The Trouble With International Women's Day

There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea of celebrating women on International Women's Day, but the way that many people are going about this "celebration" often seems to belittle the women they claim to support. 

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Today is International Women's Day. There's nothing inherently wrong with the idea "let's celebrate women" -- in fact, that's a great idea, and shouldn't be confined to just one day. (For that matter, we should celebrate men, too, and in fact, all humans.) But the trouble with one day designated for that purpose means that, implicitly, we're not doing that in the overall, are we? If we need to call it a day, there's trouble afoot. Beyond that, the way that many people are going about this "celebration" -- and, we're not criticizing their intentions, which seem good, but the way in which those intentions are playing out -- often seems to belittle the women they attempt to support.

Take today's Google Doodle. Thank you, Google, for doodling for women. But could the Doodle, maybe, have gone further than a flower and purply-pastels and the symbol of "woman"? If we resort to these clichés, are we really progressing beyond a rote celebration of stereotypes and assumptions about ladies? Other International Women's celebrations involve taking the day off (this seems a weird way to promote gender equality, which of course should include workplace equality); giving flowers to women (because women like flowers!); wearing red lipstick via the "Rock the Lips" campaign, which asks women to "turn our offices, streets, buses, cities, countries, and the world into a sea of power pouts to celebrate International Women's Day." And cupcakes. Oh, the cupcakes.

On the one hand, yes, we're women -- we have lips. Sometimes, we like to wear lipstick. Something like "Rock the Lips" is easy branding for the cause, true, and the cause is to get more women and men to pay attention to the cause of women. But is the wearing of lipstick and taking and sharing pictures of our lips (or, for example, posting our bra color on Facebook) really the best way to  promote equal rights, prevent violence against women, or fight sexual harassment? While we're shouting out our lady pals and wearing a lip color that pops, let's remember that women in the U.S. and abroad are still struggling for basic things, like safety, health care, and human rights. And the right not to be called sluts.

But what does that have to do with cupcakes? Oh, yeah, many places are giving out free cupcakes for International Women's Day. Because... women like cupcakes! And manis and pedis and facials and pampering. A day for men would never, ever be so twee and sugary. Nor so passive.

Slightly less gender normative ways to support the day, as Maura Judkis writes in The Washington Post, include protesting, donating money to women's causes, and the symbolic standing on a bridge promoted by the "Join Me on the Bridge" campaign (women are marching on bridges in various cities to symbolize women building "bridges of peace").

All this is fine and dandy. But it seems that the best thing you can do for International Women's Day is not, actually, giving someone a flower, wear red lipstick, or eat a cupcake, or even necessarily stand on a bridge. The best thing women can do every day of their lives is to be strong and demand respect, and to support the rights of women who may not be so lucky. This is all closer to us than we might think: A recent article in The New York Times explains that, as politicians and pro-lifers slash funding for women's health in Texas, women are losing not only birth control but preventative health care including screenings against cervical cancer and breast cancer. "Now, the same sentiment is likely to lead to a shutdown next week of another significant source of reproductive health care: the Medicaid Women’s Health Program, which serves 130,000 women with grants to many clinics, including those run by Planned Parenthood," write Pam Belluck and Emily Ramshaw. "Gov. Rick Perry and Republican lawmakers have said they would forgo the $35 million in federal money that finances the women’s health program in order to keep Planned Parenthood from getting any of it." This isn't just in Texas. "Nationally, the newest target is Title X, the main federal family planning program," which "provides money for cervical and breast cancer screening, testing for H.I.V. and other sexually transmitted diseases, adolescent abstinence counseling, infertility counseling and other services," they write.

Cutting these things is good for no one.

So, what else can you do? You can donate to good, pro-women causes. You can stand up for birth control access for women, and Planned Parenthood, and learn about the myriad, complicated troubles that women in countries outside the U.S. are facing. You can vote women who support women into government. You can promote education and literacy. You can fight against slut-shaming. Men and women can do far more to stand  up for women than giving them some flowers today, or any day. International Women's Day shouldn't be a symbolic day, it should be a way we live. A way of life that does not have to involve cupcakes or "pampering," or even, ultimately, a "day to celebrate women." If women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men, let's stop supporting such stereotypes.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.