No one is more cynical than I am about the hardships of life as a woman. I understand how tempting it is to look at the oppression, exclusion, discrimination, and subjugation that still characterise women’s lives today and draw pessimistic conclusions about feminism’s potential for success. But enduring difficulties cannot negate the hurdles that feminism has overcome. To deny our achievements is to encourage the belief that our efforts are futile, that equality — or greater equality — is impossible, and that we should just pack it in now and stop trying. Yet feminism strives to change an established system as old as mankind. (Humankind? You see my point.) Feminist movements have been on the go for only a fraction of time relative to the patriarchal systems from which they are trying to liberate us all. Of course it is noble to hope that relatively recent movements could already have overhauled millenia of systemic oppression. But perhaps it is also overambitious.
On March 8 each year, we celebrate women, all that we have achieved, and all that we have the potential to achieve in spite of a system that does not support us
On March 8 each year, we celebrate women, all that we have achieved, and all that we have the potential to achieve in spite of a system that does not support us. In doing so we call for a world that might support women more. International Women’s Day 2023 both celebrates and demands gender equity — not gender equality, because equality of opportunity is not enough. To suggest that equal opportunities lead to equal outcomes is ignorant; a lesbian woman needs different resources to a trans woman to a straight white woman to a Malian woman to an Irish woman to an American woman of colour. Each of these women start at different points on the million mile road towards equality. Some of them began their lives three quarters of the way up the road, have always been able to see its end and, with some meaningful change, might be able to get within touching distance of the equality that rests on the horizon. Other women were born so far behind that access to the same resources would not even allow them to glimpse such hopes. Today, in calling for equity rather than equality, we acknowledge the diverging opportunities and resources that are required by different individuals if each person is to have any chance of achieving equivalent outcomes.
I am now learning that I do not need to treat myself as the world tells me I should be treated, and that me and my body are worth more than patriarchal systems of power want me to believe
Last summer, I found myself in the “land of the free” when Roe vs Wade — which made access to abortion a federal right in the USA — was overturned. Anger and disbelief characterised that first weekend of my J1 in a country ostentatiously demonstrating a blatant disregard for the rights of women and our bodily self-determination. This ruling clearly exhibited that where power lies matters. But as I stood in New York city side by side with others in protest, it was undeniably palpable that ideas matter too, and that no matter what changes are enacted in legislation, ideas cannot be taken back. The supreme court might decide that self-determination over one’s body is no longer legally enshrined, but they cannot convince the millions of women living in the United States today that they are justified in rescinding such a right. In the past I have been angry at my inability to fix things, and at the injustice of the injustice of it all. At times this anger paralysed me, preventing me from allowing myself to feel the pain of injustice, or to engage in any attempt to try and fight it. When I struggled to comprehend the cruel realities of our world, I took that confusion and anger out upon myself. I am refusing to do this anymore. As women, we are constantly being reminded that this world is not ours. I am now learning that I do not need to treat myself as the world tells me I should be treated, and that me and my body are worth more than patriarchal systems of power want me to believe. It is not only important but essential that we are vocally angry, for these oppressive systems are dependent upon our silence. These are the systems and power structures which force victims of sexual assault to sign non-disclosure agreements, reinstating the power of already powerful men by legally enforcing the victim’s silence in the same document in which the guilt of the perpetrator is acknowledged. But our voices are perhaps more powerful now than they have ever been in history, and we can refuse to swallow our words in the self-hatred they encourage. As anarchist David Graeber highlights, the idea of what constitutes a revolution today has drastically changed. A modern revolution is less likely to entail a storming of government buildings (how well did that really work for the Trumpies?), and more likely to involve an expressive movement of people no longer willing to be silenced (I reckon Trump and his followers could have learned a thing or two from the women behind MeToo). If we stay quiet, they succeed in rendering us powerless. But we are only powerless as long as we think that we are.
I will be the first to stand up and say that greater gender parity at home is not good enough unless that equality is achieved further afield. I can only celebrate the increase in gender equality in Ireland so much while female genital mutilation (FGM) is still practised in regions of Africa, while Iranian women remain confined to the home and are shot dead for any act of seeming disobedience, while rape remains largely uncondemned in the vast majority of cases (this last one is systemic and worldwide — no scope for a western superiority complex here). It is an insult to the feminist movement to definitively claim any extreme: that feminism has achieved all that it can and must, or that our efforts are futile and hopes impossible to realise. I have always personally railed against nuance. I want coherent explanations, rational answers, and to see my conception of justice mirrored in the world around me. But womanhood (and the world at large) is characterised by grey areas. To endure as a feminist, I have had to learn to accept the nuances of gentle improvements and overarching progress.
We have come so far, but we still have so far to go. It is utterly essential that we accept both of these things as being true at once
On International Women’s Day, it is easy to celebrate fellow women and stand together as sisters. But we must learn to do this everyday, to count each other’s success as success of our own, rather than as a threat to our personal potential. For every time a woman excels or finds peace in a world that constantly encourages her not to, she forges a path that her sisters can follow her down. She makes something possible that we previously believed was impossible. However, like racism, misogyny cannot be overcome if only its victims rail against it — the people in positions of power must be invested if the full potential for progress is to be realised. We have come so far, but we still have so far to go. It is utterly essential that we accept both of these things as being true at once. This world has never been ours, but that has never before stopped women from carving out a place for ourselves in it. We must acknowledge that our efforts have been successful in instigating change. In the same breath, we must keep striving tirelessly for more.