March 13, 2019
Friday, March 8, was International Women’s Day 2019. If the slew of Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram photos and shared articles hadn’t already caught my attention, there was also an email from Flixbus (the coach company) addressed, “To all the strong, amazing women out there”, saying, “we recognise and appreciate you all. Treat the women in your life or yourself (!) with the best trips. Let’s applaud womanhood :)” I’m not really sure what being stuck on a cramped bus with often loud and rude strangers has to do with womanhood (though on reflection, maybe it’s a metaphor for what women have to put up with daily) but a random marketing email doesn’t really make me feel ‘empowered’. And call me cynical, but Pizza Hut’s creation of the Venus gender symbol (♀) with pizza emojis on Twitter felt nothing more than a flaccid gesture towards the popular girl-power current.
International Women’s Day (IWD) can be an opportunity to express solidarity with women’s movements and the ‘powerful women’ in all of our lives – but as many companies on social media showed, that ‘solidarity’ is too often in name only.
Just as it is important to remember that the Notting Hill Carnival developed in the 1960s as a response to widespread racial attacks in the UK and that LGBT pride celebrations largely owe their existence to the Stonewall riots and the Christopher Street Liberation Day demonstration of 1969, IWD should not be covered with so much confetti that it conceals its socialist roots.
IWD was first observed in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America, to honour the 1908 New York garment workers strike. The following year, the Socialist International met in Copenhagen to establish an international women’s day, in order to build support for the achievement of universal suffrage for women. The first International Women’s Day proper was marked in Austria, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany in 1911 – although it wasn’t until 1975 that the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day as we know it on March 8. Evolving from a worker’s movement to a pacifist platform during WWI to the internationally recognised celebration we see today, it is disingenuous to simply rebrand #IWD2019 as a hashtag.
Aggressive and disruptive acts of female suffrage paved the way for women’s rights to be recognised as human rights, though this was often a drawn-out process. Female landowners were allowed to vote in elections in Friesland in 1689, yet full suffrage was not granted in the Netherlands until 1919. In the UK, the 1918 Representation of the People Act only granted middle class women over the age of 30 the right to vote – the full Equal Franchise Act was not granted until a decade later. Aboriginal men and women in Australia were not granted suffrage until 1962 – sixty years after the granting of female suffrage. Women in Saudi Arabia were only granted the right to vote four years ago. The UN notes that “The Charter of the United Nations, signed in 1945, was the first international agreement to affirm the principle of equality between women and men.” Equality is the recognition of our common and objective humanity – yet this principle wasn’t ‘affirmed’ for women until 1945. That’s only 74 years ago.
As Caroline Criado Perez shows in her new book, Invisible Women, gender inequality is a facet of nearly every aspect of our lives, affecting not only the workplace, but our home and relationships, health and wellbeing. It is structured into the architecture of the economy, into agriculture, technology, transport, medicine, culture and into architecture itself. When corporations jump on the feminist bandwagon despite actively minimizing the lives of women – be it through their marketing messages, workplace practices or unstable employment contracts – we are not only expected to become friends with our bully, but give up our place at the table for them.
IWD should be a day of activism and recognition of the contemporary feminists who are transgressing boundaries and political affiliations in order to Get. Work. Done. Campaigners like 19-year-old Cambridge University student Amika George, who started the Free Periods initiative from her bedroom in order to end period poverty (and stigma) in the UK – and because of whom, as of March 9, 2019, the UK government has pledged free menstrual products in all English secondary schools. Or Nimco Ali, co-founder of Daughters of Eve, a non-profit organisation working to protect girls and young women at risk from female genital mutilation. In a media landscape where period blood is still represented as blue liquid in advertisements for menstrual products, and labiaplasty has been promoted as a cosmetic procedure, these campaigns happen to be addressing issues which are not so easily commercially co-optable. Their value is both active and discursive, yet at risk of being overshadowed on a day which should be highlighting them by brands chucking fistfuls of pink glitter into the conversation.
While in the Netherlands giving women flowers on IWD is a nice gesture, there is a danger of it shifting away from its original, socialist origins and becoming a commercialised venture like Valentine’s – or even Galentine’s – Day. In contrast, every year on IWD, British politician Jess Phillips stands in parliament and reads out a list (compiled by Karen Ingala Smith) of the names of the women killed by men since the last IWD. This year, there were 130 names on that list – though disappointingly their names were heard by empty benches, with less than thirty other members of parliament sitting witness during her speech. Yet this act more acutely represents the intended purpose of IWD: to illuminate current injustices women face in today’s society, bringing them to the attention of people in power and pushing for actual change, rather than capitalist lip-service. Having more female CEOs is all very well, but shimmering pink slogans of empowerment aren’t going to stop women being murdered by their partners.
Funding women’s refuges, ensuring maternity rights, making childcare free, providing abortion services, un-taxing period products: these would make genuine improvements to women’s lives. Yet, massive underfunding is crippling social services and tax-avoiding corporations’ tweets are not plugging that gap – many are not even paying their staff a living wage. The term ‘female empowerment’ is nothing more than pseudo-feminist newspeak if women across the social and political spectrum are not being fairly remunerated for their labour, or represented in both public discourse and policy. The IWD 2019 website lists its partners – three technology companies – including Amazon and McDonalds; partnerships, collaborations, charities of choice and friends. These stratified levels of involvement make it difficult to identify the level of influence different corporations have upon the movement. It seems an odd choice for IWD to align themselves with Amazon and McDonalds in particular, considering the companies’ less-than-spectacular records with regards to workers’ rights and #MeToo.
However, there are brands that are actively practicing what they preach. The London-based company Birdsong works with women’s groups and charities to produce their clothing. Their clothes are made and hand-painted by groups of low-income migrant mothers, who are able to work while their children are at school. This not only provides them with a living wage but also with a safe space and community. Birdsong’s knitwear is made by elderly women’s knitting groups, who either donate their fees to charity, or back to the day centres from which they operate. Their t-shirts bear the slogans ‘Resist & Persist’, ‘Still European, Still Friends’, and Maya Angelou’s quote, ‘Still I Rise’, but these feminist, socialist values are not only represented on the clothes, but in the structure of the company itself. Birdsong knows their makers personally, sources materials sustainably and uses diverse (non-photoshopped) models. They work to be fully transparent in their organisation, sourcing and collaborations, always crediting the artists they work with. Social media helps facilitate this conscientiousness; giving credit can be as easy as tagging the designer on an Instagram post. This ensures that the female creators’ voices are being heard – something which historically has not happened.
Much of feminism is about empowering women to use their voices, to educate girls and enable them to speak up, to know that their opinions are valid and useful. To listen to women and make them feel heard. However, part of this education is about learning when to be quiet. Companies jumping on the feminist bandwagon for one day a year while doing nothing to ensure the education, protection and security of women for the other 364 days, are not helping the cause – they’re just creating (white) noise. We need to ensure that our feminism is inclusive, intersectional and, most importantly, socialist, so that corporate brands cannot simply latch on and commercialise it to make more products off of our pain. Trade unions, statutory parental leave and a compassionate benefits system are feminist; pizza is not.
Rebecca Took is a Masters’ Student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.