Reflections on feminism for the International Women’s Day

Today I listened to a special broadcast on the classical music radio channel. An orchestra of women played a concert for international women’s day. The presenter introduced the soloists and said that for the benefit of those listening to the concert on the radio, he’d like to add that the musicians tonight are “stunningly beautiful”, and the first violinist is a “charming redhead”.

In a few words, he managed to make the whole event rather pointless.

This seemingly innocuous episode symbolizes in my mind some of the greatest problems women have to tackle today in order to realize their professional aspirations. The musicians in this orchestra were evidently successful, ambitious and talented career women who managed in their own way to break the ‘glass ceiling’ and attain a respectable and possibly stable job that reflects their abilities. Nonetheless, on the very occasion when their achievements are supposed to be celebrated, they are confronted again with the same typical stereotypes. An orchestra of women becomes in the presenter’s complementing words a flock of artistic amazons, a band of beautiful sirens that gathered to bewitch the culture aficionados. When have we heard that the male first violinist is a very handsome young blond? What presenter in their good mind would compliment a male conductor on his elegant hair cut? It is of course unimaginable.

After the International Women Day, which to me was just like any other day, I am inclined to believe that our educational efforts should not be pointed primarily at convincing women that they are as talented as man. Instead, we should aim at changing the social conventions of femininity and ‘re-conceptualize’ women in men’s mind as equal human beings. Every girl knows that beauty can open doors (and get you free drinks). But for the benefit of society as a whole, and our own professional ambitions, we should all take part in this mental change and demand that women should not be immediately associated with the same old feminine attributes like beauty, motherly affection, tenderness, patience and more.

women's day

It may seem a matter of little consequence. But to my mind, the different attitudes of society to men and women remain a real obstacle even if the legal and formal limits to gender equality have been lifted. In academia, we see a tendency to consider women as better teachers, administrators, welfare officers, but less as cutting edge researchers. Women are encouraged to explore ‘soft’ topics like gender studies or social history. A successful historian told me once that as a student in the 1960s she realized that if she was to be a professional academic she must specialized in political history and not gender or cultural studies because these were too feminine. This statement reflects both on what was considered scientifically serious, and what was deemed appropriate for a women historian. Perhaps today the situation has changed, but on the road to gender equality, women still face many difficult choices rising from new options available in the private and professional dimensions of their life. Moreover, new freedoms come with new burdens. Women are required to take life-changing decisions about having and taking care of children in the most crucial years for career-building. Men are relatively free, and perhaps oblivious of these concerns. This should be changed.

The point is that while the role of women has changed and expanded, social conventions have not really changed accordingly. A better society depends not only on  women’s achievements, but on society’s in general. Gender equality regards men as well. There is still a long way to go, but the change cannot come from a celebration of women’s achievements. Change will come when the barriers of social convention will be lifted and both men and women will understand their different qualities, mutual concerns and common goals. Then we shall have an International Humanity Day, rather than 1 Women Day and 364 Men Day.