups being involved. Feminism as a broader movement has long been criticised by women of colour for excluding black and brown women especially those who are further marginalised because of their gender, sexuality, or class. This approach has been criticised by women of colour in particular because the feminist movement has mostly consisted of white middle-class women who have centred their interests above those of other women. Women of colour have always been involved in feminist movements and supported the advancement of white women, despite white women’s historical negligence in supporting women of colour, instead actively supporting the continued oppression of black and brown women (read Hamad 2019 for an extensive account). Particularly poignant examples include Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood in the US, giving white women greater reproductive freedom, but also advocated for the forced sterilisation of people with disabilities, or Susan B. Antony, an early US suffragettewho famously said, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman”. Women of colour have explained over and over that their solidarity is more likely to lie with men of similar racial backgrounds to them, than with white women.  White feminists like Antony and Sanger and their contemporary counterparts, have claimed that a shared experience of ‘womanhood’ transcends any other experience based on marginalisation or oppression. However, this insistence not only excludes most women and all men but drills down into the fundamental conditions that allow unequal gender relations to persist in the first place: the hierarchical separation of men and women (see Nicholas and Agius 2018).

Some people are critical of International Women’s Day, and the broader feminist movement, for good reason, others not so much. Scott Morrison’s comments on International Women’s Day last year that “we don’t want to see women rise only on the basis of others doing worse” implied that more opportunities for women mean that there are fewer opportunities for men. The question “what about men” is rarely posed to assess where men fit into broader goals to reshape politics of gender but instead decries the exclusion of men from this celebration. Instead the question, “what about men?” should be employed to examine why and how masculinity is made invisible through contemporary popular expressions of feminism.

Popular feminism

Popular feminism (Banet-Weiser 2018) means that feminism is everywhere and inescapable, particularly on occasions such as International Women’s Day. However, the kind of feminism that we are witnessing is diluted and limited. It is diluted because complex ideas and history have been co-opted and partially implemented without much consideration of the context and critiques that surround them. This is evident in the ways key concepts such as intersectionality (Crenshaw 1989), a theory developed to understand the complex ways that racism and sexism intersect in black womens’ experiences, has been taken to mean ‘inclusive’ such as in the usage of ‘intersectional feminism’. The contemporary usage of this term has become so distorted through its popularity that it so no longer resembles the original idea. Additionally, when these ideas are co-opted by corporates or governments for commercial gain, the original aim can become lost. The involvement in police at Mardi Grasis an example of the necessity to understand and address context when working towards meaningful change. Police interaction with queer communities has historically been violent, such as the murder of George Duncan in Adelaide in 1972 and continues to be regarded by many in the queer community as negligent at best (see Redd for more). The uncritical inclusion of police in Mardi Gras is then understandably contentious but remains unexamined by mainstream outlets, including media.

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Police arresting queer activists at the first Mardi Gras in 1978 and at the latest Mardi Gras in 2020

In addition to the representation of ideas, examining popular feminism can also tell us who is celebrated, who is not, and invite us to reflect on why some people are less visible or celebrated than others. Local International Women’s Day celebrations, such as luncheons and breakfasts, charge guests hundreds of dollars in admission fees in exchange for networking opportunities, goody bags, and the opportunity to listen to impressive guest speakers. This year, the guest speaker at the International Women’s Breakfast in the city I live in,  is former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick. A Sex Discrimination Commissioner works at a national level within the Australian Human Rights Commission to address instances of gender-based discrimination and implement key initiatives. Elizabeth is a former lawyer, adept in business situations, and ushered in several large organisational change reviews and initiatives, most notably Male Champions of Change. While each of these initiatives was well-intentioned, they could be criticised for being shallow and ineffectual. Elizabeth Broderick is certainly an example of feminism, she is also an example of a particular type of feminism. This type of feminism is often associated with choice or empowerment, and sometimes confidence. Popular feminism posits that women need access to professional opportunities to be equal and that women are responsible for gaining those opportunities. Women just need to “lean in” or show more confidence to succeed at work. It is a softer and more palatable alternative to visible protests against the current construction of gender that places responsibility on individuals to make minute changes.

The popular feminism that celebrates self-described ‘soft approaches’ such as these is not the kind of feminism that celebrates less palatable figures who argue for radical change, look outside of the norm, or have experiences that remind us that we have not come as far as we had hoped, that there is so much left to do. These are people like sex workers, trans and non-binary people, fat people, poor people, detained asylum seekers, murdered Indigenous environmental activists, or Indigenous Australians who have died in custody.

