International Women’s Day: Are We Inspiring Change or Perpetuating Status Quo?

Michelle Lee ’16

Assistant Opinions Editor

On Saturday, March 8, the world gathered round to celebrate 2014’s International Women’s Day. This United Nations-affiliated title has been part of modern history since 1911, and has since tackled various themes each year, this year’s being “Inspiring Change.”

Of course, that motto seems a little recycled (albeit well-intentioned) here in Northampton. Some of my friends and I ended up joking about it; “Isn’t it always International Women’s Day at Smith?” Not to make too many sweeping generalizations – we all know there are subtle and not-so-subtle issues of race and sexuality on campus. But how many colleges can you say promote general woman empowerment more than, or even as much as, Smith College does?

Almost a year ago, I was on my way to a driving institute to obtain my Korean driver’s license, very similar to how we would go to the DMV in America. My mother excitedly pointed out a cute pink sign in the parking lot, reading, “Female-Friendly Parking” in Korean. The lot was much wider than other regular lots and seemed to perpetuate the notion that women can’t drive in Korea – amongst many other things. I pointed this out to my mother, who was educated in California, obtained a college degree at UC Santa Cruz and even faced conflict with her in-laws for being too “American”, figuring she’d at least arbitrarily agree and move on.

Except this time she said, “Well it’s nice for women like me who can’t drive!” She then rambled on about how sometimes there are differences between genders – like how women are better at sewing and cooking and men are better at driving and math. Baffled, I protested that she was generalizing very traditional ideas about men and women, to which she responded she was only stating the truth. Thankfully, not all people think like my mother.

However, the stereotypical nuances of gender differences still seem to remain embedded in many people’s minds. Establishing the kind of empowering environment Smith harnesses for the general population is tricky business. After all, there are certain structural issues to creating a “theme” around minority groups. The concept of an International Women’s Day was conceived at the turn of the 20th century, before middle-class women entered the labour industry en masse, before women could even vote, before World War I. Looking back, 1911 seems like an eon ago, not a century – frankly, I have difficulty thinking of an age before my iPhone.

So maybe the concept of IWD should be left in eons past – after all the creation of an entire day for women might backfire on us. Is that supposed to mean, unlike our jokes at Smith to the contrary, that every other day isn’t a woman’s day? Certainly there are still wage gaps and a thinning, but existing, glass ceiling for women in the workforce. And the fact that we are only now electing the first female leaders of financial institutions like Janet Yellen of the Federal Reserve is actually quite surprising. Do we need to single out gender when lauding women for their accomplishments – “the first woman XYZ”? Understandably it’s a great accomplishment to have overcome both vocational and gender-based obstacles to come out on top, but by emphasizing “first woman” we may be portraying a natural inferiority to the public.

But current media covering powerful female figures, such as Janet Yellen, seems to plant seeds of doubt in gender equality for the rest of the population. If you’re not the exceptional minority, then all you have to cherish is the UN naming a day after your sex and receiving roughly 80 percent of the salary of your male counterpart while being evaluated as “bossy” and “emotional.” Consequently, by publicizing promoted women for their gender, we end up devaluing the accomplishments of the women themselves and subvert the very aims of events like International Women’s Day.

And it’s not something we directly control – it’s not as if the first thing we say when we greet people is, “Hello, my name is Michelle, and I am a woman.” But we’ve gone beyond the days where we beat fundamental statements over the public’s heads, because sexism seems to have snuck behind the walls of private conversation. I would hope that someday we can choose to or not to associate ourselves with our gender, and we can joke about the antiquated nature of a “Woman’s Day” in daily life.

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