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In 2021 more than ever, International Women’s Day feels like a hollow gesture

COVID-19 is the enemy of us all, but to women it has felt like a meteor made of pure misogyny, shattering our lives on impact

Marisa Bate
8 March 2021, 12.12pm
A 2020 Royal College of Nursing study found nurses are underpaid because they are mostly women
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ernesto rogata / Alamy Stock Photo

The International Women’s Day we know today bears little resemblance to what German socialist Clara Zetkin instigated at the beginning of the 20th century. Zetkin had watched an eruption of the labour movement as women workers, specifically garment workers in the US, went on strike. Women demanded better pay, safer working conditions, fairer treatment. In 1910, at the International Women’s Socialist Conference, Zetkin suggested a ‘Women’s Day’ was needed to recognise this struggle, and International Women’s Day (IWD) was born.

More than a hundred years later, and now supported by the UN, IWD has lost most, if not all, of its roots of class and struggle, hijacked by corporations presenting a sterile, shiny and safe version of women’s fight for equality. Rather than IWD being a record of direct action, often the only ‘action’ is a hashtag and the purchasing of ‘fempowerment’ merchandise. bell hooks wrote that she dreamed of seeing feminism proudly displayed on T-shirts or bumper stickers, but I don’t think she could have envisioned the hollow corporate nightmare that dream would become. Or indeed have imagined those T-shirts being made by underpaid women and girls in unsafe factories enduring terrible working conditions.

In recent times, this soulless charade has worked hard but failed to completely eclipse the good work that women’s charities and organisations try to showcase on IWD. In amongst the tsunami of hypocrisy and box-ticking, if I’ve looked hard enough, I’ve always managed to find a shimmer of hope. Each year I look on in awe at grassroots groups creating real change, the young women organising themselves, the schoolgirls demanding to know more about their herstory.

Yet today that feels harder to do than ever. Even if we can see past the legacy of ‘Lean In’, the controversial 2013 ‘feminist manifesto’ by Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, and TV and magazine writer, Nell Scovell, and try to focus on the positives, this year, a day of webinars and tweets is teetering on the absurd. It’s like offering a child’s watering can to extinguish a forest fire.

Women are being forced to drop out of the workforce. Domestic abuse has risen. The majority of frontline workers and 95% of single parents are women

COVID-19 is the enemy of us all, but to women it has felt like a meteor made of pure misogyny, shattering our lives on impact. Women are dropping out of the workforce, having been forced to pick up more of the caring responsibilities. Incidents of domestic abuse have rocketed. Women have been disproportionately impacted by the collapse of the retail and travel sectors. The majority of frontline workers are women. Some 95% of single parents are women. During this economic crisis, Black women are twice as likely to be in insecure jobs. Women of colour and women with disabilities fare even worse on every account. But a meteor is the wrong metaphor. This hasn’t come out of nowhere; this has come off the back of a decade of austerity.

And in response to this unprecedented crisis, the chancellor's Budget failed to even mention care, despite the benefits it could bring to the whole economy. The Women’s Budget Group has found investing 2% of GDP in the UK care sector, a sector of mostly women, would generate twice as many jobs as the same investment in construction. The Budget’s offering to domestic abuse was described by women’s groups and advocates as a “drop in the ocean”. A 2020 study by the Royal College of Nursing found nurses are underpaid in status and pay because they are mostly women. The 1% pay rise from the government would attest to that. This is, of course, the same government that produced an advert so staggeringly sexist, some assumed it was a parody, until it was eventually removed. Meanwhile, the prime minister has been busy forming a charity to raise funds for wallpapering his home.

Against this backdrop, and divorced from its own important genesis, when women are doing everything, and have been given nothing, what is a day? When the number of women dying each week because of male violence is rising, what is a day? When everything feels on fire, is there even a hashtag for that, anyway?

When women are doing everything, and have been given nothing, what is a day?

Now is not the time for symbolic gestures; a Home Office panel here, a press release there. Women’s safety, mental health, economic welfare and equality are all under threat, and I haven’t seen as much as a road sign, let alone a road map, to address any of it. Only hearing about it on the one day a year dedicated to women's equality reflects precisely where it sits in the government's, or indeed any organisation’s, priority list.

International Women’s Day is an important part of women’s history, and women’s history is too easily forgotten. Clara Zetkin and her peers fought hard for a fairer workplace. In the age of COVID, that fight continues. In order to understand the inequality of today, we need to know the fights before us. For that reason, I don’t believe it’s time to scrap IWD entirely. Moreso, there are tireless and essential campaigners who help women all year round and deserve a moment of solidarity and joy. I wouldn’t take that away from them.

But this year, more so than ever, I will take no gratitude or pleasure from seeing ministers and big business and brands talking about women’s rights. Women have been fundamentally let down during this crisis. They need commitment 365 days a year, as well as sustainable funds, gender-led policy and far better representation in the places that make these decisions. Much like how banging saucepans on summer nights now looks like hollow propaganda, women don’t need applause or platitudes, they need solutions. And they need far more than a day.

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