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Happy Women’s Day — except to you

/ 05:05 AM March 11, 2019

International Women’s Day (IWD) began in the early 1900s as a day for promoting suffrage for women. There were arrests, detentions, armed struggle and cartoons of this “monstrous regiment” of women as trousers-wearing caricatures in the papers; the roots of women’s suffrage were anything but pretty. One also remembers the Russian women who went on strike for “bread and peace” on March 8, 1917, campaigning for the end of World War I and the end of food shortages, earning them the right to vote. The current celebration of IWD as we know it comes to us courtesy of the United Nations, which began to celebrate it yearly in 1975.

Now IWD is marked by the handing out of flowers, by pithy hashtags, and by companies selling merchandise to “raise funds” for some cause. We’ve come a long way from the blood, sweat and tears origins of IWD, but then it’s a long-standing tradition of the corporate world to co-opt the struggles of minorities or disadvantaged groups and turn them into profit, so the celebration of a feminist holiday without any actual feminism is nothing new. It’s a great day to tell women to love themselves, promote healthy body images and other such “safe” agenda with a heaping of commercialization on the side, but there’s no good day to broach the gender pay gap, sexist workplace language, issues on sexual violence and domestic abuse, or other uncomfortable things. Not to mention the inevitable hand-wringing that the celebration usually brings about, starting with the question, why isn’t there an International Men’s Day? (There is.)

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One other ubiquitous aspect of IWD is the celebration of women in power. We celebrate the presence of women in high office, in the boardroom, in business, in Congress, where it would have been impossible even a half-century before. But I cringe at the role models that little girls are being given just because these women have reached a certain status or a certain office hitherto available only to men. Recently Forbes Magazine named Kylie Jenner, a girl who was wealthy to begin with, the “youngest self-made billionaire ever.” Semantics aside, there should be a problem with the fact that her wealth is discussed as something aspirational. In the wider context of women’s struggle, should there even be billionaires, male or female? Why are we lauding a woman’s place in the 1 percent, when we should be campaigning to dismantle the system that supports the existence of a 1 percent? Isn’t feminism intersectional by default, and inseparable from the struggles of the poor and disadvantaged?

On March 8, Imee Marcos’ Facebook page shared a quote in celebration of Women’s Day: “This is the power we bring to the table: the patience, the compassion and that unique quality of tenderness that makes leadership, at least for women, an entirely different game.” Here is a model who has had experience with female leadership, but this is also a model who has benefited from (and continues to deny) deeds which perpetuated and worsened poverty in the country. Can such a woman be one with the feminist struggle, when it has been shown time and again that women bear the brunt of that poverty? Is such a person to be named a leader for our women, who bear the disproportionate burden of unpaid work and who are more likely to be less educated and to have lower income?

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The ultimate concern and goal shouldn’t be gender parity, plain and simple. We oughtn’t to be satisfied with having women in power—what kind of power, and what kind of systematic inequality it reinforces, should be at the fore as well. A woman who reinforces or perpetuates class struggle is not a friend of feminism. And even as commercialization has allowed us to whitewash — or better yet, pink-wash — this international holiday into a bland, appealing excuse for profiteering, it would be a sad thing to forget that suffrage had its roots in the laps of working women, in class struggle. Let’s not celebrate women just for gaining a place at the table, when what the table represents is what feminism has struggled against since the beginning.

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In last week’s column on Lang Leav, Gian Lao, writing for CNN Philippines, was mistakenly identified as Gian Santos. Our apologies.

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