Today as you, me and her-over-there push thoughts of our economic insecurity to the backs of our pretty little heads, asset-rich women will gather in hotel ballrooms to toast the future. Leaders from the finance sector will tell moving stories about a sisterhood that helped them claim that six-figure bonus. Executives who profit from private detention contracts will crow about what it means to be female and free. Powerful women will inspire each other to remain powerful. Some years ago, this, in very great part, became International Women’s Day.
This always cheesed me off. And, no, not just because I was envious of the nice Armani pants. It was more down to the habit of IWD, and Western feminism in general, being so fixated on “inspiration”. Not just among the “More Women on Unjustifiably Huge Salaries!” crowd either, but more everyday feminists.
But when these goals trickled down from the five-star ballroom and began to inform most feminism, I gave up acknowledging IWD.
The trust that good female role-models and good female representation can bring good things to all women began to feel very natural to us. We saw thousands of listicles about “empowering” women on TV. We heard that more women in leadership roles meant more bounty for all women; clearly, neither Christine Lagarde nor Margaret Thatcher received that memo. We began to believe what, in my view, was the reverse of the way things actually work. If you “represent” equally, the Western feminist logic went, then equal reality would follow.
I was, and remain, a bit old-fashioned in my thinking on this matter. While I do think female representation is important and certainly yell at the telly when it says sexist things to my couch, I believe the experience of the real world comes first. There is much more than a lack of inspiration that holds up our unequal structures. You could even argue that the culture of inspiration itself makes many women feel even more hopeless. To tell a minimum wage worker that she can make it only if she believes in herself is, in my view, an insult and a dangerous lie.
Their cynicism at the unveiling of “female” traffic signals in the city of Melbourne became my optimism.
Believing in yourself is a good thing, obviously. So is learning to detect and name sexism in your everyday life. So is positive and diverse female representation. But when these goals trickled down from the five-star ballroom and began to inform most feminism, I gave up acknowledging IWD.
Lately, though, I can sense a shift. There is a radical return by some feminist activists away from representation and to the real world of wages and houses and health. Some well-to-do white Western women, who have for so long dominated the movement, are beginning to sense that they do not speak for all women, and that many women don’t care to hear their stories of ascent through a glass ceiling.
And then, yesterday, just in time for IWD, many Australian feminists responded to a story of positive representation with a laugh. Their cynicism at the unveiling of “female” traffic signals in the city of Melbourne became my optimism.
The Committee for Melbourne probably meant well when it funded the appearance of permed, be-skirted lady stick figures at pedestrian intersections. But, across social media and press, feminists lost no time tearing this missionary condescension apart. Women who wore trousers demanded to know when to expect their safety signal. Others lambasted the lobby group for spending its influence and cash on embarrassing nonsense in a city centre which now makes plain the fact of female homelessness. I’m not sure if anyone suggested that pedestrian lives, perhaps even female ones, could be lost along with the standard (and, as I had presumed, gender neutral) safety figure. Probably, though. Everything about this moment of naïve representation has been hilariously criticised.
Apparently, powerful people think leaning into a traffic signal is enough to deliver us from danger. When the Committee’s chief executive told reporters that this representation would “help reduce unconscious bias,” she probably believed this to be true. Just as all the powerful women scheduled to speak today at IWD brunches believe that their inspiring poses will help lift us beyond the median female wage.