Popular feminism does not celebrate figures who challenge us or if it does, it reconfigures their experience and repackages it as something more palatable. Frida Kahlo, for instance, has become a symbol in popular feminism. Frida Kahlo is remembered as a brilliant feminist artist. Her haunting reflective self-portraits gave insight into her experiences as a queer disabled Mexican woman, who belonged to an ethnic minority, and advocated for environmental and economic justice. Today, you can buy merchandise with her face on it, minus her distinctive facial hair, or dress up as her for Halloween, without considering what it means to dress as an Indigenous Mexican woman whose distinctive look was meant to bring attention to how invisible she felt her people were.

What is gender equality?

Popular feminism can help us to identify who and what is celebrated in any given time or location, but it does not necessarily tell us why this occurs. Instead, we need to examine which ideas are popular and consider these to understand popular logic. In my view, popular feminism in Australia at this current time is driven by a logic of ‘gender equality’ (see also Nicholas and Agius 2018). Gender equality underpins common strategies and approaches to gender-based issues such as women’s participation in male-dominated industries, income disparity, and violence against women. It is the idea that the key to gendered harmony and balance is ensuring that men and women have equal rights and opportunities. Rights and opportunities are seen as the antidote to pay disparity, sexist and misogynist attitudes towards women, and violence against women, among other issues. However, while this sounds like a good idea, in theory, it ultimately insists that women become equal to men, focusing on inherent deficits in femininity while leaving masculinity unexamined.

Gender equality implies a polarity in gender – that men and women are opposites but should be considered equal, meaning women become equal to men. This also assumes that all men are equal to each other, and all women are equal to all women. Gender equality benefits some women who are already privileged by class and race, likely giving them more power through representation and access to opportunities above many men and most women. This idea does not propose any kind of radical or meaningful change to the composition or conceptualisation of gender and re-invokes the idea of gender as a binary consisting of two duelling categories. In this process, trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people cease to exist and men, more specifically masculinity, become invisible. When we insist that women must become more like what is expected of men, we ignore what is harmful about how we understand gender and we especially do not examine how masculinity is structured in ways that harm men, as well as other genders.

Most feminist thinkers would recognise that gender most accurately exists on a spectrum rather than as two distinct and opposite categories. The distinction between gender identity and expression and use of a spectrum is based in the very real disparity in individual expression of gender versus gender identity, that cannot be contained by two strict categories, and the long history of gender identity being conceptualised using three or more categories by various global cultures. When we insist on a conceptualisation of gender that is based in dualism, we also assert the legacy of colonisation in strictly policing gender and sexuality, especially for black and brown people (Hamad 2019).

Gender equality also inadvertently invokes a hierarchy particularly amongst women but also among men. By privileging certain aspects associated with masculinity, particularly in a business sense and related ideas about professionalism, certain men can be included while others are not. Each person might relate to arbitrary qualities coded masculine or feminine to some degree. For instance, being nurturing is not a quality limited to women, and the ability to maintain emotional distance is not specific to men. Some men have historically been considered closer to nature and therefore femininity because of their race, like Aboriginal men (Hamad 2019). If professionalism and capacity for professional success are taken to be associated with masculinity through association with competitiveness, rationality, impartiality, physical prowess, dominance, and emotional distance, which men and women are privileged?

What is ‘masculinisation’?

How certain men and women are privileged or celebrated over others can be better understood through the concept ‘masculinisation’ (Nicholas and Agius 2018). Masculinisation can help us to consider, if men are the standard and the standard for men is unrealistic, why should the rest of conform to it? Masculinity, when understood through masculinisation, is not meant to refer to individual men and their expression of their gender. It is a structural perspective rather than a perspective focused on individuals. Instead, it refers to ideology and logic around gender which positions masculinity as an invisible but powerful standard which shapes our social world. This ideology justifies the natural domination of men who embody masculinisation and can be extended to women who embody masculinisation too. Masculinisation can help us to consider the permeation of ideas like gender equality in industry and interrogate their application through standards of professionalism.

Masculinisation does not exist and function alone, however (Nicholas and Agius 2018). To understand the impacts of power and gender, it is essential to consider how other structures that perpetuate difference intersect with masculinisation. In my view, the most important structure to understand is colonisation. This impacts how bodies and sexualities are policed, who we celebrate and how we celebrate them. Masculinisation as a concept is useful because it allows us to examine the intersection of masculinist values with colonisation, and later structures such as capitalism. Masculinisation and individualisation go hand-in-hand and this affects our work life and industry, as it permeates standards of professionalism, further emphasising an insistence on individual achievments and responsibility. However, our social problems, especially climate change, require a community response rather than an individual one.

