Fran Lowe, in her fortnightly column, reflects upon feminism and its relevance today, having just experienced International Women’s Day.
Saturday 8 March marked International Women’s Day.
It’s a day for two things: firstly, celebration of how far we have come in gender equality, and how much better things are than they were just 100 years ago; secondly, it’s a day for recognising everything that still needs to be done in the fight to get a fair chance for women, not just in the UK but the world over.
Perhaps one of the biggest battles against patriarchy is getting people to realise that we still need Feminism. Its necessity didn’t die out the day we got complete women’s suffrage, or the day women were allowed into universities. We still need Feminists as much as ever, and yet somehow Feminism is increasingly being considered a thing of the past, with Feminists stereotyped as angry, bra-burning man-haters. Huge numbers of women are unwilling to identify themselves as Feminists and, until recently, I was one of them. What’s more, even greater numbers of men make the assumption no Feminist is worth spending time with, that all Feminists are lesbians who would chop off their balls as soon as look at them, and that Feminism is a scary, dirty word.
All it took was a quick Twitter search on the day to see that hidden in amongst all the support, there was also a lot of angst. One that stood out for me was the question “why isn’t there an international men’s day?”
Well, if they want one, they could try 19 November. It’s from this day onwards that the average UK woman effectively works for free to the end of the year, thanks to the gender pay gap. If men want something to celebrate, maybe they could all drink to the fact that in 2013 the gender pay gap actually widened for the first time in five years. Well done, chaps, for making things that little bit worse for women.
I think a lot of the problem with people’s not recognising the need for Feminism comes from a lack of understanding of just how bad things really are. In the UK, at a first glance things seem to be getting better- but is that all just superficial? As I’ve mentioned, there’s the gender pay gap. It was a huge breakthrough when in 1970 the Equal Pay Act made it illegal to treat men more favourably in the workplace. But here we are, more than 40 years later, with women being paid an average of £5,000 less a year than men in the same position.
Despite the fact that on the outside it might look like women have it easy nowadays, at least legally having a lot more of the rights than we always used to have, in many areas things are just getting harder. The fact that you can now find women in professions we never used to be allowed near has opened up a whole can of worms regarding the respect women get in the workplace. This is not restricted to the gender pay gap: women face prejudices in work, and are labelled in ways that men simply are not. Pantene’s ‘Labels Against Women’ advert from Autumn last year says a lot of what Feminists have been trying to say for years – a man in charge is just doing his job, he’s the boss. A woman doing the same thing, meanwhile, is bossy. A woman who is good at her job isn’t just successful, she’s a bitch. It’s this unfairness that needs to be addressed.
This difference of treatment of men and women spreads out of the workplace and into general society. On a night out, for example, if a guy takes a condom in his wallet, he’s considered a good guy, doing the right thing. Should a girl do the same, however, she is more often than not regarded as a slut, going out purely with the intention of picking someone up. Girls are whores; men are ‘lads’.
This disparity in the way we treat, think about and speak to men and women who do exactly the same things in their lives is simply not okay. What is worse is that thanks to the overarching picture, many people simply don’t see the problem, women included. It’s hard for people who have never been through what women go through to understand.
A few nights ago I was chatting with my (male) housemate about pushy guys in clubs. He innocently asked “well why can’t you just push them away?” I would love to, I can tell you. But the plain fact is that I’m physically not strong enough to push away sixteen stone of alcohol-enhanced testosterone. And, more to the point, I shouldn’t have to.
Women feel that they have to just put up with what we get. I got wolf-whistled in the street the other day and, instead of saying anything, I just looked at the floor and pretended I hadn’t heard. As Babe, everyone’s favourite friendly pig says, “That’s just the way it is”. But it really shouldn’t have to be that way. Just because I’m a girl does not mean that I should have to put up with this kind of stuff. Where is the logic in that?
You might argue that I’m complaining about nothing, and that my complaints are very ‘first-world’. You’d be right: I’m white, middle class, straight, and well-educated. I’m never going to deny that women in other parts of the world have it so much worse.
For many reasons, I am hugely lucky to be a woman in the UK – for example, I completely take it for granted that when I’m at home I can just pick up the car keys and drive to a friend’s house, or the supermarket, or a night out. If I lived in Saudi Arabia, this would be illegal, because they don’t issue driving licences to women. Their reasoning is that driving would cause me to uncover my face to be able to see; if I was on the road, there would be less room for men to drive; and- perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all- if I could drive it might cause me to go out of the house more often than men. I could have my own life- the horror!
It’s clear from evidence like this that I am so incredibly privileged to have been born where I was. As a result, however, we tend to ignore International Women’s Day here in the UK. But perhaps this is what’s wrong – it is, after all, international – it’s time for us to think about women everywhere. It’s a lot more of a big deal in other countries. My boss (who is Polish), for example, wished me a Happy International Women’s Day, and bought his girlfriend a bunch of flowers. We were able to look upon it as a celebration of all the great things that women have achieved.
My point about the international scale of things, though, is this: the world over, women are treated unfairly. Although the scale may differ vastly between here and, say, Saudi Arabia, suffering is suffering; rape is rape; maltreatment is maltreatment. Women, wherever they are in the world, are not given the same level of respect as men.
What is important to remember is that while it is great we take International Women’s Day to commemorate how far we’ve come, and to raise awareness for all the problems that still urgently need solving, these issues don’t go away for the rest of the year. In India, an estimated two women are raped per hour. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, that figure increases to an earth-shattering 48. Yes, forty-eight rapes per hour. That’s a little under one woman a minute being subjected to the most humiliating, life-ruining form of horrific violence out there. If people can try and remember that for the other 364 days of the year, that would be great. ‘No’ doesn’t just mean ‘no’ for one day a year. We’d quite like to be treated with respect in the home, academically, and professionally the whole year round, thanks.
Feminism is by no means redundant. It is as, if not more, important now as it has ever been. So, maybe don’t roll your eyes the next time someone dares to talk about Women’s Rights.
Fran Lowe, Online Features Columnistbookmark me