OTTAWA—International Women’s Day (IWD) is a joke in North America and deserves to be ridiculed.
Last week was one that showed us that women are still at the back of the bus in a patriarchy: Elizabeth Warren, the last woman—with a realistic chance—running for president of the United States dropped out; the Doug Ford government in Ontario cut funding for rape crisis centres and then in a sick twist of patriarchal control, reversed their decision a day later; and the Brian Pallister Manitoba government insulted single mothers everywhere by making the following statement about a proposal for the provincial government to provide school breakfasts: “If children are going to school hungry, then parents aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities.”
Canadian organizations, politicians, and corporations use IWD to their public relations and marketing advantage by tokenizing women, and trotting them out for commercial appearances to boost their brand. They take their pics in pink, post them to Instagram and their websites, and wrap it in a costume of earned media. With all their talk of diversity and inclusion, their failures are palpable. According to a press release put out by Mercer Canada, “While 70 per cent of Canadian organizations say that pay equity is part of their organization’s compensation philosophy, they are not doing enough to make it a reality. Only 34 per cent of Canadian organizations go beyond the minimum legal requirements and apply robust statistical analysis—such as multiple regression—to determine their pay equity gaps, 21 percentage points below employers in the rest of the world.”
It’s all performative. It’s all fake.
If it weren’t, we would see policies, practices, and enforcement of those policies in a meaningful way. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t see the proliferation of “manels” (male-only panels), the window-dressing of women in positions of power, women who still make less than men for similar jobs (thereby creating a structural income inequality based on gender), and a woman or girl wouldn’t die every three days from femicide. And we’re still talking mostly about white women.
International Women’s Day has its roots in 1909 in New York City, when the Socialist Party of America organized National Woman’s Day after a year of labour protests by garment workers facing crude and deplorable working conditions. It was led by Clara Zetkin, a socialist (and later communist), who was a well-known women’s labour rights activist, an anti-fascism activist, and a proponent of universal suffrage—in other words, she was a feminist, making IWD a day of feminist activism.
Fast-forward to IWD 2020 and frankly, it’s a disgrace.
The corporatization of feminism is intertwined with the corporatization of IWD. The feminism we’ve been sold on IWD is one where the elevation of certain women (read: white, upper class, educated, professional) is highlighted to the detriment of actual activism that changes laws, attitudes, and representation. Instead of alleviating inequalities, corporate feminism reinforces them by reproducing the same economic and social inequalities within feminism. Barriers to gender equity are ignored while white women of means are extolled as virtues to the gender. Who counts in the umbrella of womanhood is heavily policed by these women, especially with how other women (read: poor women, LGBTQ2+, racialized women, and womxn) operate within the confines of the explicit permission of whiteness. This is what is known as white feminism. It is the handmaiden to patriarchy, the sidepiece of neoliberalism.
Even Clara Zetkin knew this when she wrote, “Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women are two fundamentally different social movements.” (This quote is worthy of an inordinate number of clap emojis.) In other words, bourgeois feminism, or white feminism, is a struggle for upper class women to equate their power to their male class counterparts and is not the same struggle for working women, who instead work with their male counterparts to transcend capitalism. Bet you can’t put that on a US$860 Dior T-shirt or post this quote to your “Lean-In” Facebook group.
Rights come from rebellion, not from pacification—you have to fight for them because they’re not bestowed upon the well-heeled from the benevolence and good manners of power. If we really want to push feminist policies, alleviate intersectional barriers, and achieve equity, then we’ll have to get our hands dirty, challenge power, and revolt. And given the way everyone is stocking up on hand sanitizer and soap, coronavirus style, we’ll have plenty to clean them off with when we’re done.
Erica Ifill is a co-host of the Bad+Bitchy podcast.