IWD 2019: Balance for Better, or Justice for All?

Santilla Chingaipe will not be joining your catered ladies lunch in the boardroom this International Women’s Day.

Overlaid 'shruggie' emoticon on the 2019 International Women's Day campaign image, which depicts a woman holding her palms up to form a 'w' shape with her body

¯_(ツ)_/¯ — Image: adapted from the #BalanceForBetter campaign photograph by Avel Shah / EyeEm

I am tired of the dominance of corporatised, mainstream white feminism. This International Women’s Day (IWD), I find myself confused about what I’m meant to be advocating or celebrating.

Sadly, ‘structural barriers entrench gender inequality’’ isn’t as easy to splash across a t-shirt as ‘girl power’.

The vague 2019 slogan provided by the official IWD website, #BalanceforBetter, doesn’t provide much guidance. And the obsessive focus, every IWD, on the underrepresentation of women on boards and in parliament makes me switch off the evening news. I’ve spent many years interviewing and reporting on women – often from underrepresented and marginalised groups – and I find their stories and struggles are usually missing from IWD conversations, when their voices should be loudest of all. 

Corporate mainstream white feminism – sometimes referred to as ‘white feminism’ – serves to celebrate ‘feminist icons’ who, instead of spotlighting the barriers to gender equality, spew forth vague slogans about ‘empowering women’. Rallying cries such as ‘women should support women’, or ‘let’s shatter glass ceilings’ don’t offer much in the way of tangible solutions. But in the age of social media, we lap up superficial catchphrases. ‘Solidarity’ is shown by demonstrating how woke one is as a feminist, by throwing around words like ‘intersectionality’ and ‘misogyny’; by ‘smashing the patriarchy’ then calling it a day. 

The glaring hypocrisy at the heart of popular feminism is underpinned by capitalism. Instead of working to liberate women, popular feminism reinforces inequality.

There is an African proverb: ‘Beware the naked man who offers you his shirt’. Does the equitable future include a $700-dollar Dior ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ t-shirt? 

Is this the feminism our foremothers envisioned for us? Historically, feminist resistance has often been linked with protests against other forms of inequality. 

On March 8, 1917, Russian women took to the streets at a time when social and political unrest was rife due to economic and social inequality. The women – mainly textile workers – demanded ‘bread and peace’, prompting mass strikes and food riots. Days later, the Tsar abdicated and women gained the right to vote.

In the eyes of many historians, that day ignited the Russian Revolution. 

In 1929, women in Nigeria took to the streets. The ‘Aba Women’s Riots’, as they were later called, protested the policies of British colonial administrators, including the imposition of taxes on market women. Angered by their social standing under colonial rule, the Igbo women sent palm leaves to their sisters across the country’s south-east. 

Women joined the protests in their thousands, blocking train tracks, destroying colonial property and ‘sitting’ on unelected local chiefs – a traditional practice of public shaming, that involved turning up en masse at a man’s home or workplace and singing, dancing, banging on walls and even damaging property. Although the backlash against the protests turn deadly, the ‘Aba’s Women’s Riots’ eventually forced the market tax impositions on women to be dropped and the chiefs to resign.


Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women are two fundamentally different social movements.’

– Clara Zetkin

The German feminist and Marxist theorist Clara Zetkin was among the founders of International Women’s Day. But in 1894, prior to the first IWD, she wrote: 

‘Bourgeois feminism and the movement of proletarian women are two fundamentally different social movements.’

Zetkin argued that bourgeois feminists pressed for reforms within capitalism through a struggle against men of their own class, whereas working women sought – in a joint fight with the men of their class – to transcend capitalism.

These ideas are more than 100 years old, but not much has changed since. Substitute ‘bourgeois feminism’ with ‘popular feminism’, ‘white feminism’ or ‘lifestyle feminism’ and it still rings true. To truly understand the gender inequality gap, you must understand the role class plays in it. And to understand class, we must understand the neoliberal policies that underpin these modern day iterations of ‘bourgeois feminism’.

Neoliberalism is the ideology that, as political commentator George Monbiot put it in the Guardian:

… sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. ... Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

Simply put, feminism has been hijacked to fit the requirements of neoliberal economics. Neoliberalism argues that the individual is responsible for their own success without much interrogation of the circumstances that enable or hinder individual success in the first place; without much thought for the headstart some people enjoy at the expense of others.

