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Why we still need international women’s day

International women’s day needs to be put back on the map as a rallying point for women’s liberation around the world, writes Joana Ramiro

 

The choice of ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ at this years Oscars was instructive. For it was not the woman enacting the emancipatory journey of a black maid in 1960s America, nor the actress portraying the bisexual crime investigator Lisbeth Salander from the feminist novels Millenium by Stieg Larson, that took the Oscar home. Neither did the award go to Glenn Close’s performance as Albert Hobbs – a cross-dressing hotel waiter, who after being raped as a child discovers that living as a man is the only chance of survival. Not even Marilyn Monroe stood a chance, but then again My Week With Marilyn casts the Hollywood icon in a glum light, as a woman forced to be a sex symbol-object, while desperately trying to be just a human being. No, the Oscar went to Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.

Thatcher is still seen by many liberals as the paragon of feminism – a strong, independent woman who stood up the chauvinists in both her own party and the Labour opposition. Seemingly, an inspiration to many other women. Yet Margaret Thatcher was much more than just a woman ascending the political ranks. She was the head of a government responsible for setting back millions of women’s lives. Her policies destroyed whole communities, sending men and women alike into unemployment and extreme poverty. Unsurprisingly, when the movie was shown in Chesterfield (Britain), women whose husbands used to work in the mines picketed the screening. “We were the Iron Ladies!”, they said referring to how resolute and strong they had to be in the face of Thatcher’s barbarism. It is they who deserve the status of “feminist icon”, not Thatcher.

As International Women’s Day approaches many ask themselves if we are not already beyond such holidays. Women can vote, they can run for elected office, they can manage companies and are increasingly out-earning their male counterparts. An epidemic of articles focusing on the trauma that having successful wives inflicts on men has recently spread across the media. The message is clear – equality is pretty much achieved, now the men just need to accept it. But the reality today is a million miles away from the kind of middle class myth-making the media indulges in. Whilst it is true that some women in the West have become more upwardly mobile in the last generations, once you get out of the white, middle class bubble, women internationally are still struggling, often with the basics.

In the UK the Fawcett Society estimates that women are largely bearing the brunt of the financial crisis. The coalition governments ‘we are all in this together’ motto falls flat when one comes to realise that the changes in tax policy and the overarching cuts will hit female taxpayers disproportionately harder than any other social group – with over 70 per cent of revenue coming now directly from them. Any area affected by these savage austerity measures has a greater impact on women – be it the cuts on benefits vital to single parents, of which 9 in 10 are women; or cuts on local authorities’ social services, which will force predominantly women to give up their jobs and their incomes, in order to take care of children and elders (58 per cent of carers being women already). These statistics say much, but equality is something they do not spell out.

The myth of the fully emancipated woman propagated by the white middle classes seems to completely ignore the battle being raged (also in the West) over women’s sexuality. And such sexist views are not only still prevalent, but given a wide audience.

For instance in the United States, where reactionary radio host Rush Limbaugh recently launched a misogynist tirade against a female student for testifying in favour of contraception at a Democrat-held hearing about birth control (the Republican event having only allowed males onto the panel!). Limbaugh (amongst others) called Sandra Fluke a “slut” and suggested that if she wanted to be paid for sex (i.e. that federal government should force insurance companies to cover the cost of contraceptives), she should film herself doing it and put it on the internet. “We want something in return”, growled Limbaugh, sounding more and more like the paraphilic he probably is.

In a similar attack on women’s sexuality, a Canadian police officer infamously recommended women should stop dressing like “sluts” to avoid being raped. The comment led to the international Slutwalk movement, with protests being held in cities across the world. Many heralded the dawn of a new, fresher kind of feminism, but the protests came and went with no renewed movement.

Clearly, the ‘First World’ is just as ready to castrate women as any other society less ‘civilised’. Instead of circumcision, women have to face bullying and censorship. “Slut-shamed” as others are controlled by the ‘morality police’, or married away when reaching puberty. As far as oppression is concerned, is there a lesser evil?

Helen Lewis Hasteley has recently argued that feminism’s greatest challenge in 2012 is to justify its existence. She is giving far too much credit to the primarily white, middle class voices that question feminism in the first place. I doubt a single mother, with two jobs and outstanding rent, would ever say that we live in an equal society, where the fact that a woman can buy a vibrator means she is emancipated. In a world where possessing equals being, being dispossessed obliterates your very existence; and since women own only 1 per cent of the world’s property one could conclude women barely are.

Hasteley’s logic can only exist in the West. We focus on the most outrageous forms of women’s oppression at the hands of the Taliban, but are oblivious to the hypocrisy inherent in the critique. The plight of women in supposedly free flowing market economies, benefiting from the ”grace’ of the Washington Consensus of globalisation, is not a happy one. In rural areas of the global south where women are still largely uneducated, they spend most of their day collecting wood and water for the house and have no independent existence outside of the family. It is only when the cause of women’s liberation has reached into the most out of the way places, the most isolated peasant village that we can show real progress.

The real goal is not simply to ensure western women benefit better from what capitalism has to offer, but that some of the most deprived women are leading the kind of lives that are only the preserve of a minority in the west.

So how could anyone doubt the necessity for a strong women’s emancipatory struggle today? How could one ever question the need to continue fighting for women’s rights (from suffrage to equal pay) not just in the distant ‘Third World’, but also right here, in imperialist centres, like the UK and the US?

And this is where class is so important. Without looking beyond the more conspicuous and immediate forms of oppression (for instance the plight of women in Saudi Arabia), there is a dangerous one-sidedness in how we see women’s equality. The kind of bias that lead to the Women’s Social and Political Union exclusive focus on women’s suffrage rejecting all other areas of the emancipatory struggle; or to the individualistic solutions to oppression offered by radical feminists like Betty Friedan, who simply advised women to escape domesticity and get a career. In the words of Evelyn Reed: “It is good but not enough for women to become more social-minded (…) [they] should now become socialist-minded”. It is the interests of capital that forces women into subjectivity, they are the ones that profit from inequality, that indoctrinate passivity. Having a credit card and titling yourself “Ms” does not mean you are valued the same as a man. Only by freeing women (and men) from the market, not just allowing them equal access to it, can we erode the inequalities deriving from the oppression intrinsic to the system we live in.

It is exactly because we live in a world that allows people like Rush Limbaugh to cast their misogynist opinions; a world in which women do 66 per cent of the work and only get 10 per cent of the pay; a world in which women not contented with the decisions that society makes for them are called ‘hysterical’, ‘paranoid’ or just ‘women’ (with all the derogatory associations that can turn someone’s gender into an insult); that anyone but the woman depicting Margaret Thatcher should have been awarded an Oscar. It is because our societies still believe that merely associating ‘woman’ and ‘success’ is reason enough to celebrate that we still need to organise on International Women’s Day – 8 March.

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