Why International Women’s Day made me realise how little I really know — and what I can do to change that

International Women’s Day is an important phenomenon — and, until we enter a time when no women around the world are persecuted, oppressed or discriminated against simply because of the biological sex they were born into, it’s essential (I’m looking at you, “Why isn’t there a men’s day?” fans).

Reflecting on how much we need it, though, makes me me wonder whether I’m really as good a feminist as I’d like to be, and what I do the other 364 days of the year. It’s so easy to reach for the nearest (and there are lots, happily) motivational Instagram post, usually a picture of Michelle O or Lena D or Beyoncé (no initial required) in her resplendent glory, accompanied by a stream of comments filled with copious bicep / fist emojis / that emoji with the girl’s hand up by her shoulder like she’s carrying a tray of amazingness through a busy room.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I live in a world where this is now the default pop culture — it’s a big shift from twenty years ago for sure, and makes celebrating women (in a non-beauty pageant type way) a totally normal thing. But some argue the downside is that this hides the real, sad truths about the lack of progress towards gender equality in many societies around the world, and in many corners of our own. Reflecting this International Women’s Day also made me realise how ashamed I am personally of how narrow my breadth of reference is for “inspirational women” beyond the cohort of present-day heroes which is pretty homogenous (albeit totally brilliant), thanks to our self-perpetuating, self-shrinking social media feeds.

Couldn’t we do with catching up on years of history where female successes were not celebrated and somehow didn’t become high profile enough to make it into the cultural subconscious, or into the school curriculum, even when I went to school in the 90s? I knew about Turing and Babbage long before I knew about Ada; the female writers I studied in my English lit degree were true rarities in a male-dominated field. The quotes that have seeped into pop culture or appear written on corporate motivational documents or are appropriated for banal ad campaigns come from an almost exclusively male field.

So, now IWD is over for another year, what can we do to rectify this absence of female voices and achievements in our collective base level of general knowledge?

  1. you could donate on Kickstarter to the brilliant Beyond Curie project by Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, who is designing posters of incredible female scientists aims to get its bold and beautiful depictions of women who have pioneered, explored and invented displayed in school classrooms to make sure young women see some female inspiration in their science lessons.
  2. eschew the endless smorgasbleurgh of magazines “for women” (speech marks because, well, they might be targeted at women like cruise missiles of shame and schadenfreude but anything less pro women is unimaginable) showing women “falling apart”, “piling on the pounds”, “trying to hide botched botox” or “desperate to save their marriages” in exchange for Riposte magazine. Riposte is targeted at women, is about women, but hasn’t an inch of flesh on its cover (only some rather beautiful typography with the names of the inspirational women inside), and the inside is packed with features about women it’s quite possible you’ve never heard of, but whose achievements and points of view on the world are a breath of brilliant fresh air. The women featured are of all places, races and ages and seem to be selected for how interesting, rather than famous, they are — take Betty Reid Soskin, interviewed in the current issue, the 95-year-old US park ranger who has lived through war, segregation, and now Trump, and has some pretty wise words to share about it all.
  3. Get involved in the inVISIBLE women project, which aims to increase the number of statues representing women around the UK. Despite our society’s evident obsession with the female aesthetic, statues are dominated by the male form (at a ratio of more than 1:4) — atop rearing steeds, wielding weapons, seated on throne-like chairs blown up to super-size. There has been some success in local communities working with their MPs to change that — the inVISIBLE women website will tell you if your local MP has got involved in their survey yet.

These amazing projects embody this year’s #beboldforchange mantra. I’m going to make one change for my own education — to read more widely about the incredible, inspirational women who have shaped history, science, politics, the arts…but whose memory wasn’t conveyed to me at school or via the plaques and statues I see around my city. And if I can muster enough artistic talent, I will endeavour to share my little tributes, bringing female heroes from our past to life next to Beyoncé and Michelle and Lena.