March 8 is International Women’s Day. On this day, men in Eastern Europe send flowers to the women in their lives, while the women finally get a much-needed break from housework.
In the rest of the world though, March 8 does not hold much significance. The odd gathering takes place, but many of my friends have no idea when International Women’s Day actually is. Which makes the style in which I celebrated it last month – at the Fox Club in Mayfair, central London – especially memorable. Within the lovely setting of this private members’ club, a dozen women from across the globe communed, to exchange stories about our lives and those of our grandmothers. What could have been more apt?
The backdrop of a London overwrought with leaden skies and puddles also proved poignant, at least for me. It was cold and drizzly. This is the London I know like the back of my hand. I may moan about it and grumble, but its familiarity makes me feel at home.
Conversation hummed as we sat down to a lunch hosted by the Hong Kong Society Women’s Group. I had been invited to read extracts from my novel alongside Kerry Young, whose debut work Pao was published in 2011 to much acclaim by Bloomsbury. Neither of our novels has any Hong Kong connection, but Karen Luard (who had arranged the lunch) wanted Kerry and I to share our experiences of being part of the far-flung Chinese diaspora.
When discussion was eventually opened up to the floor, there were fascinating contributions from our audience. Because my novel tells the story of a woman who starts a business to save her family, it made many of those present think about the women in their own families, especially their grandmothers. Whether they hailed from South Africa or Malaysia, the stories they recounted had a common thread: they featured stoical old women, all unsung, who were not well-educated but who sustained their families. These grandmothers used whatever means they could: some sewed; others, like the heroine in my novel, cooked. Without so much as a moment’s thought, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers were unwitting pioneers.
And pioneers are not always appreciated, certainly not during their lifetimes. How much consternation, ridicule even, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers could have faced. We think we have an easier time today – and that is true in many ways – but there have been many occasions when I have felt extremely uncomfortable listening to the way male friends or colleagues talk about women, especially about those women who dare to stand above the parapet. Their tone is sneering, coloured by a disdain which allows misogyny in all its subtle forms, to be disguised.
Take Hillary Clinton. I have heard her reviled in ways reserved only for female politicians. Yes there are plenty of male politicians who are hated, loathed even, but I have never heard them discussed in the same scornful tone – one which veers well beyond contempt.
And there are still people today who would not vote for a woman.
April 8 saw the passing of Margaret Thatcher, a towering figure no matter what you thought of her. I arrived in Britain months after she became Prime Minister, and became an adult during her tenure. She was nothing if not polarising: most strong personalities are. Amidst the hubbub, it is easy to forget that she was a pioneer – it could hardly have been a doddle being the country’s first female Prime Minister. As Barack Obama tweeted, “She stands as an example to our daughters that there is no glass ceiling that can’t be shattered.”
I could not have put it better. Thankfully, glass ceilings everywhere continue to fall. But more International Women’s Days will have to pass before we can all truly say that we are as happy celebrating the birth of a daughter as much as that of a son.