Jayne Dowle: Time to reflect on day of celebration

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HOW ironic is this? International Women’s Day has been marked by a survey saying that British women have the most leisure time in the western world. Just when we’re supposed to be celebrating our achievements and highlighting progress across the globe, we get into an argument over the washing-up.

Only Norway beats us, apparently. Credible research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that we enjoy, on average, 339 minutes of relaxation a day. By my reckoning that’s almost six hours. I can’t even begin to imagine having six hours to do nothing. It takes me all my time to find six minutes.

It says here though that these lucky “average” ladies clock up 126 minutes watching TV and 87 minutes seeing friends. Every day? More than two hours sitting down at a stretch? Almost an hour-and-a-half having coffee and chatting? Is this some alternative universe which no-one has told me about? I don’t know anyone who fits into this category. Not even my mother, and she’s retired.

Of course, you can make a survey say whatever you want it to say. However, when you think about the laudable aims of International Women’s Day, there’s something galling about it. The struggles and achievements of women all over the world have been reduced to a competition to see who does the most work and who sits around painting their nails and watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

International Women’s Day is more than 100 years old. It was invented by the American socialist movement to recognise the battles of women working in the textile industry. These women fought for fair and equal working conditions. And they fought to be given the vote in a democratic society. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this, because I think the day itself has become a difficult concept to grasp. It’s now run by the United Nations with the honourable intention of highlighting the issues which affect women around the world. All too often though it seems like a remote and intangible event, unrelated to our own personal lives.

We have to ask ourselves though, what was the point of suffragettes chaining themselves to railings? Why did women bother burning their bras? Why have we fought tooth and nail to be recognised on equal terms and for equal pay in the workplace if it all comes down to housework in the end? Indeed, what is the point of a special day set aside for women if this is all we can celebrate?

And yet, although the ideal of a day at the beginning of March set aside especially for women is tricky, there is still a point to it. If there wasn’t, we wouldn’t be talking about it now. It makes us stand back and ask ourselves questions about what women do and how they do it. It forces us to compare our own experience with the experience of women in other countries. It highlights the many freedoms we leisurely women of the western world enjoy in comparison to our sisters living under oppressive regimes. And it makes us think about how to talk to our daughters about what it means to be a woman in the world.

So when they ask us what’s the point of International Women’s Day, here’s what we should say. We should tell them that despite the Equal Pay Act of 1970, women are still paid, on average, 15 per cent less than men. We should point to the fact that men outnumber women almost four to one in the House of Commons. And if they are old enough, we should find a way of telling them that girls, even in Britain, are still traded and sold as slaves. That daughters are growing up in families having no rights, subject in some cases to abhorrent practices such as female genital mutilation. And that every survey ever conducted on the subject finds that women are cracking up under the strain of the twin responsibilities of earning money and caring for others. These women probably don’t have six hours to themselves in a month, never mind a day. Recent research by a clinical psychologist at Oxford University found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

If International Women’s Day seems like a remote and outdated commemoration, marked by spurious facts and figures and well-intentioned events, we should remind ourselves of this. Surveys about housework have their place, but a women’s place is not just in the home.