In the 45 years since the UN officially recognised International Women’s Day, we have made great strides towards social justice in the UK. We have seen the introduction of statutory maternity pay, the first black woman MP, steps towards making it illegal for employers to discriminate against trans people – the list goes on. But when I think about what the day itself does to create tangible change, I keep coming up short.
Sure, it’s a nice excuse to champion the achievements of those who have facilitated such change. And as the celebration grows larger and more commercially successful, it does seem to have given those in power a much needed push to take women’s rights seriously. Yet when I’ve asked the women in my life what the day means to them, it’s often very little.
In the last six or so years since I’ve been working in the media, International Women’s Day has meant plush brunches and paid panels. It has given me the opportunity to promote myself, to network with the sorts of women I used to dream of being in a room with. It has been a blessing for my career prospects, in many respects. But something about that gives me the ick.
It’s the faint whiff of elitism, the fact that these things – helpful as they are and will continue to be for many creatives – aren’t always accessible to the average woman. Yes, some are industry insider events. And yes, there are myriad celebrations of women up and down the UK that are open to everybody. Yet as the often high prices for many of these typically London-centric events indicate, affordability isn’t always a given; nor is accessibility.
This year’s theme is “each for equal”. I’d love to see us take that sentiment seriously. If the state of feminist discourse in the UK is anything to go by, we’re doing an agonisingly terrible job of that right now.
Within the last week alone, we’ve seen people commit steadfastly to stances that spit in the face of that slogan. Trans women have had their very existence presented as one side of a “debate” yet again. Women spouting hateful views on the biggest platforms and with a great deal more privilege than most are claiming to be silenced. On the lower end of the scale, the prime minister – surprise, surprise – has just revealed that he doesn’t see changing his own child’s nappy as a necessity. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of his views of women. What a lovely prospect for us all, eh?
In fact, sexism – and the other forms of discrimination that for many women go right along with it – is still at the very core of many of our values. As the UN development programme’s gender social norm index revealed this week, nearly 90 per cent of men and women all over the world are biased against women. We have further to go than we realise.
I’ll admit, the yearly fanfare and generic slogans may have left me a little jaded of late. For every meaningful cause is a vapid marketing campaign attempting to piggyback off of it. As far as fighting the patriarchy goes, IWD feels inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. But I suppose that’s what happens when we attempt to cram women’s rights into 24 hours.
I’m not saying we should get rid of IWD – far from it. As cynical as I am about it, IWD has helped to amplify issues that tend to be sidelined throughout the rest of the year.
It’s the one day of the year in which, for example, I see more and more mainstream, fair coverage of sex work, led by those who actually understand the industry. Community organisers, researchers and activists have also done an incredible job of using the day to draw attention to the kinds of issues that rarely get a look in, such as homeless, asylum-seeking and incarcerated women.
But for women whose IWD will be devoid of nice events, solidarity and laughter; for those who are fighting for their lives; even for those of us who can’t stomach the idea of socialising for an entire weekend “because, women” – I want us to do better. We have let some of the forces that work against us fester so badly that it’s often hard to feel part of a global push towards equality come 8 March. That won’t change by Sunday, or even by 2025, unless we make an effort to fight for women’s rights – all women’s rights – every single day.
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