International Women’s Day: Should We Party About This?

I opened my email to a rush of notices celebrating International Women’s Day.  One from Boutique Activist Consultancy suggested that what the women’s movement needs is a color (we should all wear purple), a sign (like the old two fingers gesture for peace), and a sound (like maybe Katniss Everdeen‘s three note call).


Maybe the women’s movement does need a new symbol. But let’s not have it be a party hat.


The Boutique Activists’ slogan is “We win lost causes.” I thought it ironic to pronounce the women’s movement a lost cause on International Women’s Day, let alone to propose it should be saved by marketing.  Unfortunately, however, this “party time!” approach fits neatly into the packaged celebration International Women’s Day/Week/Month has become.

Social movements may benefit from slogans and songs, but they do not spring from them. Real historical uprisings, like the antiwar protest of the 1960s, the revolutions against colonial powers in Africa, the march from Selma, the Arab spring, or even the fictive planetary domination in The Hunger Games, begin first with a gut-wrenching recognition that deep, systemic injustice can no longer be tolerated.  Stunned, shared realization is what gives the aggrieved group courage to speak, to confront, and to risk arrest or even death.  Thus, that instant of group awareness opens up a heart-stopping possibility, through which the sheer numbers of the oppressed suddenly surge forward.

We are not there yet. Not this time, anyway. Instead, these days, we are trying very hard to put a positive spin on our own disadvantage, to argue that gender equality would be a “win-win” for the world.  That’s because the harsh attitudes of some Second Wave feminists left a bad taste that still affects the response to the cause of women’s rights. So, on this round, we are trying to win with a softer persuasion, using data and collaboration. And it makes sense, especially since the numbers are all on our side.


At the event I attended in Brussels last week, the European Women’s Lobby offered this button. I loved the 50/50 sentiment and wore it back to Oxford. But then, this week, while visiting my mother in Texas, I was aware that the button would be offensive to many in that insanely “red” state. Yet most Americans agree that women should have equality with men. So how did it happen that saying so became an invitation to attack?


If we really are to win this lost cause, however, the deep recognition of injustice and its systemic nature must also come. Closing the gender gap would indeed produce a win-win, but there is risk in downplaying the tough realities that hold the system in place.  If we ignore the pain points just because they don’t make for a good party, we are likely to entirely miss that heart-stopping opening through which historic change comes. Indeed, we may seduce ourselves into accepting cosmetic add-ons (like International Women’s Day?) instead of pushing for the courageous actions that really are needed.

The situation women face is no less dire than any other oppressed group has confronted. I know, I know:  you are not accustomed to thinking of it that way. We are in the habit of believing our level of subordination is relatively tolerable compared to that of other groups (American blacks, British Muslims, India’s untouchables, and so on).

Actually, though, the big picture and the long view show that women are the largest group of oppressed people in history and that their circumstances of subordination, despite the comfort of a few in any given era, are every bit as brutal as others. Further, our situation is not localized, as have been other forms of oppression, but is global in its thudding consistency. If you think I am exaggerating, keep reading.


Based on profiles of victims identified by State authorities in 61 countries.


Let’s start with a scary fact.  There is more slavery in the world today than ever before in history. 80% of the victims are female. Why is this?  Girls are sometimes kidnapped, sometimes tricked, and sometimes sold into slavery by their own families.  Boys can be tricked, kidnapped, or sold—but they nevertheless are four times less likely to be slaves.  So, the explanation for this gender difference arises not from the particular event that led to enslavement, but from four general conditions that affect women in every country, at every level, but are more pointed among the very poor, traditional communities most vulnerable to slavery:

Females, as a class, are consistently more economically disadvantaged than males. Not only do they have less ability to earn, but their earnings are often confiscated. They frequently are allowed no way to save, cannot inherit or own significant assets.  They are utterly vulnerable to the wishes of others.  From the perspective of a father, they become an economic burden, all cost and no benefit. For a poor family, paying for a girl’s subsistence and, in many cases, being expected to provide a dowry for her, while seeing no future income stream or wealth ever coming from her makes the promise of a slave trader very seductive.

Females, as a class, participate much less in decision-making, whether it is in the home, in the village, in a corporation or a religious body, or the national government. In fact, women generally do not decide their own fate, but have it decided for them. It is, therefore, not a great departure among many poor communities for a father to make a decision for a daughter, whether about schooling or matrimony or slavery, without considering her wishes.

Females are expected to do unpaid work—a lot of it and without complaint. Their “duties” include childcare, housework, and sexual services. The 80% of slaves who are female also work, unpaid, in either domestic service or the sex trade. Their circumstances are not much different from those forced into early marriage. The line between marriage and slavery is, in many places, very blurry.

Females are more vulnerable to force. Most are easily overpowered by men. Females are less likely to be trained to defend themselves. And, they face a pervasive, constant threat, everywhere they go, all the time. In many places, violence against women is so common as to be invisible. The violence that makes human trafficking possible fades easily into this backdrop.

Females are subject, everywhere, to a belief system that says they are lesser. Less worthy, less intelligent, less important, less capable, even less human. World religion has held that females don’t even have souls, can never make it to heaven, and such. Females are more easily trafficked because their enslavement seems a lesser offense.

Every nation on the planet participates in the slave trade, as a source or a destination—sometimes both. Slavers treat their “products” (regardless of gender) like animals, boxing or caging them, sometimes whipping them or refusing to feed them. Traders are known to kill slaves at will, without remorse.

When you visualize a cage full of slaves, picture them as young females. Because that is the basic truth of it.

