My office is celebrating International Women’s Day next week and I am very ambivalent about the whole holiday. On one end, it’s nice to be celebrated, on the other, I’m uncertain about what we’re celebrating…
This holiday has been recognized in some fashion as far back as 1907. The United Nations declared it an official holiday in 1975. The movement was initiated by labor parties to improve the working conditions for women. To this day the celebration continues to be focused on women who work outside the home. At one point the holiday was actually known as “International Working Women’s Day”. Throughout the past century the holiday was very heavily celebrated in communist and socialist countries, this makes sense since that type of government extols the virtues of the proletariat. After the fall of the Soviet Union some countries abandoned the practice, although since then many have resumed it.
A part of me feels uncomfortable with “International Women’s Day” because it casts women as oppressed, as victims of society. This may be true for many women across the country and the world, but it does not ring true for me or many of my college-educated friends. Or at least it doesn’t seem to be true. How can we know whether there is economic parity without access to our coworkers’ income? In a Huffington Post article First Lady Michelle Obama says it’s hard to think about salary and remember the pervading wage gap when taking a new job. All I can see is that I am doing much better than my mother was at my age or than my cousins back in Mexico. All I know is that I feel free; I am financially independent of a man, that’s much more than my mom or my grandma had at my age.
This feeling is best described by Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own” when she describes the freedom she felt after receiving an annual stipend from an inheritance:
“No force in the world can take from me my 500 pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me. So imperceptibly I found myself adopting a new attitude towards the other half of the human race.”
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
When I first read A Room of One’s Own I felt so excited to recognize that I have the freedom Woolf talks about. I felt excited to be part of progress as a woman who was enjoying freedoms that would’ve astonished the women of 100 years ago. I am a single woman in my late twenties, daughter of immigrants with my own apartment and car. I remember reading this passage to my mom with so much pride and happiness. I shared with her that my fridge was not working and that I had the money to buy myself a new one. A few years ago a broken fridge would have been an emergency, but at this time it felt gratifying to see that my well stocked emergency fund was serving its purpose. My mom laughed and agreed, she also suggested I start building myself a vacation fund. I am building a life that combines pleasure, meaning, and using my strengths; according to positive psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar these are the key ingredients for happiness. I do not spend time and energy resenting men or those from more privileged backgrounds than my own. At the same time, I acknowledge how lucky I am to have been born in the US and not in Mexico, where I would have had a lot less opportunities.
Everyone is blessed with self-agency. We can all decide what we focus on, be it inequality or gratitude for what we do have. This is different than complacency or being a doormat. A few months ago I had to go against my nature and repeatedly ask my manager for an overdue performance review along with a salary review. It felt very uncomfortable to have this conversation and respectfully persist. I would not have done it without the encouragement of a very good friend and mentor. My mentor is a woman who has done well for herself in her career in corporate America.
I once complained to her that I had not received a raise in the 18 months I had been in my position. She pointed out that the fact I was not getting a raise was not personal, rather it was a result of me not asking for it and that most companies do not actively try to increase their expenses. Whether it was right or wrong of my company to postpone my performance review was irrelevant. I needed to stand up for myself. Maybe I felt so uncomfortable having this conversation with my boss because I am a woman, but maybe this conversation is difficult for everyone regardless of gender. I am the first one in my family to work at a corporation, so I am very grateful to have met a mentor to help me navigate this area of my life.
In the not too distant past women were much more openly excluded from economic self-sufficiency. In the first chapter of A Room of One’s Own Woolf compares a lavish meal at the men’s college against a meager one at the women’s college where she was to present a lecture. After dinner she points this out to her host who shares with Woolf the difficulties of raising funds for a women’s college. Men are not too interested and most women have no money to give. Especially since married women in the UK were not allowed ownership of their own money until 1870. That is a mere 146 years ago. True, at the rate we’re going we many not reach parity for another 117 years, but today there are countless women like myself enjoying financial self-sufficiency. It is the kind of self-sufficiency that Woolf describes as essential for creativity. It is definitely not perfect, but it’s progress. Just like I take it for granted that a married woman can own her own property I hope to see my daughter, or at least granddaughter, take it for granted that she will earn equal pay for equal work.