Celebrating Equal Pay

Women toast the day they finally catch up what men earned last year – redefining Feminism in the 21st century

When my then-boyfriend called me a feminist six years ago, I have to say I cringed.  Subsequent efforts by friends to equate my belief that women deserve the same opportunities, the same pay, and the same rights as men with the loaded term “feminism,” continued to leave me uncomfortable and unconvinced. Why should something that is surely by now de rigueur be marginalized as an “ism”? After decades of “Backlash” – to use writer Susan Faludi’s memorable term, feminism has come to conjure up lurid images of 1970s era bra-burning, man-hating, and an endless list of loveless stereotypes.

But equality for women is not de rigueur, it turns out – a reality we were reminded of Apr. 13, on Equal Pay Day in Vienna. The date marks the day on the calendar when women finally catch up to the men’s earnings for the previous calendar year. Since 2008, the Business and Professional Women’s Club in Austria has made the day an event to bring attention to pay inequality, and BPW Club Vienna Cosmopolitan made their event a wine-tasting get-together at Procacci Refettorio on Göttweihergasse in the First District.

A Viennese friend walked me to my destination, because he “wanted to see if Goettweihergasse actually exists.” It does, albeit in a very narrow, unlabeled form; nestled in surprising proximity to the Stephansdom, but very well hidden – you must know where to look.  I passed through the disconcertingly clean sliding glass door of Procacci and walked down the stairs into the cellar, not quite knowing what to expect.  Would we all hold hands, eat granola, and sing “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar?” Or, perhaps, would this be a 1980’s power suit evening, complete with oversized shoulder pads?

Neither, as it turned out. The cellar, with its brick walls and low lighting, high white tables and a plethora of wine glasses, was cordial and inviting, but without sacrificing an air of cool, elegant confidence. It was a small group, only about thirty women, some dressed casually, some in business attire, all friendly and welcoming, even to nervous newcomers like myself. A low table to the side held promotional material, booklets and pamphlets, but this was no rally and proselytizing was certainly not the goal. To some extent, and perhaps this was deliberate, the atmosphere recalled a gentlemen’s lounge; the wine-tasting that was to come now seemed especially appropriate. Marion Ebner-Ebenauer, the youngest of Austria’s top vintners, provided the wine and guided us through the evening.

Following the welcoming of two new members, discussion flowed, and slowly, a theme began to emerge that struck a deep personal chord, not necessarily a militant feminist one, but a personal and psychological one. Outward barriers to women’s equality and equal pay may be largely gone, but the internal barriers remain.  Despite the passage of several decades of growing emancipation, the wall remains in people’s attitudes, in their assumptions and feelings in relationships of all kinds, at all levels. One of the club members, an architect named Ingrid Habenschuss, related how “the young men who come by, they say they are the best. They’re the best architect, the best intern, the best….”  The women? We continue to sell ourselves short, often feeling compelled to apologize for often imagined failings. Women, it seems, still believe that they are unqualified and unworthy of high-level jobs. They continue to consider positions of leadership out of reach. Inferiority complexes and lack of self-confidence seem, to club’s Vice President Parissa Yazdani, to be a Frauenkrankheit – a women’s disease.

Then came the main event of the evening, the wine. We sampled four white wines and one red, all with the help of Marion’s careful and exacting tutelage. Wine is, as we learned, judged by its color, its aroma, and its taste, in that order. To judge the color, you tip the wine glass towards a white surface (such as the table cloth) and observe it against the background. Then you swirl it gently in the glass and give it a sniff. Lastly, and after long deliberation and much suspense, you take einen kleinen Schluck and – this is important – exhale through your nose while the wine is still in your mouth. The sense of smell, after all, contributes about 60% to one’s sense of taste.

Relaxed by the wine and canapés, the women began to mingle and the already amicable atmosphere became even more so.  There we were, comrades in arms, in a fraternity of good feeling… – and in that moment the purpose of such an evening and the club itself became clear to me. The WPC exists, says Andrea Kromer, an accountant, to provide support and encouragement, to provide for working women a counterweight to that all-pervasive Austrian institution, the Freunderlwirtschaft, the Old Boy’s Club.

Feminism still seems to be an awkward way to describe equality. Clichéd, dowdy, or even cutesy, it feels like the wrong word to describe the situation in today’s world. But the last battleground is always in one’s own mind, and before outward success, one must become master of one’s own demons – although of course I really mean “mistress of.”

To talk with others who have fought the same battles, some surely more difficult than anything I will ever have to face, is inspiring.And to relax together in a friendly, self-assured atmosphere did indeed seem fitting for 21st century feminism. Or perhaps, it’s the new status quo.

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