Australia: Celebrating an army of exceptional women, but one day (IWD) alone fails equality Print E-mail

 Melbourne ~ Thursday March 7 2019

'We won't give you true equality, but here, have a scone'

By Kristine Ziwica

If you are looking forward to donning your “The Future is Feminist” T-shirt tomorrow to attend an International Women's Day event featuring an “exceptional woman” who has succeeded “despite the odds”, I apologise in advance. I am about to spoil the party.

If, instead, you're wondering why this event was scheduled at some ungodly hour, mortified at the prospect of lugging home a bright pink goodie bag emblazoned with some corny slogan about your womanly super powers, and thinking you would rather hear a spirited (dare I say angry) appraisal of the inequalities that still (still!) face women in every corner of the world served up alongside a correspondingly spirited call to arms, read on. You're amongst friends.

A Frida Kahlo Barbie from the range released to celebrate International Women's Day last year. Pretty, but not as powerful as continuing to take the fight to inequality in the real world.

One of my chief criticisms of IWD has always been that, in my humble opinion, every day should be IWD.

Though I appreciate the good intentions and potential benefit (given the context) those who founded the day in 1975 envisioned, lately it has seemed to me that IWD has become a bit of a consolation prize, particularly in light of the increasingly common tendency to mark or “celebrate” the day with a rather corporate morning tea featuring an “inspirational” speaker. We won't give you true equality, but here, have a scone.

There also seemed to be an implicit agreement: we'll give you this day to talk about “women's issues” as long as you don't bang on about this stuff too loudly the other 364 days of the year - or expect us to pay it any heed.

Kristine Ziwica, long-time equality sector worker, most recently as CEO of Now Australia, argues we need more stridency, less morning teas on IWD.

And given the inherent challenge of raising “women's issues” up the agenda in a male-dominated media and political landscape, too many of us played by those rules, releasing our reports and launching our campaigns on the same day, thereby competing against one another for profile and inevitably pushing important issues to the margins.

We may have had our day, but there was still a limit on the number of things we could talk about at the same time. What's more, we denied ourselves the right to take up space in the cultural and political debate year-round.

To add insult to injury, big corporations increasingly trespassed on this tiny morsel of ground, co-opting IWD to sell faux empowerment alongside everything from hamburgers (remember the inverted McDonalds W?) to “role model” Barbies that strangely seemed to have the same unrealistic body proportions while dressed in career garb.

Come on ... can't we have at least one clear run to talk about equal pay, economic security, female workforce participation, violence against women? Sell your hamburgers and your plastic dolls another day.

Given this, it seems fair to ask whether that devil's bargain was worth it and whether IWD, at least in these forms, is increasingly anachronistic against the backdrop of the last two years that have jettisoned the somewhat more agreeable phase of “girl power” feminism and ushered in a new wave of feminist activism that is successfully making every day International Women's Day.

Women are taking to the streets in angry and disruptive protests around the world, including the Women's March, the “Women's Wave” of candidates running for office in the US, the huge Women's Strike in Spain, and the five million strong line of women along the southern Indian state of Kerala's border protesting women's lack of access to temples. I could go on.

Women are breaking centuries of enforced silence to tell their stories of assault and abuse in unprecedented numbers, prompting phenomena like #MeToo and #TimesUp.

Even the women of Australia's Liberal Party, on the whole not known as feminist firebrands, have launched a not so subtle insurrection to challenge sexism in politics and the particular eco-system within their own party that has held them back. Pick up a paper any day of the year and you will come across a story highlighting the work still to be done and featuring the women who won't rest until it is.

These are not the “exceptional” women who have succeeded “despite the odds” - they are the women who are going about the everyday business of changing the odds for women everywhere.

Enduring inequalities experienced by women should be given air time all year round, not just on March 8. (Sitthixay Ditthavong)

The reality is, the odds are still firmly stacked against women, who are, on the whole, paid less, carry an unequal burden of caring responsibilities, comprise the fastest growing portion of the homeless population over the age of 50, less likely to be represented in the corridors of power, and are more likely to experience sexual assault, harassment and domestic violence. If you are an Aboriginal woman or a woman of colour, even more so.

In contrast, certain IWD events and their pop culture counterparts seem, well how should I say this, just a little too polite.

That brings me to this year's Australia-specific theme, “More Powerful Together”, which was chosen to “recognise the important role we all play - as women, men, non-binary and gender diverse people”.

The theme was chosen to remind us that, “It takes all of us, working in collaboration and across that which sometimes divides us, breaking down stereotypes and gendered roles to create a world where women and girls everywhere have equal rights and opportunities."

I don't disagree with that sentiment, and I have great respect for the myriad organisations that chose the theme and their efforts to deliver on those goals.

The thing is, I am not sure a kum-ba-yah homily will suffice in the face of the entirely predictable, potent and increasingly violent backlash the current wave of feminist activism - which has now well and truly exceeded the carefully drawn parameters of a “day” - has prompted.

I wish I knew what would bolster us against those retrograde forces of backlash, and I acknowledge it's a bit mean to find fault with those who are attempting to answer that question.

For the record: I like tea. I like scones. I love a party. But I'd love gender equality a whole lot more.

I know that will require a heck of a lot more than a day's worth of work. On IWD, I would like to celebrate the growing army of exceptional women and their allies who are making it their life's work.

Kristine Ziwica
is a Melbourne-based writer and consultant who has held senior roles at the UK's Equality and Human Rights Commission and Australia's violence against women prevention foundation, Our Watch.