Travel as a Feminist: International Women’s Day 2017

Powerful women standing back to back and wearing embroidered headbands and tribal face paint against blurred background

Happy International Women’s Day! Being a feminist and being a travel addict can sometimes cause problems, from the politics of travel safety advice to the never-ending stream of sexist travel campaigns (ahem, Air New Zealand flight safety video featuring bikini-clad girls…). However, when you dig deeper, you’ll find enlightened feminist views across the world.

Today, the International Labour Organisation published the ILO-Gallup report, revealing that 70% of women and 66% of men (from nearly 149,000 people surveyed) would like women to be paid for their work. These positive findings included support from many women in countries where paid employment is rare, such as the UAE.

But what does it mean to be a feminist and travel? Besides the theory, how can you stay true to your principles when you’re on the road?

Women on strike with banners and placards in Iceland during 1975 feminist action in monochrome photo
90% of the Icelandic female population went on strike for a day in 1975. They made their point – what about you? Credit: Women’s History Archive.

What is a feminist, and what does it have to do with travelling?

Do you believe women should have the same fundamental rights and opportunities as men? Then you’re a feminist. You don’t have to be a woman to hold this belief. You don’t need to burn your bra or hate men, by the way.

In terms of the travel industry, here’s where feminism may kick in:

  • You don’t see why a woman couldn’t be a pilot, a ship’s captain, a Prime Minister, or the CEO of a global hotel chain. Equally, you have no problem with a man being a midwife, a nurse or a primary school teacher. However, you do see the gender pay gap as archaic and unfair.
  • You’d believe women should have equal voting rights, equal pay and full education. Basically, equal human rights. When this isn’t in place, you know that women are left disadvantaged.
  • You know global issues around women’s reproductive rights, such as restrictive abortion laws (see Ireland’s #Repealthe8th campaign, or the USA’s Planned Parenthood), forced marriages (see charities like Karma Nirvana) or Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), need to be discussed, not brushed under the carpet.
  • You see equality as something that should matter every day of the year, not just on International Women’s Day.
Retro woman on top of mountain wearing walking gear - black and white photo
Here’s one from my vintage photo collection: anonymous woman sitting nonchalantly on top of a mountain.

How to get into the spirit of International Women’s Day

  • Stanfords bookshop is offering ‘buy one get one half price’ on selected books by female writers, spanning fiction and non-fiction. I’d recommend A Woman in Berlin (a haunting diary of Berlin in the final days of Nazism and the equally brutal Soviet invasion, when thousands of women were raped by soldiers), Travels with My Aunt (Graham Greene’s light-hearted book about a kick-ass elderly aunt and her straight-laced nephew – or so it seems), and Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere (Jan Morris’ account of Trieste, an Italian port with multiple rulers and identities over the centuries).
  • If you notice there are no female artists in a gallery, or no female writers mentioned in a library tour, question why. Speak out on social media (particularly useful for getting rapid responses to a complaint!). Even when you’re choosing cultural activities, the creeping male bias can affect what you see and where you spend your money. In 2011 I wrote a piece for Bitch Media highlighting the minority of art galleries that are headed up by women. Many leading galleries have a terrible track record for exhibiting art by females – yet they are quite happy to display nude women depicted by male artists, as pointed out by activists The Guerrilla Girls. When a woman is only acceptable on canvas, not behind it, something ain’t right.
  • When someone refers to an air hostess as a “trolley dolly”, or tells a woman to “get back in the kitchen”, don’t let it slide. Several media outlets have noted that the airline industry is inherently sexist, but a change in passenger attitudes would also help.
Man knitting on Peruvian island with knitted traditional hat and woolen items.
One of the male knitters on Taquile Island, Lake Titicaca.

Tracing women’s stories and challenging gender stereotypes

The Women’s Museum (Kvindemuseet) in Aarhus, Denmark, is on my wish list; it’s been around since 1982. Aside from its exhibits, the museum also has an education programme aimed at local schoolchildren, teaching them about gender equality, democracy and sex education. I’m also keen to visit the Elizabeth A. Sackler Centre for Feminist Art, in Brooklyn.

In the low-key but hugely significant Museum of the Resistance in Brussels, I found a powerful tribute to the victims and survivors of Ravensbrück – a Nazi concentration camp solely for women (and occasionally their children). It’s often overlooked in history books, despite the fact that the horrors here were no less traumatic than those of other camps. Many of the fiercest Auschwitz guards effectively cut their teeth here; countless women were forced to work for major German manufacturers, like Siemens, as slave labour. What’s more, Ravensbrück was where some of Britain’s SOE agents lost their lives. I couldn’t believe this place was a side note in history, but I can’t help wondering if it was deemed less important because there were no male prisoners.

In terms of gender role reversal, my experience on Taquile Island, in Peru, was pretty hard to beat: it’s home to a community of male knitters. Watching men pick up the knitting needles was pretty surreal, but it proved that jobs don’t need to be gendered. If you do come across a great case of reversed gender stereotypes, make sure you celebrate it.

Will you be a feminist traveller from now on, and not just for International Women’s Day? I hope we can count on your support.