When International Women’s day was first observed in 1911, women (and sympathetic men) were still starving themselves in prisons across the UK and taking to the streets, putting their lives and futures at stake in a long fight for enfranchisement. This year, we’re celebrating the holiday in a world where women have the right to vote in every single country that holds elections — yet we’re also celebrating it in a world where many young girls live in fear of gender-based violence and are taught to accept that they will never be as successful as their male peers. This contradiction encapsulates the dual purpose of International Women’s Day: to honour women’s achievements and celebrate the progress we’ve made towards gender parity, as well as to keep alive the fight against the numerous struggles that women still face around the world.
Before its adoption by the UN in 1975, the history of International Women’s Day was closely intertwined with that of radical left-wing movements. Notably, it was readily embraced by the Soviet government — the origins of this go back to 1917, when a women’s strike that started on the 8th of March opened the floodgates for the February revolution. Former Soviet republics still make up the bulk of the three dozen countries where the day is a public holiday, but its meaning has been watered down since its glory days. In 21st-century Russia, the 8th of March is widely seen as a celebration of spring, femininity and, often, patriarchal views of women; much of the time holiday greetings are full of casual sexism.
This erosion and outright distortion of the meaning of a day intended to promote female empowerment to make it more palatable for those who benefit from the status quo is symptomatic of the state of women’s rights in Russia. The country has one of the largest gender pay gaps in medium-to-high-income countries and still lacks constitutional protection for victims of domestic abuse, who are overwhelmingly female. Similar patterns emerge across many of the other countries that observe International Women’s Day as a public holiday.
Luckily, this fate has yet to befall IWD in the UK, where the fight for women’s rights is still very much at the forefront of the holiday — but this is not to say that it’s impossible to find flaws with the way it is celebrated. Every year without fail, we are hit by a tsunami of marketing ploys and performative gestures — kitschy merchandise, discounts on stereotypically feminine goods and services, and other rushed nods to the day with a clear profit incentive. The commercialisation of holidays is hard to avoid and not necessarily always a negative, but on a day like International Women’s Day it risks drowning out female voices and calls to action.
This contradiction encapsulates the dual purpose of International Women’s Day: to honour women’s achievements and celebrate the progress we’ve made towards gender parity, as well as to keep alive the fight against the numerous struggles that women still face around the world.
Social media platforms abound with publicity stunts by brands always on the lookout for opportunities to increase their profit margins. Most of these attention grabs are irritatingly empty and meaningless, but entirely harmless, save for an eye roll. Some, however, are outright tone-deaf — the most recent example of this is a tweet posted by Burger King UK that read “Women belong in the kitchen”. The account then followed it up with “if they want to, of course” in a separate tweet and went on to announce what the company will be doing to combat gender inequality in the industry. The thread was taken down after much backlash and Burger King apologised, but this incident is, unfortunately, an accurate illustration of the way many corporations approach the holiday.
Even when companies’ acknowledgment of Women’s Day isn’t confined to inflammatory tweets and limited-edition goods, it often falls short. Insider networking events for women are great, but do they help the women most in need of empowerment? Instead of parading their token women as inspirational ‘girl bosses’, wouldn’t it be more beneficial if companies took the day to look at their employment practices to bring us closer to genuine representation (and the death of the term ‘girl boss’, for that matter)? There’s nothing wrong with these things per se, but they can’t be a substitute for wide-reaching action.
Some, however, are outright tone-deaf — the most recent example of this is a tweet posted by Burger King UK that read “Women belong in the kitchen”. The account then followed it up with “if they want to, of course” in a separate tweet and went on to announce what the company will be doing to combat gender inequality in the industry.
International Women’s Day may have come and gone, but women and girls around the globe and across the UK continue to face injustices, day in and day out. Whether on the 8th of March or on any other date, there are things we can all do to help bring about positive change. A good stepping stone is reflecting on whether you treat the women in your life with the respect they deserve. Support women-owned businesses and female artists. Importantly, donate to and help raise awareness of campaigns that fight for women’s rights (close to home as well as on the other side of the globe) if you can. Institutional change cannot happen without individual action — all of these gestures, however small, will help the cause of gender equality much more than empty performativity.
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