School of Cultural Studies and Humanities

Celebrating extraordinary women on International Women's Day

Two years ago, for International Women’s Day, I was invited to Leeds Left Bank to talk about ‘Extraordinary Women’. 

The triumphal tone of the title might put some people off, but in a moment of optimism I agreed, and talked for an hour about some milestone moments in women’s history, moving from Olympe de Gouge, who penned the ‘Declaration of the Rights of Women’ in 1791 to Malala Yousafzai, via the Suffragettes and 1960s consciousness raising groups. It was fun to talk about how things have changed, even if the change has been incremental, and even if we are not quite there yet. But this year, with 12 months of pandemic to look back on, things seems a bit different, and I am reminded that as well as talk of progress, this is also a time of year where people take to twitter to point out that there is still a gender pay gap, and therefore a long way to go before we can start to talk about equality. The ONS have figures on the gender pay gap that run to April 2020, with some headline figures including an overall gap pf 15.5% . The gap is ‘close to zero for full-time employees aged under 40 years but … over 10% for older age groups,’ suggesting that women still pay the price for bearing children, and continue to be less likely to get promoted.

Anyone still clinging to a basic narrative of progress is having to cling very hard, thanks to the unequal impact of the pandemic on men and women’s economic lives. On a global level, the UN have published figures that highlight the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on women compared to men. They state, as an example, that ‘Globally, 70 per cent of health workers and first responders are women, and yet, they are not at par with their male counterparts. At 28 per cent, the gender pay gap in the health sector is higher than the overall gender pay gap (16 per cent).’ Citing a study by the Fawcett Society, the BBC reported fears that the pandemic would widen the pay gap here in the UK, stating that a ‘third of working mothers reported having lost work or hours due to a lack of childcare during the pandemic’. Worryingly, the impact was much worse—at 44%-- ‘when it came to Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) mothers.’ In an article published on the 50th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, The Guardian pointed out that women still tend to be in low paid and part time work, while the pandemic has extracted what they are calling a ‘motherhood penalty’. Many of us have observed at first hand that when schools and nurseries are closed, many employers cling to the assumption that it is more ‘natural’ for mothers than father to look after kids at home.

And yet, on International Women’s Day, we must think beyond the pandemic, and continue to highlight work done not only by ‘extraordinary’ women, but by all of us. For me, hope comes from my students. In recent years I have supervised dissertations on women spies in the Second World War, women in the House of Lords, women in art, and women in the French Revolution. I’ve supervised students working on drag culture and cross dressing, thinking about how we might redefine our traditional ideas about men and women, gay and straight. History can teach us a lot, and teaching history gives me hope for the future. Maybe in a few more years we won’t even need to have an International Women’s Day anymore.

 
Image of Rachel Rich's talk about Left Bank

Rachel delivering her talk at Left Bank Leeds

And yet, on International Women’s Day, we must think beyond that pandemic, and continue to highlight work done not only by ‘extraordinary’ women, but by all of us. For me, hope comes from my students. In recent years I have supervised dissertations on women spies in the Second World War, women in the House of Lords, women in art, and women in the French Revolution. I’ve supervised students working on drag culture and cross dressing, thinking about how we might redefine our traditional ideas about men and women, gay and straight. History can teach us a lot, and teaching history gives me hope for the future. Maybe in a few more years we won’t even need to have an International Women’s Day anymore.

Dr Rachel Rich

Reader / School of Cultural Studies & Humanities

Rachel Rich is a Senior Lecturer in History. Her interest is the cultural and social history of modern Europe, with a particular interest in class and gender. Her research has focused on food and eating habits and, currently, women's timekeeping practices in nineteenth-century France.

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