March 8, 2017 was International Women’s Day, and the Twittersphere was abuzz. Celebratory posts heralded hope for women’s rights, and leaders from around the world sent messages of support, including Donald Trump who reminded us he has “tremendous respect” for women (I’m sure glad we cleared that one up). Author J.K. Rowling, a vocal champion of women’s rights anticipated what seems to be an unfortunate but predictable backlash whenever days of recognition come around. She tweeted: “Happy #InternationalWomensDay or, as it’s often called on here, #WhyIsn’tThereAnInternationalMensDay.”
You’d think that celebrating women for one day would be simple. Who could object? Sure, you’ll always have those who oppose such days just…well, just because (hence Rowling’s preemptive strike). But where’s the problem in raising awareness of the issues impacting women around the world? It turns out there are problems aplenty.
Watching Wednesday’s back-and-forth on social media was a lesson to be had. Pro-life groups and pro-choice groups went at it tooth and nail. Women who voted for Hillary spewed vitriol on women who voted for Trump (and vice versa). “Family values” proponents accused “feminists” of tearing apart the fabric of society. Even our Prime Minister’s wife got trolled for suggesting that men who support gender equality should be celebrated, too. My seemingly benign tweet, “Proud to live in a country where these conversations are encouraged…#EqualityMatters,” prompted a quick response by a counterculture Catholic convert (their words, not mine) who accused me of ignoring the rights of thousands of aborted fetuses. Huh?
As the day progressed, I became increasingly irked by much of what I read. I felt as if I was wading through a swamp of 140-character myopic rants. And sadly, the many positive messages being shared were easily overwhelmed by this plethora of one-upmanship. Where was the meaning in all of this? What happened to let’s support women around the world?
One message, however, resonated strongly. One post reminded me of why this day was necessary. Deirdre Heenan, Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University and member of the Council State of Ireland, tweeted: “In case someone asks do we still need #InternationalWomensDay”, and attached a simple yet powerful graphic that stated the following: “Women are half the world’s population, working two-thirds of the world’s working hours, receiving 10% of the world’s income, owning less than 1% of the world’s property.” And there it was: Clarity as to why we need this day.
We are blessed in the Western world with access to clean drinking water, health care, education, democratic governments, and legislative rights that largely protect us. I am not naïve enough to believe we do not need to continue to make gains. I know there remain women who have unequal access to such benefits, and believe it’s wrong for women to earn less than men, even in Canada. But much of the debate I was reading on this day for women wasn’t focused on these larger, universal issues. Much of it, to my mind, focused on problems that reflect immense privilege. Perhaps it’s vital to hold highly nuanced debate about whether pro-life women should be allowed inside the feminist big tent. Maybe we will be better off for undertaking intense examination of how “mansplaining”, “manspreading” or “manterrupting” negatively impact our way of life. I don’t know. But I do know that Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a right-wing member of the European Parliament recently argued that women should make less than men because “they are weaker, they are smaller, they are less intelligent.” And I do know that women in the developing world continue to suffer disproportionately because of poor access to health care, and that our government’s national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women points to shameful and long-standing systemic problems. So I’m not sure “mansplaining” was the most important topic to debate on this day.
At the Castle, we gave a big shout-out to International Women’s Day. We acknowledged the day as we passed each other in the halls. A few of the older girls gave me a raised fist salute as they headed to class. And of course, I received a few lovely hugs from our wee ones. It all seemed so simple. We were girls and women (and men). We were acknowledging the gains women have made and the distance yet to be travelled. But most of all, we were focused on what unites us rather than what divides us. I know it was simple, but gosh, it felt right.
I realize our girls will face an incredibly complex world when they leave us. They’ll be thrown into conversations that create divisiveness and highlight partisan positions. But until that time, my goal is to strengthen their sense of community, emphasize the importance of sisterhood, and help them learn to tackle tough topics with passion but also with measured thought and intelligent analysis. When they finally head out the Castle door as young women, we hope they’ll be prepared to take on the challenges ahead with bravery, compassion, and a never-wavering focus on the important work that needs to be done in order to make a positive difference in their world.