Wealthy women seem most likely to imagine that achieving gender equality is a matter of personal psychology; a matter of believing in yourself, psyching yourself up for personal success. They – the Hillary Clintons, Lena Dunhams, Taylor Swifts, Sheryl Sandbergs, and Ivanka Trumps of the world – only get richer by selling this message. 

It’s as simple as just leaning in, ladies. 

Overlaid 'shruggie' emoticon on an 2019 International Women's Day campaign image, which depicts a woman holding her palms up to form a 'w' shape with her body

'Simply put, feminism has been hijacked to fit the requirements of neoliberal economics' — Image: adapted from a #BalanceForBetter campaign photograph by Jorge Oviedo / EyeEm

Well, not quite. It’s a lot more complicated when you add the additional discrimination women face because of race, religion, sexuality or disability. Sadly, ‘structural barriers entrench gender inequality’ isn’t as easy to splash across a t-shirt as ‘girl power’.

Take, for example, a popular topic of discussion within mainstream feminist discussion – the gender pay gap. We all know that across the board, women earn less than men. Put that aside for a minute and consider this: There are women in Australia who struggle to find ongoing employment in the first place. Why? Well, if you come from an Indigenous, migrant or refugee background, discrimination is a big factor. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, migrant women are at least 7 % less likely to be employed than women born in Australia. A report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that there was a low participation of First Nations people in the workforce (58%), with Indigenous men more likely than women to be participate in the labour force (65% compared with 52%). If they do have employment, migrant and Indigenous women are more likely to work in low-paying and low-status occupations or under precarious conditions. 

Women from migrant and refugee backgrounds face other employment barriers, including lower English language proficiency, or holding overseas qualifications that are not recognised in Australia. They might have to apply for insecure forms of work because of their migration status.

Can these women break free by simply ‘leaning in’? Popular feminism creates a falsehood that all women have to do is change their behaviour to get the outcome they desire, when the reality is that structural barriers inhibit women from doing so. 


Popular feminism can be a marketing tool in neoliberalism too, and it’s important to consider that glossy marketing messages can mask policies and practices that entrench gender inequality on a global or local scale.

Overlaid 'shruggie' emoticon on an 2019 International Women's Day campaign image, which depicts a woman holding her palms up to form a 'w' shape with her body

'Popular feminism creates a falsehood that all women have to do is change their behaviour to get the outcome they desire' — Image: adapted from a #BalanceForBetter campaign photograph by Jorge Oviedo / EyeEm

Take, for example, Dove, which is famous for its ad campaigns including women from diverse backgrounds, with diverse body shapes, and its message of ‘empowerment’.

Dove is owned by a parent company, Unilever, which – along with several other global consumer companies – has been accused by Amnesty International of sourcing palm oil from exploitative Indonesian plantations.

Amnesty says women are being forced to work long hours under threat of having their pay cut – well below the minimum wage and earning as little as US$2.50 a day – while being kept in insecure employment without pensions or health insurance. 

Understanding supply chains is one way of actively working to see an end to gender inequality around the world. 

For me, feminism isn’t about individual success. Rather, like the early protests in which women went to the streets seeking change, it’s about demanding justice for all. Not just those who can afford it. Mine is a feminism that doesn’t put the onus on women to solve the problems of their own inequality. Mine is a feminism that seeks to interrogate and challenge structures that allow a few women equal opportunities while many stay condemned to a life of inequality. Mine is a feminism that prioritises and amplifies the voices of other women. 

Portrait of Santilla Chingaipe

‘Celebrities and corporations spew forth “smash the patriarchy” and benefit financially from that. You want to talk about boards? I want to talk about how some women can’t get a job.’

Santilla Chingaipe is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. Chingaipe created and hosted the Africa Talks series in partnership with the Wheeler Centre, which explored perceptions about African-Australian identity, representation and politics. She also curated Australia’s first all-day, anti-racism festival, Not Racist, But.... Her work explores contemporary migration, cultural identities and politics. She reports regularly for the Saturday Paper and is a member of the federal government’s advisory group on Australia-Africa relations.

Discussion

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