International Women’s Day started brilliantly for me, just after midnight, with a seaside rendezvous of intercontinental friendship.
Two of my best friends, research partners, and professional allies were meeting up for the first time over in Australia and – along with one of their daughters – they Facetimed me from their beach café. It was daytime, light, windy, early autumn. They were drinking coffee and eating ice cream. On my, other side, of the world, it was too dark and dreich to remember the day’s earlier spring-time sunset. I was drinking night-time tea, already in pyjamas. I couldn’t really hear all they were saying, but the discussion covered emus and ostriches, travel plans and mutual acquaintances, and seeing them was an amazing feat of technology and an emotional gift.
The next day (or at least one night’s sleep later) it was the dawn of International Women’s Day in Scotland. I set about my work, slightly lacklustredly, checking social media a little too frequently. I saw an outpouring of shareable images and narratives of women current and historical, real and mythical. Untold stories, retold stories, hidden stories bustling to whisper, shout and sing their piece. People celebrating and congratulating, passing around statistics and pressing for action. I thought about my friends and my female colleagues, the way we lift each other up, support each other, console each other.
I saw brands aligning themselves with messages of equality. Good, I thought. The more capitalism can get on the side of feminism, the better, I thought. Despite the socialist origins of the day.
I started to wonder a little bit more about the slick images, the diverging nature of the messages. A little tension entered into the proliferating hashtags, as social media accounts vied for position. Will we soon all be sending each other International Women’s Day cards? There are already many designs in Etsy, one colleague told me, though Hallmark is yet to go into mass production.
Then, my email inbox reminded me of a controversy in my academic field, publishing studies. Last year had been proposed as a ‘Year of Publishing Women’ (a call only taken up in the UK by one publisher, And Other Stories). Yet a 2018 conference in my subject had male keynote after keynote, and a plenary manel. The email was asking for help in putting together a diversity and inclusion policy. Don’t be dicks, I thought to myself. Don’t invite so many dicks. And no, I don’t really want to help out.
I thought about it, then messaged a Whatsapp group to say as much. (Not in quite so many words.)
Then I saw a friend and colleague tweeting:
Institutions! This #InternationalWomensDay why not replace your annual ‘Look, we found a lady’ media puff piece with a commitment to deep-rooted, radical change?
— Helen Smith (@conversiontales) March 8, 2019
YES, I replied. I jumped over to my employer’s Twitter feed. Pictures of female colleagues, exactly what @conversiontales had critiqued. Holding their arms up, semi-aloft…
#BalanceforBetter, read the hashtag. There seemed to be an air of self-consciousness about the photos: why are we being asked to do this? Female bodies, turned into scales, physically embodying a symbol. The iconography is non-threatening. Not really a power position, a fist, a salute. Not Rosie the Riveter, flexing her muscle…
One of the friends from the intercontinental Facetime pointed out these images looked like shrugging emojis, and that the #balanceforbetter hashtag was a corporate invention. Another academic, she said, had said that the UN’s theme, built on its sustainable development goals, was different, ‘Think equal, build smart, innovate for change’. A thematic battle for the heart of International Women’s Day?
I pondered further on the imagery of the balance. Is equality, then, a balancing out? Can we all be lifted up? Or do some, with privilege, have to accede power, or have it seized from them? Is it a weigh-in, a scale? At Weight Watchers (and all that policing of women’s bodies)? Before the prize fight (and all that construction of masculinity)? In the kitchen, helping out to bake some commemorative cupcakes? What does ‘balance’ even mean, in this context? Is gender equality a see saw? At some point, will someone or another suffer a nasty bump? Because women have been bumped, nastily, since time immemorial.
I thought back to the images of my colleagues, other women on the hashtag, their arms in the balance shape, smiling to the camera. There’s something a little calm, acquiescent, about this version of gender equality. There’s no challenge, no sense of radicalism or revolution. Yet there is little that is actually balanced about the current state of gender politics, or racial politics, or class politics. In my local context, a one newspaper reports that ‘It will take Scottish universities more than 20 years to break the glass ceiling which is holding back female academics.’ There is also, academic colleagues have shown, ‘bias against research on gender bias.’ There’s still real discrimination, prejudice, and inequality in our workplaces, homes, national and international politics – and those in positions of privilege benefit from it.
Last week, I’d caught up on a BBC documentary on Angela Carter, who I read avidly as a young woman. I remembered back to my reading of her rich, wild texts, their stories of weird sexuality, their interrogation of gender norms, their refusal to do the expected, to conform. I thought (plot spoiler) of the scene from ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the mother gallops across the causeway to attempt a rescue of her daughter and her blind lover. ‘On my seeming acquiescence depended my salvation,’ thinks the daughter, trapped in the castle with her murderous new husband. But in the most deliciously dramatic scene, comes the mother, a legendary shooter of man-eating tigers:
You never saw such a wild thing as my mother, her hat seized by the winds and blown out to sea so that her hair was her white mane, her black lisle legs exposed to the thigh, her skirts tucked round her waist, one hand on the reins of the rearing horse while the other clasped my father’s service revolver and, behind her, the breakers of the savage, indifferent sea, like the witnesses of a furious justice.
She puts a ‘single, irreproachable bullet’ through Bluebeard’s head.
What version of gender justice, I wonder, do we want? I think I still want mine to be a little wilder, a little more furious. I think we still need it to be a little more furious.