The global slave trade is a huge business that also sells drugs, guns, and counterfeits. This form of organized crime has outstripped governments in their use of technology and works easily within and around national borders. Police and customs agents are often in their pay. This global trade brings violence and crime to every community they touch; it is a fundamentally destabilizing force. We think the big focus is drugs, but the core business is selling women. If we could somehow level the playing field—by “empowering females” such that they are worth more than their bodies bring in trade—the whole world would benefit from the reduction in the reach of global crime.  (Win-win, right?  But, really, is that the reason to do it?)

Now, let’s take those same five factors outlined above and look at how they ripple out to other instances and populations.

Economic disadvantage.  In every country in the world, women are paid less than men for the same work, despite decades of equality law. The discrepancy is even bigger at the top than at the bottom. Furthermore, access to capital is equally skewed:  the gender gap in credit is $285 billion. Women own just 1% of the world’s land, though they do most of the farmwork. Globally, women are less likely even to have bank accounts. The economic disadvantaging just goes on forever.


It always kills me the way elite professional women seem to think they are exempt from pay discrimination. The data say otherwise: it’s the women at the top who are really taking a beating when it comes to pay inequality.


Decision-making.  Even in countries where women have full legal equality, equal education to men, and the same labor force participation, they are nearly absent from the ranks where decisions are made. Whether you look at parliaments or priesthoods or private companies, there are painfully few women at the top. What it comes down to is this:  half the world’s population is making all the major decisions for the other half. Why are we still standing for this kind of exclusion?


As I hope the post makes clear, this slogan from the Second Wave is as true today as it was in 1970. Could we not recycle it?


Unpaid care obligation. Right around the globe, women put in hours of unpaid labor at home, far more than men do in any country. This obligation to uncompensated work sits heavily on the career aspirations of women in the workplace. Among female entrepreneurs, the factors reducing women’s performance relative to men’s consistently point to family obligations that hold back growth. As I reported in a recent blog for the World Economic Forum, current research shows that, even in Western Europe, the gender gap in employment is being caused by an old-fashioned prejudice that says women should stay home, mind the kids, and defer to their men.

Vulnerability to force. Domestic violence and rape are serious problems in every country on the globe. Everywhere you can look, most female homicides are committed by husbands or boyfriends. Even countries that fancy themselves “civilized” have a horrible underside when it comes to attacks on women: the United Kingdom, for instance, has a high rape rate but only a minuscule number of cases are taken to trial because the public attitude toward rape victims is so hostile.

If any other group in any country suffered so disproportionately from violence, poverty, and exclusion, it would cause international outcry. Think of it: of the violent crimes reported in India, nearly 90% are committed against women. What if it were Muslims or Sikhs or Jains who were being attacked so often? The world would be demanding change! Yet after the Indian bus rape of two years ago, the accepted excuse for the steep increase in violence against females was that women were not staying in their place.

Beliefs and thought. The belief that women are not important has infected our ways of thinking even at the most abstract level, creating shocking blind spots.  Consider, for instance, that the world is increasingly concerned about inequality of income and wealth, worrying over gini coefficients and latching on to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century  like it was a Dan Brown novel.  But those measures are done at the household level; we have nothing that would capture the inequality between women and men. Oh, sure, we can take a stab at estimating wage inequality—but that would only capture women who work for pay in the formal economy.  Most women are in informal employment, if they are employed at all. More importantly, one of the largest economic subgroups among women is the wives who do not work. In many cultures, such as China, the family property is deemed to be the man’s. If we disentangled family wealth and income, therefore, we would almost certainly find that the inequality between women and men is the largest gap in the world–and that married women, as a class, are the poorest people on earth. But we don’t know because we don’t feel it important to measure—why not?

Even beyond the horror of slavery, the outcomes produced by these factors are truly awful. Little girls who will never earn or inherit are often seen, from the moment they are born, purely as an economic burden. In countries like China and India, families often choose to kill female children, whether in the discreet abortion given a middle class mother or the brutal drowning of a poor family’s baby girl in a bucket of water.

The belief that women are (and should be) merely family dependents has now produced a frightening gender gap in European pension funds. The women in the aging population now coming into view will live longer than the men, but will be substantially poorer  because the pension system is based on paid labor. The past prejudices that produced such a system are about to create a major social problem. Why did no one think of the welfare of half the population when the system was put in place?


Look at this! The pension gap in Germany is 60%.


There are multiple negative outcomes, many of them quite costly, that could be avoided if gender inequality were eradicated.  We focus on the upside—the faster growth, the improved productivity, the better decision-making—for rhetorical reasons, but the truth is that the biggest economic impact would probably come from avoiding the bad stuff this global injustice causes.

We must learn to stop seeing slavery, pay inequality, female infanticide, and even women on corporate boards as different, unrelated problems.  We must instead mentally picture a total system that achieves many similar outcomes through essentially the same means.  We absolutely must stop accepting the argument that one nation or another can abuse their women because “it’s their culture.”  This is not a cultural problem, it is a massive violation of human rights, probably the worst and largest abuse of power in world history. And, for heaven’s sake, we ourselves must stop seeing our own subordination as a “lesser” concern and step up to demand the same attention that other, “more important” causes get.


OK, go ahead and call me a crazy feminist. I still wish I had this on a Tshirt.


I don’t really see how anyone could look at the slavery, the infanticide, the unequal pay, the dehumanizing marriage practices, the steeply skewed representation in leadership, the exclusion from basic services, the unjust old age provision, and, above all, the overwhelming propensity to focus violence on females—and dismiss a call to change as unreasonable or unfair.  But certainly some have, some do, and some will—and still others would retaliate, given a chance.  And that is why women, the world over, need to experience that clock-stopping clarity that makes a group take the risk of confrontation, thus putting real change in motion.

So, though International Women’s Day has become a call to “celebrate” women, I feel we should use this moment to reflect also on the common disadvantages that females of all nations experience. We don’t need another fatuous celebration. We need justice.

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