More Reflections on #IWD2016

Dr Rebecca Richards
Lecturer in International Relations – SPIRE

I never really considered myself a feminist. Yes, I recognise the global need for the advancement, promotion, protection, and equality of women. I work in the field of development, so I am confronted with the statistics about the role and status of women outside of our Western European bubble on an almost daily basis. I recognise that in our societies we are lucky in that we do not face the same obstacles, and the same violence, that other women in the world experience. I recognise that we are fortunate in that our governments and our societies offer protections for women that are not found in many other parts of the world. I recognise that we have opportunities of education and employment that many women elsewhere can only dream about. I recognise that in our societies, it is possible for a girl to grow up being able to view herself as equal to the boys she goes to school with. I know I did.

I recognise that we are lucky, which I also recognise is a horrible thing to say on many levels. I also recognise that we are in this position because of the hard battles that generations of women before us fought. I am in awe of my mother’s generation. I cannot even begin to fathom the struggles my grandmother faced; my 4’8″ grandmother who, in the 1940s and 50s, not only raised four children and provided for her husband, but also started her own successful business and rose to the top of her profession. I cannot begin to thank these women – some known to me personally and thousands of others only pictures or stories – for what they fought against so that I can exist in my daily life without constantly feeling ‘different’ simply because of my gender.

A few years ago I was teaching feminist theory to a group of 2nd year undergraduate students at another university. There I was, in front of a very boisterous group of students, telling them I did not consider myself to be a feminist. One student asked me why, and as I struggled for words I realised that I had never really articulated my feelings on this before. I told the group that I believed that maintaining the divide between the genders only perpetuates that divide. I believed that separating women and giving them a special place only continued to identify and define the difference between the genders. I told my students that holding onto the label ‘feminist’ made it more difficult to achieve equality.

I was trying to articulate what my dear friend Stacey Kim-Jackson put much more eloquently than me when she stated, “This may sound odd, but I hope that someday women’s rights are no longer a big issue. Because that would mean that our society has reached a point where women are no longer taken for granted or treated as objects.”

And how did my students respond? Amongst some angry faces, one student spoke up and simply said, “So, you’re an ultra-feminist then, right?”

I know I am not the only person that feels slightly uncomfortable with maintaining the gender divide through the use of language. But just as students learn from their lecturers, their lecturers also learn from students. After that exchange a few years ago, I began to truly reflect on my position as a new found ‘ultra-feminist’. Although I would actually prefer a label such as ‘genderist’, I am also becoming increasingly comfortable with ‘feminist’. Yes, I am a feminist. I am a feminist because even though I, as an individual born in the US and educated in the UK, do not feel the acuteness of the gender divide, I know women are still viewed as objects. I am a feminist because I recognise the dire need for the protection and advancement of women worldwide so that they can someday feel the same privilege that I do. I am a feminist because I know the fight is a long way from being over. I am a feminist because I recognise that inequality or discrimination – towards men as well as women – has no place in society. I am a feminist because I am equal to the men around me. I am a feminist because I know that, even in our tolerant and protective societies, I am not always seen as equal by those around me. I am a feminist because we are not yet at the point where women’s rights are no longer a big issue.

I was having a back-and-forth with a colleague a few weeks ago about a study that found gender inequality in student evaluations in universities in the US (the original article can be found here). We wondered if the same was true in UK universities, and we asked what we needed to do to combat it or to even make students aware of it. It’s an interesting, yet disturbing, consequence of unrecognised bias that informs how we interact, and perhaps learn from, those around us. Reflecting on this, I can recognise gender bias in my own thoughts and my own work. After this exchange I discovered a grassrooots movement from female academics in Political Science to draw attention to the significant lack of representation of women in the production of knowledge. In the field of Political Science – a field traditionally dominated by men – the research of women is disproportionately referenced or included in reading lists when compared with how many women work and publish in the field. Women are also significantly under-represented in the use of expert knowledge within the media and consultancy. This grassroots movement, Women Also Know Stuff, is currently compiling a database of female scholars in the wide range of expertise found within the Political Science discipline. I would encourage all female scholars to add their name to to the list.

Yes, this can be viewed as a somewhat trivial point when compared with direct and indirect violence aimed at women in other parts of the world. My intention here is not to trivialise those experiences. Rather, it is to highlight that even in societies where people like me hold the position that we should not perpetuate the gender divide by labeling it, the gender divide does continue to exist. And as long as that divide exists, and as long as women are consciously or unconsciously discriminated against, there is a need to continue to raise awareness. It is important for women, but it is also important for men, especially those who occupy typically female dominated professions such as childcare, nursing, and even parenting.

And as long as that divide exists, it is important to celebrate women and to hold up their accomplishments and their contributions. It is important to say Women Also Know Stuff, and women are important too. It is important to say women ARE equal, even if many do not see them as such. Even if this celebration is only taking a day to recognise and thank the women in your life, it is a celebration worth maintaining. We are not yet at the point where that celebration is luxury rather than a necessity.

International Women’s Day is a day to mark and to commemorate. For some, it could be a day to feel fortunate. It will not be the same for me as it is for my friend in Somalia. But for all, it is a day to raise awareness, to learn, and to reflect. It is a day for those of us with the ability to do so to say “I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard.” (Yousafzai 2013)  It is a day to continue the fight that generations before us started.

For this new-found ‘ultra-feminist’,  International Women’s Day will continue to be an important date on the calendar. At least, that is, until it is no longer needed.

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