Don’t forget the accolade-less this International Women’s Day
If it's a celebration of all women, why are there no stay-at-home mums on the event panel I'm speaking at today?
I’ve been asked to come to a school to speak on International Women’s day – a day I’ve always been very quick to dismiss as reductive.
It can become a little eye-rolley you see; posting pictures of your strong girls, your feminist sons, how far we’ve come as women. Equal rights and a world of opportunity at our fingertips and all that. Here, have a cupcake.
So I thought long and hard about what I wanted to impart to these little girls. The knowledge and wisdom that I’ve hopefully collected over the years as I tried to do my best in life despite the obstacles. I want to tell them that they can do what they want. (Even though I think they already know that). As I researched, I noticed on the list of speakers for the speaking event, that there was another author, like me. There was a woman who had a PhD in genetics, a sports star, the CEO of a company and a well-known TV personality.
These successes, while extremely admirable, were… a little obvious. The success of these women is worn like a badge. In other words, it’s easy for all to see their achievements, the struggle to reach the top. I thought about the women who had inspired me to overcome challenges in my life and most of them held no badge at all – the quiet support, the accolade-less; the homemaker who built me up at home to go out and face the world, the kind nun at school, the daughter who makes me want to always be a better person, my own 15-year-old self who fostered an unshakable determination to some day become a writer…
In a world often so hyperbolic about things; so commercialised and intent on putting us in neat boxes of what constitutes success, it’s important to focus on the message we are sending. It makes me think of the nuances that are easy to overlook when it comes to celebrating the array of women in all our lives. All the time my mother took out that tiny tin box of word cards as I learnt to read. ‘The’, she’d say. ‘The,’ I’d repeat. ‘Is’, ‘Was’. “There’. Over and over again for hours.
There was my elder sister who did all the voices for every character in the Faraway Tree. Read that part again, I’d ask. I still know that book off my heart. There’s the teacher who asked me to read my English essay aloud to the class despite my shyness. The friend who listened to me telling her that I couldn’t do something. ‘Of course you can,’ she said, unwavering in her belief in me. She should be invited to speak.
There are so many in the background of our lives who have contributed to the slow build of our confidence as women in a world that told me I should probably study business or marry well or choose a pensionable job over daydreaming about books. Our girls are lucky we’ve been able to push many of those barriers away.
But I worry that because we are so focused on putting our energy into a day, or a cause or lofty female networking events that we are overlooking some of the nuances that come with celebrating women – the sisterhood side of it, the less talked-about achievements of the women who metaphorically whoosh us up and run ahead with us in the race of life, pop us close to the finish line and hang back, proud.
It’s the nuances that count in life.
Because domestic abuse isn’t always a punch in the face – it can also be the slow erosion of confidence, driving too fast when you are afraid, isolating you from your family. Subtle but insidious. Workplace inequality isn’t always your colleague earning more than you. Sometimes it’s the reduction of a woman’s hours to make their employment less lucrative, pushing them to leave the job voluntarily. Subtle sexism is expecting a woman to smile at you in the supermarket – ‘cheer up love it’ll never happen’. Or accepting sexism on the WhatsApp group as ‘banter’ and not calling it out.
Celebrate the published authors and the CEO’s and surgeons, but also take a moment celebrate the mum who sits outside your GAA training or who drops everything to drop up your forgotten lunch
So today, this is what I’ll be saying to the children at the school. I’ll be suggesting to them that to celebrate women we each need to be champions for all women. And that sometimes means looking in the places we don’t expect to find it. Less bells and whistles, perhaps.
Celebrate the published authors and the CEO’s and surgeons, but also take a moment celebrate the mum who sits outside your GAA training or who drops everything to drop up your forgotten lunch. They are champions too. Celebrate the older girls who show kindness and friendship to the younger classes, celebrate the friends who turn up at your party with their kind words in birthday cards. Notice the little things more.
Look for and find the networks of women who weave a cocoon of positive emotions in your lives. Mothers and friends and teachers...supporters.
We all know dads and brothers and male teachers are champions too of course, but in a world where we’ve lived with inequality far too long – it’s a nice day to stop and pinpoint the women who make a difference to your life. And maybe go home and tell them. I’m sure the female CEO of your family will appreciate that so much more than a cupcake.
Photography by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas.