How 'femvertising' edged out feminism - 'Two separate women’s movements which have always been in conflict'
International Women's Day was once about workers' rights, but has largely been co-opted by brands. Is it still relevant? Julia Molony reports
In 1911, on the first International Women's Day, people around the world gathered in solidarity with working class women from the New York garment industry who faced down police violence to protest dangerous working conditions in factory sweatshops.
From its founding day, the movement celebrated a sisterhood who were prepared to face down corporate greed and systemic unfairness for the sake of political change.
Last year, arguably the most visible endeavours associated with the day were not the marches or the protests, but the marketing campaigns. McDonald's, an IWD partner, turned it's famous arches upside down to form a 'W'. Mattel, the makers of Barbie, chose IWD to launch their ranges of "role model dolls modelled on inspiring real women". And Budweiser made a bit of a show and dance of honouring its female employees on social media.
Has the event been hijacked as simply a "corporate marketing extravaganza", as the Financial Times declared last year? Is International Women's Day today little more than an excuse for 'femvertising' as brands co-opt messages of equality and empowerment as means by which to flog us stuff?
Academic Catherine Rottenberg, who is author of the book The Rise Of Neoliberal Feminism, thinks there is reason to be worried. "I think all of this points to the rise of what scholars call 'brand activism' and the way in which feminist themes have been taken up by neoliberal capitalist forces and thus defanged of their oppositional potential," she says. The rush of corporations willing to jump on the International Women's Day bandwagon risks "watering down any kind of feminist message and selling us a feel-good feminism".
She is particularly concerned about the rise of what she terms "neoliberal feminism", in which capitalist forces integrate and co-opt feminist principles. "This feminism encourages women to invest in themselves and their own aspirations, inciting them to build confidence, be empowered, and "lean in," she says.
"And while such feminism acknowledges the gendered wage gap and sexual harassment as signs of continued inequality, the solutions it posits - precisely like encouraging individual women to take responsibility for their own well-being - ultimately elide the structural and economic undergirding of these phenomena."
This type of popular feminism is, she says, often promoted by celebrities. "It is a palatable and marketable feminism because it is a non-threatening feminism. It doesn't address the devastation wrought by neoliberal capitalism, neo-imperialism or systemic misogyny and sexism, so it is easy to embrace and it sells well on the marketplace.
"Also, given that neoliberal feminism is a feel-good feminism, it is not hard to understand why suddenly everyone seems to wants to be a 'feminist': from Ivanka Trump to movie stars like Emma Watson. I am not saying that the popularity of feminism is necessarily a bad thing, but I do think that we have to try and understand what kind of feminism has become popular and why it sells so well."
As for whether International Women's Day has lost its relevance, she argues that "mobilising around gender equality or gender justice once a year is not enough. So perhaps our energies need to be channelled into thinking about how we can maintain mass militant momentum beyond International Women's Day".
For Maynooth lecturer Dr Sinead Kennedy, a co-editor of The Abortion Papers, however, there are still plenty of good reasons to celebrate today. It's all about how you choose to look at it. She tends not to put too much emphasis on the way the day is represented "in the media and popular culture", focussing instead on its socialist origins.
"There have always been two women's movements," she says. "And they've always been in conflict - there's always been what then would have been referred to as 'bourgeois feminism', versus the movement from where the origins of International Women's Day would have come about, the working women movement.
"When you think about IWD today, you see the same thing. There has always been much more radical roots to it, both here in Ireland and around the world. And that tradition also exists, as well as the kind of more corporate International Women's Day. That's reflective of the politics of feminism more generally."
She agrees that it is worrying that recently "feminism is seen as cool because it can sell things".
"This version of feminism is very much supposed to be about confidence or self-empowerment, so it's all about making women feel good, and you feel good by buying things. We have a whole industry [the fashion and beauty industry] that is there to make women feel bad about themselves and their bodies, and then to try and sell them things in order to supposedly make them feel better or make them feel empowered and in the process make billions and billions of dollars of profit. This is feminism that sees women as individual consumers and promotes the idea that you can buy your way to empowerment. Or to self-confidence.
"But the origins of the women's movement were never about individuals per se. It was about a collective struggle - a struggle from below that was about fighting for radical political change. About fighting for a better, more equal, more just world."
Dr Kennedy strongly believes that International Women's Day still has an important and relevant role to play in serving those goals. The proof can be clearly seen, particularly in Ireland.
"For the last few years, there have been really fantastic International Women's Day events. I worked with the coalition to repeal the Eighth Amendment and we had our International Women's Day march last year - where we launched #togetherforyes. There were thousands of young women campaigning, with the belief that we were going to make history - let's make history by repealing the Eighth Amendment. And now, a year later, we have done that."
This year, the struggle that has ignited with such force recently will continue. "Some organisations have come together, including UNITE, the unions and ROSA Women to organise an event called 'Time 4 Equality', which will take place on Dublin's O'Connell bridge," she says.
Today's event will "focus on questions about gender-based violence, the gender pay gap, housing, precarious conditions in work, but also the international struggle for abortion rights and questions about gender-based violence which have also been a very key topic here in Ireland for the last year,"
Dr Kennedy is adamant that the day is about much more than just PR for companies. And she's heartened by the level of political engagement she sees around her.
"There is still a desire," she says. "I see very often from my students that they are still very exercised about those issues - gender-based violence, sexual harassment, rape... these are huge issues for young women."