Photo by UN Women
Artillery Row

The emptiness of International Women’s Day

Against glass-ceiling feminism

Last month, I came across a video on Twitter. A minute long, it showed footage of a nine-year-old girl in Afghanistan being dragged away from her mother by the fifty-eight-year-old man she was being forced to marry. “Don’t you dare look away,” read one of the comments. I obeyed. The screams of both mother and daughter as they were pulled apart are still bothering me at night. 

They are echoing in my mind today on International Women’s Day, an annual celebration of the accomplishments of women in all corners of the globe and reflection on the oppression that remains. As a concept, it’s rather ambitious in scope and often ends up a bit of mess tonally, with female leaders in politics and business paying lip service to the plight of abuse victims whilst simultaneously owning what #girlbosses they are. In the last few years, haunted by the spectre of gender identity, it’s become even more broad and icky in its focus.

The theme for 2023 is #embraceequity, i.e. fairness, inclusivity. If you go to the official website, you are greeted by a series of photographs of people of all races and genders hugging themselves. “All IWD activity is valid, that’s what makes IWD inclusive.” So you say. In the one hundred or so articles you can read under their list of “Missions” for this year, there are countless centred on empowerment, the workplace and technological innovation, a single one on a campaign to end slavery and absolutely nothing targeting violence against women. In a campaign so rabidly obsessed with inclusion, quite a pertinent issue has been excluded.

This is not the language of activism; it is the language of utopia-think

“Imagine a gender equal world,” reads the homepage. “A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that’s diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women’s equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.”

This is not the language of activism; it is the language of utopia-think, as betrayed by the very first word: “Imagine”. There is a time and a place to dress for the job you want, not the job you have — or, in this case, design a campaign for the reality you wish existed as opposed to facing the grim realities that affect the most vulnerable. “Everyone, everywhere can play a part”, or so the website claims. I can think of a nine-year-old child bride who can’t.

Lifelong women’s rights campaigner Julie Bindel coined a marvellous phrase: “glass-ceiling feminism”. Put simply, it is the feminist equivalent of trickle-down economics. It is the belief that equity for women at the top — the CEOs, the political leaders, the Professor Dames et al — will ultimately lead to justice for women “in the basement” as Bindel would put it: those trapped and brutalised and enslaved. The idea that power begets empowerment arguably works for young, ambitious graduate women keen to climb a male-dominated career ladder. For an Afghani girl sold into a lifetime of unimaginable abuse though, her fundamental need is safety. Whilst I would never equate the oppression faced by women and girls under Taliban rule and whatever sex-based oppression exists in Britain, the reality is that for any women who has been trapped due to male violence or sexual abuse, glass-ceiling feminism has no relevance. Since buddying up with an unexpected bedfellow — “intersectional” feminism — it has become downright detrimental to them.

I won’t go into the ideological intricacies of intersectional feminism (otherwise known as “liberal feminism”), but one of its key values is that feminism is for everyone. It has designed itself as such, notably by disassociating womanhood from femaleness. The two things can overlap if you are a “cis” woman, but to dare claim they are synonymous is to be a “bio-essentialist”, “gender-Karen” or plain old TERF. 

Intersectional feminism is not woman-centric, and neither is its leadership: Sadiq Khan, Owen Jones and Juno Dawson are the faces of it as much as Emma Watson or Nicola Sturgeon. That said, you can see the allure of it to young, aspirational women who fear the glass ceiling. If the possibility of pregnancy is what causes the barrier, removing all relevance of female biology from being a woman is theoretically beneficial. On top of that, the language of intersectional feminism — kindness, inclusivity, awareness of white privilege and cis privilege, pro-LGBTQ+, anti-racism and so forth — speaks to a sense of idealism in the young. It also speaks to a sense of liberal guilt to those privileged enough to be in the boardroom above the metaphorical ceiling. 

The product stinks, but the branding is very good

Unfortunately, glass can catch the light in a way that dazzles. Having been weaned on intersectional/glass-ceiling feminism myself at university, as a young, cripplingly insecure bookish girl reeling from a childhood mired in domestic violence, the pseudo-logic spoke to me. Unwavering support for the liberation of all — whatever their concerns or version of reality — will equate to liberation for women by default. For me. It is insidious individualism brilliantly marketed as inclusion. The product stinks, but the branding is very good, from its alluring slogans to the complimentary rainbow lanyards. 

International Women’s Day has evidently bought it. Let’s face it, the feminism for which Julie Bindel and many members of the gender critical movement fight — what Bindel herself would call “real” feminism — is a bloody hard sell. Whilst there’s no denying many sexist stereotypes have been socially constructed throughout history and can to a point be dismantled (by men as well as women), it inconveniently points out that the female body, for all its child-growing wonders, comes with severe physical disadvantages. All female oppression stems from this. It brings to light the deeply harrowing realisation that, by virtue of our biology, our sex, all of us could have been that nine-year-old girl dragged from her mother. It dares you not to look away. Posing for a #embraceequity selfie feels vastly more empowering.

This is a tale of two feminisms. One will always win the argument, and one will nearly always win the ego. It’s not that glass-ceiling feminism doesn’t care about the plight of the genuinely marginalised; it just doesn’t care enough to de-invest in its own crap. Whilst it can pay occasional token lip service to cultural atrocities committed against women across the globe, it can never go beyond this. Doing so would expose the disembodied theory it stands on as fragile and transparent. The pursuit of utopia is an excellent distraction from the hellish realities you are conveniently choosing not to look down at.

Its cleverest marketing strategy to date? Appropriating the word “feminism” to make its brand the definitive one. One of many slogans often tweet-lectured at the likes of Julie Bindel is, “If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it isn’t real feminism.” Quite a catch-22: feminism is for everyone — except the women’s rights activists who dare highlight it can’t possibly be for everyone whilst retaining meaning or focus. At this point, I’d almost suggest we surrender the label to them. I privately renounced it as part of my identity a while back, unable to bear any association. As much as some might despair at my defeatism, at the end of the day it’s not words or hashtags that matter to abused women and girls. International Women’s Day has forgotten this.

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