International Women's Day did us a disservice by ignoring the fact that we are people first writes Melanie McDonagh.

There was an inspiring doodle on the Google home page for International Women's Day on Sunday. There were women in lab coats, chefs' hats, judges' wigs, astronauts' suits and - an inclusive touch - in hijab, doing calligraphy. The intention was to make the unenlightened think: "Wow, women can do all these high-powered things. Isn't that just fabulous?" To which my own, irritable response was yes, of course, they/we, can; why state the obvious? Why go on about it?

The Google doodle which featured for International Women's Day. Photo / Google
The Google doodle which featured for International Women's Day. Photo / Google

Indeed, it's hard to go through International Women's Day without a mild sense of embarrassment. Classic FM and Radio 3 in the UK, for instance, celebrated under-recognised female composers. That's very nice; it was, for instance, lovely to hear Elisabeth Claude Jacquet de la Guerre last week as Radio 3's composer of the week. But can you just imagine trying to shoehorn into a single day Men in Music? You're talking about the entire canon of classical music.

Ditto women in art... the non-contemporary ones who come to mind, such as Angelika Kauffmann, Elisabeth Frink and Evie Hone, simply remind us of the glaring, overwhelming predominance of men. Women in literature, though, now you're talking. Yet The Irish Times rather despairingly headed a celebratory feature on Irish women writers by asking: "Maria Edgeworth, Edna O'Brien and Anne Enright... who else?"

Celebrating women in this that or the other field isn't a feelgood exercise; it's a reminder of how impossible it would be to put the boot on the other foot and celebrate men's contribution in the same discipline. This isn't to denigrate women; there are excellent reasons why there are fewer women artists than men. If you wilfully excluded women from the salons where ideas were exchanged and artists mingled, and from the studios and academies, well, of course you weren't going to get them flourishing in the same way as men.


But my unease about International Women's Day is more fundamental than that. It's why, in fact, I'd say I'm not a feminist. I'd prefer, if it's okay with you, to define myself as a human being rather than in terms of gender.

Dorothy L Sayers - the Peter Wimsey creator and, more to the point, a distinguished medieval scholar - put her finger on the problem. In a talk entitled "Are Women Human?" delivered to a women's society in 1938, she observed, "A woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.

"A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes; there is no harm in saying that women, as a class, have smaller bones than men... go more pertinaciously to church... or have more patience with small and noisy babies. In the same way we may say that... stout people of both sexes are better tempered than thin ones... What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women...and into which feminist women are a little inclined to fall about themselves."

She started her lecture by observing that the time for feminism had long past. Which was interesting for a woman who got her first class degree at Oxford exactly 100 years ago and had to put up with patronage from male academics of the kind she describes in her novel Gaudy Night. It wasn't that she was self-hating - she gave short shrift to those, including Dante, who idealised women - but rather, as another academic put it, "the liberation of women was not a cause Sayers espoused but a way of life she practised on the premises that male and female are adjectives qualifying the noun 'human being'?". Or to put it another way, humanity trumps gender.

That's the approach I think we should all take: humans and individuals first, men or women second. I'd say I'm a humanist rather than a feminist, if the word hadn't been misappropriated by militant atheists. Which isn't at all to say I don't enjoy the company of women - I do. My home life is almost embarrassingly egalitarian.

Most of the really inspiring women I have known weren't feminists. The woman to whom I owe most outside my family was my director of studies at my (women's) college, Zara Steiner, a distinguished historian, but no feminist. Elizabeth Anscombe was a familiar figure around college. A philosopher and friend of Wittgenstein, she used to give feminists apoplexy by arguing against contraception. Women such as these, like Sayers, were individuals, distinguished scholars with pronounced personalities, and didn't see any need to hang their identity on gender solidarity. I couldn't see them on Harriet Harman's Woman to Woman pink bus.

Me, I can't wait until we've seen the last of International Women's Day. But, I suppose, International People's Day doesn't have quite the same ring to it.