International Women’s Day

by haywardhelen


The Classic FM breakfast host let her guard slip this morning – International Women’s Day. ‘And what do you think?’ she asked, as a segue into the next piece of music. ‘Do we even need an International Women’s Day?’ And then, as if in answer to her question, ‘But then there are only two women players in the Vienna Philharmonic – which is just dreadful’.

Filling up water bottles, snapping lunchboxes shut, wiping down the kitchen table and grabbing work from my desk, before my daughter and I dash out to the car for the school run – these are not the most conducive moments to wonder whether we still need an International Women’s Day.

Half an hour later, walking uphill over a strip of bush overlooking Hobart, I have time to think. My track veers left into blackened bush, over tufts of burnt grass, inky black with rain. Life’s inessentials drift through my mind – I must remember to stop by a cash machine, pick up fish for dinner, drop off our broken DVD player and visit the post office. It takes a while for this flotsam to disperse and for larger themes to elbow their way to the fore.

Leaving the burnt scrub behind, the track evens out. My thoughts take a leap back twenty-five years, when, living in London, I befriended two young English women. A particular summer holiday rushes into my mind, when the three of us stayed in a farmhouse in southwest France. It was hot, dusty and the surrounding villages – all walkable to – were enchanting.

At the time the three of us had ‘proper jobs’ in London. Even so our futures were as open – and inviting – as the evening skies. I spent my time scribbling book reviews on the front verandah, and doing some landscape drawings. Kate made shortcrust pastry and dreamt of living permanently abroad. Sam read, drew and made mental maps of future novels.

Life was unfolding. However nothing big had happened to any of us. Kate had a childhood love that would shape the course of her life far more than she then realised. Sam, the daughter of a charismatic father and a brave but slightly embittered feminist mother, struggled to embrace one of her many possible futures. And me? I too was being formed by internal dramas, far more than I’d have admitted at the time.

Were these individual dramas, our personal efforts to shape a life for ourselves, influenced by gender? I certainly didn’t think so at the time. But I’m not so sure now. Perhaps finding a place in the world is still more difficult for women, than for men. Biology is no longer destiny – even the Vienna Philharmonic is being forced to offer blind auditions. But what if it’s not our biology so much as our personal complexes – the unspoken dramas that shape our souls – that are our destiny? Personal complexes that can’t help but be coloured by gender?

What if, I allow myself to think, women’s personal complexes continue to curtail their sense of entitlement? What if, no matter how talented a young woman is – how seemingly open her horizons – she ends up caring about all the wrong things? What if, in middle age, she ends up caring about servicing the DVD and buying fish for dinner, rather than leaving a lasting intellectual legacy, or some such?

Every year Sam sends me a birthday card – a true friend. This year’s card has on the front a photo of African women wearing hand-knitted colourful scarves. In her scrawling hand – made more scrawly for being written in bed – Sam tells me she is recovering from a virus that she’s had on and off for five weeks. Hence her day off work – helping children whose second language is English. She sounds reconciled with the way her life is going, but not triumphant. Grateful yet not buoyant.

By chance I also receive a missive from Kate, who I’d lost touch with for a few years. She is still working as the PA of the MD of an international cigarette company. She loves living in Madrid, even though her life there isn’t easy. Her older partner has been hit by cancer, she writes, and can no longer work. This means that the house in the country that they’ve painstakingly renovated over ten years must go on the market. She is sad but stoical – admirably so.

Sam, Kate and myself – three women living in different corners of the world, no longer young but not yet old. Women whose lives, to a large degree, have been defined by our loves, rather than by our careers. Women for whom life somehow happened – just as we were busy making plans for it. International Women’s Day.