Let’s start by being positive. This year’s International Women’s Day was the biggest and best so far. Spurred on by the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, and the feminist “moment” we seem to be experiencing, it spawned a plethora of thoughtful initiatives. Some of them gave brilliant, but neglected women their place in the sun; others shone a light on the battles that are still to be fought.
One of my favourites was the New York Times’ attempt to remedy the chronic under-representation of women in its obituary section by writing belated tributes to 15, including Charlotte Brontë and Sylvia Plath, whose passing went unmarked in its pages. The great thing about the idea is it’s not a one-off event. “Overlooked” is to become a regular feature, with readers asked to nominate candidates for future slots.
Closer to home, hundreds of local people turned out for the unveiling of a statue of Glasgow rent strike leader Mary Barbour. The sculpture itself is impressive – Mary striding forward Pied Piper-like, trailing women and children in her wake – and a lasting testament to everything she achieved. But the greater legacy lies in work done by the likes of former Labour MP Maria Fyfe to increase Barbour’s profile among the young, the results of which could be seen in the number of school pupils who turned up holding placards with messages such as: “No Rent Increases. Men Are At War.”
Yet like all success stories, the growth of International Women’s Day has a flip-side. This year, for every well-conceived celebration of female contributions, there was a cheap publicity stunt cashing in on the day; for every sincere attempt to get to grip on issues such as the gender pay gap, there was someone jumping on the IWD 2018 bandwagon in order to flaunt their faux feminist credentials.
Perhaps that’s not surprising; as far back as the suffragettes, there were profiteers who sought to capitalise on the movement, producing jewellery in purple, white and green, and selling overcoats and umbrellas to marchers. They were significantly less cynical than the global companies who last week used International Women’s Day day to brand themselves as progressives.
Is there anything more likely to sap the feminist soul than the sight of McDonald’s golden arches turned upside down to form a “W”? Or to be introduced to KFC’s Mrs Sanders (who presumably spends the rest of the year doing the Colonel’s laundry)? It isn’t merely that the point of International Women’s Day is not to sell more junk food, it’s the vacuousness of inverting a logo and thinking it means something, especially if, like McDonald’s, you have been the subject of strike action by employees demanding a decent wage and an end to zero-hours contracts.
The offence is compounded if you claim you are being “satirical” à la Brewdog. In honour of IWD 2018, the company came up with a “beer for girls” called Pink IPA. It was, to the untutored observer, identical to Bic launching pink “pens for her” or Doritos launching lady-friendly low-crunch crisps, except that Brewdog was doing it in an “ironic” way meant to draw attention to the gender pay gap, by offering it at a discount. No, I don’t get it either.
Commercial companies weren’t the only ones making a mockery; politicians were at it too. Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson kicked things off early with an unironic call for a statue of Margaret Thatcher to be erected in Westminster. That’s right: Thatcher who smashed the glass ceiling, then had it plastered over so no-one could follow her; who trashed our industries, leaving families struggling to feed their children; who appointed only one woman to her cabinet in 11 years; who out- machoed the men and whose leadership prompted many an anti-feminist to say: “Look what happens when you put a woman in charge.” The women we choose to immortalise in stone do not need to espouse our politics, but surely they ought not to be traitors to their sex.
All this talk of unsisterliness leads me on to Theresa May. There are many ways in which the Prime Minister could have used IWD 2018 to prove her government’s commitment to gender equality: spending it with Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia wasn’t one of them. At PMQs, May had tried to demonstrate her grasp of the feminist lexicon, accusing Jeremy Corbyn of “mansplaining”. This provoked much sniggering and eye-brow-raising partly because Corbyn wasn’t really “mansplaining” and partly because, when you are implementing austerity policies that impact disproportionately on women, you are in no real position to complain.
As for the photograph of her cosying up with bin Salman, presumably it will one day hang in a rogues’ gallery alongside the one of her cosying up to Trump. It’s OK, though, because bin Salman is well up for female liberation. Women in Saudia Arabia are allowed to drive now – yay! – and can even attend football matches. Ah, that’s the citadel well and truly stormed.
Late last year, Saudi Arabia was still ranked in the worst ten countries in the world for gender inequality, according to the World Economic Forum, but neither that nor the country’s bombing of Yemen was enough to stop the signing of a £65bn trade deal.
May took almost as much flak for her inability to answer a shallow, gendered question about “letting her hair down with the girls” as she did for feting the representative of a regime with a poor human rights record, but it did sour the launch of her long-awaited public consultation on domestic violence from which she might otherwise had gained some kudos.
The last thing I saw on #IWD 2018 was the BBC’s Question Time which “marked” the occasion with this question: “Do we want women to reach the top by merit or making up the numbers?”. Such a tired old trope, the idea that men have dominated workplaces all these years by dint of their great ability and that gender quotas, or other affirmative action, will see boardrooms packed with incompetents. Nevertheless, it persists.
International Women’s Day has huge potential for raising awareness on important issues (as well as for exposing our follies) but the bigger it gets, the more susceptible it becomes to hijacking and commodification. It is not enough to sprinkle a few feminist words like “patriarchy,” “mansplaining” or “hepeating” around your Twitter account, and it’s not enough to come up with some wacky marketing slogan with which to con customers into believing that you give a damn.
Unless your IWD support is a reflection of how you behave the other 364 days a year, or a catalyst for changing it, then at best it is an empty hashtag; at worst a cynical marketing ploy or a display of rank hypocrisy.