International Women’s Day 2011

Yesterday was International Women’s Day; in fact, it was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day.  This is a landmark occasion, so, at the risk of being condemned to patriarchal hell for all eternity, I’ve decided to write a few words.  To the arch-feminists in the crowd: yes, I understand I can’t speak with any authority about women.  To the folks caught in a 19th century time warp: no, I haven’t sold out my gender.  To everybody else: keep an open mind.  (One of the hazards of living in the 21st century is the disclaimers just keep getting longer and longer.)

Either way, International Women’s Day is an important event.  It’s a day to stop for a moment, take out the equality scorecard and see how everybody’s doing.  There are three schools of thought on women’s equality: 1) Women have come a long way in one hundred years, 2) No, we (they) haven’t and 3) Oh, God!  Do we have to do this again?  Personally, I roll with #1 — with a ton of asterisks, if, for no other reason than a couple of weeks ago, Hillary told Hosni to clean out his desk.  In 1911, she’d still be baking pies, defending husband Bill and staring down the gossip in the hope that he might be home for dinner.  See what I mean?  There’s something very plus ca change about the relationship between Venus and Mars in our society, but that’s my whole point.

Women may be doing all the things men do, but our world is full of subtle illustrations that women’s equality is quietly missing the mark.

For example, female role models have changed over the last hundred years.  Back in the 20th century, long before anybody thought about the equality of the sexes, the public faces of women’s achievement were people like Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart and Eleanor Roosevelt.  As the women’s movement gathered speed girls looked to Shirley Chisholm, Sally Ride and Sandra Day O’Connor as the kind of people they wanted to emulate.  These days, however, despite over half a century of better education and opportunity most girls know more about the Kardashian sisters and Snooki than they do about Indra K. Nooyi or Olympia Snowe.  And it’s important to note that Snooki is actually replacing the likes of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.  This has been going on for a while.  Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against either Snooki or Kim Kardashian.  They both strike me as very good businesswomen, who have taken limited resources and turned them into substantial bucks.  I just don’t think the girls I knew, back in the day, who worked so hard to be taken seriously by their male counterparts, envisioned sexual marketing as the conduit to equality for their granddaughters.  It’s really all about image versus substance.

The female image has also changed quite a bit since 1911.  In film, for instance, women spent most of the last century as emotionally confused damsels in distress.  Today, they’re far more independent.  They get to choose their partners.  They solve problems.  They have their own storyline.  In action movies, sometimes they get to saddle up with the men and go out and do battle with the monster or the villain.  This all looks very much like an equal opportunity to get eaten by the swamp beast, but take another look.  The boys are wearing some heavy-duty armour but she’s dressed in high heels and a thong.  In other words, it’s “We’re all in this together honey, but you don’t get as many clothes.”  It’s pretty much the same in all movies.  There’s always an extra button undone.  I have no problem with filmmakers portraying female sexuality, but times have changed and movies should also.  When Halle Berry comes walking out of the surf in Die Another Day (2002) she looks remarkably like Ursula Andress walking out of the surf in Dr. No (1962.)  I understand the director did this on purpose.  My question is why?   (And I’m not even going to talk about Catwoman, which is a disgrace.)  I think most people find it hard to believe that any assistant district attorney, or vice-president, or special government agent spends that much time falling out of her clothes.  Yet this is the image of women we’ve all come to expect, if not accept.

Of course, in the end, it’s not only about image.  We just happen to live in a visual age.  It’s how we judge ourselves.  And it’s how we judge women.  At this point in time, celebrities — male and female — hold pride of place in our society.  Scientists, doctors and economists do not.  Sex sells.  These are all facts; we might not like them, but they do exist.  Therefore, it’s only natural that young girls are looking at wild and crazy Kim Kardashian and steering away from stern and steady Condoleezza Rice.  However, history has a way of sorting things out.  Let me tell you a story.  One hundred years ago, in 1911, Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  At the same time, she was being ripped apart in the French newspapers for having a love affair with Paul Langevin, a married student who was five years younger that she was.  This went on for months.  Today, history remembers Marie Curie but has all but forgotten the love affair.  Chances are good that, on International Women’s Day 2061, people will remember Irene Rosenfeld, Angela Merkel and Sonia Sotomayor; Snooki, Kim and Khloe will all have been swept away.