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I feel disillusioned by International Women’s Day – it needs reclaiming

IWD in Britain has been coopted by brands and corporate structures. We must reclaim it.

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It’s March 8th, 1917. In Petrograd, Russia, thousands of women flood the streets in protest. Over 2 million men have died, unprepared for Russia’s entry into the First World War, food is beginning to run out and the women go on strike from their jobs in the textiles factories. Rioting and looting break out amid chants of “Bread!” and “Down with the Tsar!”.

Just seven days later Russia is a republic, and women have won the right to vote.

International Women’s Day has been celebrated on this day in Russia ever since.

I recently reached out to some school friends, curious to know how they would be marking International Women’s Day this year. Little did I know I would be sparking a much larger conversation on whether it is a day that still holds any meaning for us in the UK. 2023’s IWD looks very different to that orchestrated in revolutionary Russia. Rather than taking to the streets for peace and bread, women are likely gathering in corporate meeting rooms for pleasantries and breakfast.

When did a day with so much power become so diluted?

Over the last century, women marched on March 8th for causes that, today, many of us take for granted. The right to vote, right to hold public office, protection against employment discrimination, among many other 20th century developments, are all afforded to women in Britain in 2023. These days, we are more likely to take to Instagram than the streets, sharing content produced by our favourite brands and influencers.

For many, there seems to be a sense that IWD is nothing more than a hashtag on an Instagram story.

This attitude was reflected in the conversation I had with my friends. One said she cared about IWD but didn’t feel it was “for her”. They all agreed that it is a day with the right intentions but isn’t doing what it should be. Another made her feelings clear, saying that for her it’s just a “money making publicity scheme”.

‘Rather than taking to the streets, women are likely gathering in corporate meeting rooms for pleasantries and breakfast’

Brands and corporations have adopted IWD with vigour; there are breakfasts and conferences, the brand colours turn pink for the day, and LinkedIn is flooded with supportive hashtags. And yet the nation’s average pay gap widened by 2.4% in 2021.

I think this is this reason why my friends are so disillusioned with IWD in Britain; companies claim to care about the women in their workforce, but not quite enough to pay them the same as the men. Today I discovered a new twitter account, @PayGapApp, which tracks the gender pay gap in different organisations. At this time of year, when the pink banners and hashtags are brought out, the tweets make me that little bit angrier.

Should we stop caring about IWD altogether?

I think it can be easy to get wrapped up in the fact that, while not perfect, it feels like we’re getting there with gender equality in Britain. Of course, there is still much to be tackled; gender pay gap, domestic violence, sexual harassment, among other things.

Across the world there is a different story. In many places, women’s rights are more limited than even the suffragettes faced in the early 20th century. Celebrating International Women’s Day is a dangerous choice for so many women; in 2011, women were harassed by groups of men after they’d gathered in Tahrir Square in Egypt to mark the day. Hundreds of women were beaten by Tehrani police in 2007 for planning to rally; for some it took a 15-day hunger strike to be released from prison.

In the countries where women want to protest, they are not able to. In Britain, the very conditions that make it possible to protest leave many feeling confident they don’t need to.

Despite the clue in the name ‘International Women’s Day’, it can be easy to forget that this day is dedicated to women all over the world. For many, including me and my friends, the way that brands have tainted this day has made it difficult for us to connect with it. The easy choice is to just say it no longer feels like it represents us and disengage with the day altogether.

But let’s be real: that isn’t going to help the millions of women for whom IWD is an important day of recognition.

So, what can we do?

There are plenty of ways to use this day for the purpose it was intended, without buying into corporate hashtags and pink Instagram stories. Perhaps we won’t be overthrowing tsarist regimes any time soon, but we can still show our support for women across the world whose voices are still not heard. Even the smallest displays of solidarity will shift the conversation back to the heart of the issue.

We have a duty to reclaim International Women’s Day from those who continue to make us disenfranchised. Progress can still happen for those who need it most, but they won’t be able to do it without those of us who already have it.

There are hundreds of women’s charities doing important work both in the UK and abroad who can be supported with volunteer time, monetary donations, or even signing up to newsletters to keep yourself informed. Here are a few:

We can also make more conscious choices about where we buy our clothes, what books we read, and what media we consume. Spending International Women’s Day 2023 researching female-led businesses and female authors has got to be more productive than sitting back and watching it go by.

For inspiration, some of our team’s favourite female authors include:

  • Bernadine Evaristo
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Monica Ali
  • Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie
  • Michelle Obama
  • Bell Hooks

And some great female-led brands you can support:

  • Luminary Bakery – the social enterprise using baking to create a better future for women.
  • Prick LDN – founder Gynelle Leon’s answer to plant lover’s wishes.
  • Book Bar – every bibliophile’s dream spot, opened in Highbury by founder Chrissy Ryan.
  • Alkemi – homeware and lifestyle goods from Korean-born Londoner Jeane Chung.
  • Folka – authentic, handmade, Polish folk art, made in founder Karolina’s Stoke Newington studio.

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