Feminism should be big, not big business

International Women’s Day 2014 was turning into a celebration of women’s freedom to wear heels, be rich, be able to afford a good nanny

The first thing to land in my inbox on International Women's Day last Saturday was an email from Agent Provocateur, the posh, sexy lingerie company. The gist of the message of liberation: buy her this skimpy red satin negligee and that's half the battle sorted. Empowered by satin, your woman will be in a much better mood. Who knows where this might lead? She might give the house a good seeing to; alternatively, she might stand for the Dáil. Take your pick. Just bear in mind the words of uber-feminist Betty Friedan: "No woman gets an orgasm from shining the kitchen floor" or standing for a seat in Leinster House (I made that bit up).

The message of liberation did not end there. Agent Provocateur had constructed a wish list of women who would attend a putative dinner party of “feminist” desperados.

Those destined to share the "lime daquiries and hummus" (that's what women want, after all) were "sisters who are doing it for themselves - and for all of womankind". These invited sisters would include Caitlin Moran, Sheryl Sandberg, Aung San Suu Kyii, Adele, Jennifer Lawrence and orgasm expert Dr Ruth. What they would be wearing at this dinner party remained opaque.

Coincidentally, Sheryl Sandberg had booted her way into my raised consciousness the previous day when she was name-checked at a Dublin event run for International Women's Day by super-auditers Pricewaterhouse Coopers. Sandberg is the chief operating officer of Facebook, a billionaire and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. In between being rich and influential she finds time to write best-selling books for women which aim to provide a roadmap out of Deadendsville. "Social gains are never handed out. They must be seized," she writes in Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.


She may not have planned it this way, but Sandberg is singing the same tune as the original revolutionary founders of International Women’s Day. Leaning in to socialism, so to speak. Social gains will not be handed out, they do have to be seized. Red Sheryl may need a revolutionary rethink of the ideology that is making her the go-to gal for big business and the corporate world.

It was in this capacity, however, that Sandberg raised her head at the PWC event last Friday. Corporations are realising that an increased number of graduates are female, that this trend is only going one way, and that to keep selling their wares they need these female graduates to work for them - and to stay working for them.

Meanwhile, the top spots at many organisations (and PWC is no different) are occupied by men. According to Aoife Flood, PWC's global mobility programme manager, the company won't have parity of leadership roles for 100 years if they continue on the same road. "When talent rises to the top, we all win," she told her predominantly female audience.

The main speaker at the PWC event was, rather counter-intuitively, a man. Professor Brad Harrington had travelled from "Catholic" Boston College to share his research about work-life balance. Nothing he said didn't make sense, but it was clear that a corporate rationale is being applied now that 40 per cent of women in the US are their family's main breadwinners. Society simply can't afford NOT to include them anymore.

Harrington talked a lot about the benefits of a more equal life, and a more equal workplace. The equality enterprise will benefit the bottom line, he said. Men will do well from it too. There was no mention of feminism, though. This was gender equality for greater corporate good, gender equality that was irresistible and logical if the way we do business is to be sustained.

So International Women's Day 2014 was turning into a celebration of women's freedom to wear heels, be rich, be able to afford a good nanny. This was not about equality or revolution or feminism as it had begun at the start of last century. Arguably IWD 2014 was being pimped out to big business to bolster profits. The founding foremothers were probably thrashing around in their graves.

Luckily, on Saturday a coalition of organisations, including the Abortion Rights Campaign, Irish Feminist Network, USI and Action for Choice, took a more traditional approach by carting their home-made posters and megaphones along to Dublin's Central Bank for a rally. They were young, they were older, all sorts of women and all sorts of men. Privileged, not so privileged, hopeful and resigned.

Later, the National Women's Council of Ireland put a soapbox outside the GPO and a stream of feminist campaigners and activists, including Sabina Higgins, tried out their oratory technique. Some of us were more successful than others. But we all meant it and we all learned something - most notably, don't try to use notes in a blowing gale.

From there to Beyoncé on Sunday at Dublin’s O2. Teaming up with Sandberg, the now-married Single Ladies star features in a new campaign that urges girls to take leadership without the fear of being labelled “bossy.” “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” Beyoncé proclaims in the campaign. Well, we’re certainly not going to disagree with you B.

Beyoncé is a conundrum, seizing the power at the start of proceedings with a quote from a speech on feminism by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, yet uncorking what looked uncomfortably like a pole-dancing pastiche midway through the show. And we wish you'd kept your own name, Mrs Carter.

So there it was, International Women’s Weekend - as it has become - ending with a 10-foot projection of the word FEMINISM in lights high above the arena of the O2. Feminism is loud and proud, but it needs to avoid the glad-handing of corporations who plan to use it to turn tricks. It should be big, not big business. Feminism has always been about equal human rights for everyone on the planet. It has right running right through it.

But that's just my opinion. And as Bette Davis once said: "When a man gives his opinion, he's a man. When a woman gives her opinion, she's a bitch."