Where to next?

The TLDR version is: modern iterations of International Women’s Day are not for men and they are not for most women. International Women’s Day is a prime example of the limitations of the feminist movement and the dangers of co-opting ideas without proper consideration of the context that these ideas come from. Popular feminism is extremely limited, particularly because so much of feminist efforts aim for gender equality. Gender equality assumes that all men are equal to each other and that all women are equal, which is completely untrue. Women CEOs have more power than many individual men, like Aboriginal men and working-class men, and they certainly have more power than the majority of women. The other problem with gender equality is that it assumes that for women to become equal to men, they have to be like men. This idea further reinforces the separation between men and women and masculine and feminine qualities.

Masculinisation can help us to consider the permeation of ideas like gender equality in industry and interrogate their application through standards of professionalism. By understanding, how professionalism is shaped in industry, we can understand who is left out of these standards and how to challenge them. There is no such thing as gender equality without decolonisation, and that means paying attention to how race shapes our lives, just as much as gender. To undo masculinism and colonisation it is necessary to understand the context of these structures and how they function in our daily lives. This requires understanding how hierarchies work, who is privileged above others and why, rather than assuming increased opportunities or representation can rectify inequalities. The logic of masculinisation shows us that merely adding women to a workplace or other space and stirring, will not radically reformulate anything.

Instead, we can motivate change by beginning with ourselves. Members of a dominant group, whether that is white people, men or someone else, do not need to question social structures if they work to their advantage. It is only when structures are shown to be faulty that cracks appear, and action is motivated. The process of paying attention to provoke meaningful change must be done in meaningful ways, without expecting that marginalised people will explain to you how to improve your behaviour. You must consider the context and engage in education, whether formal or informal, to better understand social problems and your place within them. I particularly like to learn from other people with different experiences to me by following thinkers and educators on social media and reading the comment threads on their posts.

Radically reformulating how we think about and engage with gender (as a concept) offers everyone, men, women, and gender non-conforming folk, more freedom in their expression of gender. This affects our relationships, including our workplaces, but is also intrinsically connected to how we think about race, class, and the environment. Social issues including environmental concerns and the future of work can be linked back to colonisation first, and then capitalism. The future of work and our environment mean workplaces will be reformed through necessity. The work of reforming the nature of work inherently requires undoing the legacy of patriarchy and colonisation, as well as the endless cycle of consumption necessary to uphold capitalism. This work will require us to understand individual gender expression along a spectrum, to recognise that gender is a structure that intersects and overlaps with colonisation and capitalism, to commit to decolonisation and centring Indigenous leadership and knowledges, divest from an economic model of constant consumption, acknowledge that resources are finite, and plan based on this acknowledgement.

The logic of structures such as patriarchy, in this case, masculinisation, (Nicholas and Agius 2018) do not work for anyone. Instead, by recognising how gender functions as a social structure and reconceptualising gender as a spectrum, we can imagine better possibilities and more freedom for each other. This is not simple work and will leave you with more questions than answers. To motivate change, you need to start with yourself and start by listening. What you hear may be confronting or disturbing. You may feel defensive. But that defensiveness likely comes from knowing that there is truth in what confronts you.

Key resources

I draw on a large range of formal and informal resources to develop, research, solidify and support my thoughts. Some of the background for this piece came from conversations with my communities, and from listening to others, especially those with different experiences to me, including a talk at Adelaide Writers Week featuring Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Ruby Hamad, and Shakira Hussein.

Others from books, particularly White Tears, Brown Scars – Ruby Hamad; Empowered: Popular feminism and popular misogyny – Sarah Banet-Weiser; and The Persistence of Global Masculinism – Lucy Nicholas and Christine Agius.

Podcasts like Still Processing, Whoreible Decisions, Unscrewed, and The ASH Podcast, and Twitter feeds.

Social media* educators such as @feminismanddecolonisation @ihartericka @hownottotravellikeabasicbitch @decolonizingtherapy @notsoivorytower @rachel.cargle @nowhitesaviors @whatswrongwithmollymargaret @salty.world @raquelsavage @hellomynameiswednesday @alokvmenon @nessaturnbullroberts @tillylawless @newgenderwhodis

Many, many thanks to members of my communities, particularly Roxy Baratosy, who had thought provoking discussions with me and gave feedback in preparation for this piece of work.

*Instagram handles

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