Forget celebrities and endless statistics, let’s celebrate the millions of anonymous women who look their oppression in the eye and say ‘fuck it’ and do what they want anyway.
Whether it’s International Women’s Day or any of the history months, two main stories emerge; the anomalous celebrity and the oppressed and victimised lump. So in LGBT month, we remember that Martina Navratilova is a lesbian and that people are still imprisoned for homosexuality in Russia; on International Women’s Day we remember that the windscreen wiper was invented by a woman, and that millions of women still suffer from domestic violence. The aims of these narratives are laudable, they remind us that members of an oppressed group can be successful and that much work remains to be done to end the oppression. However, there is a major problem with this pattern in that it only ever plays into the dominant narrative; that this poor minority can’t really manage for themselves and we have to help them, poor things.
Malala is a great example of the anomalous celebrity. Don’t get me wrong, she is fantastic. But there are thousands of other Pakistani girls who deserve admiration. Every day they know the risk they run, and yet still they go to school. I can’t face school when I have a cold. I wonder how many times the thought runs through their heads ‘I’m not sure I fancy risking getting blown up today, I think I’ll just stay in bed.’ But still they defy the pressure and the danger and they walk to school.
In history we have the Pankhursts who swanned to fame on the backs of hundreds of forgotten women. These women never became celebrities, often their children and grandchildren never knew the way they had campaigned in the face of abuse and violence, balancing political action with housekeeping, only to see themselves reviled in the press and then ignored by history. Without their groundwork, though, the vote for women would still be an issue.
We also have the countless women in this country who marched and protested and campaigned between the wars so that we now have maternity pay and holidays, reasonable working conditions and protection under the law from exploitative bosses. These rights didn’t appear out of thin air, they were fought for and won by women who refused to accept the status quo, who refused to be bullied or intimidated out of their demands.
Whether it is going to school or going to work or just continuing to breathe, I want to salute the courage of those whose names we won’t ever know, the ordinary bravery of women who won’t give up and who won’t give in. These women ignore the jeers and leers and harassment and go to work as engineers, plumbers and electricians. These are the lawyers and civil servants who know they are excluded from the Old Boy’s network and fight their way up anyway. These are the women who are everyday sheros and we ignore. Let us remember them on International Women’s Day.