International Women’s Day: three issues approached through Eurovision

Today is the International Women’s Day (IWD). And the world and history of Eurovision are filled with women. A huge majority of Eurovision winners are female, and most winning bands had a female lead singer (Katrina and the Waves, Teach-In, Riva, etc.). Today, I want to celebrate the IWD through the filter of Eurovision history, songs and artists.
Women’s Day was first held internationally on March 19th, 1911. The date of March 8th was then set as an official Sovietic holiday, before being adopted by the United Nations in the 1970’s. It is a day of celebration and commemoration of women’s rights movements, and an official holiday in several Eurovision countries (Moldova, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan).
The issues that women have to face are many and diverse, varying with cultures, countries, social background, education level, and many other factors. Today, I want to underline three of these many issues, with the help of the wonderful Eurovision history.

Violence against women

We are often reminded of how violent a woman’s life can be, even in the most developped countries. We hear figures in the media about rape or domestic violence, we hear slogans on official campaigns. Violence against women was the theme of four UN International Women’s Day (1999, 2007, 2009 and 2013), actually.
But what Eurovision offers is stories, and they usually have far more impact than slogans.

Domestic violence

The most recent song adressing this issue was obviously Sanja Vučić’s “Goodbye (Shelter)“, for Serbia in 2016. The song is the testimony of a woman victim of domestic violence. The lyrics never explicitly talk of the violence and of its nature, making this situation more universal — even if it is suggested that the violence is physical. Sanja’s woman could be anyone, victim of beating, constant verbal assault, domestic sexual violence… It relies on suggestion, and that’s why it works.

Every time I say goodbye
You try to hold me by your side
Couldn’t fight my way out of your hands

But the song isn’t just a testimony. It is also a call for all victims to give them the strength to fight back, and before that, to admit what is happening to them. Many people victim of violence and harrassment are in denial, and it is especially true with women. Because they thought they “had it coming”, because they still love their husbands or companions, etc. This issue is paramount, and linked to all the others: one can’t solve a problem that one refuses to see. In the song, Sanja realizes that her denial was wrong and caused her more harm.

I played a fool so many times
Can’t even count it
[…] I thought that it was supposed to hurt me
I thought that it was love


We didn’t have wait until 2016 to have women singing about violence. In 1968, former Eurovision winner Isabelle Aubret sang “La Source” for France. This song is a piece of art telling a terrible story with simplicity and suggestion. It is less explicit than Sanja’s song, yet anyone understand that Aubret sings about the rape and murder of an innocent girl from the countryside.

One day as she was going to town
Through the woods where she passed
She suddenly saw, motionless
Three men who were looking at her.
[…] They were there, three, waiting for her
Three men-wolves, this ewe
She had far too tender a flesh
They had far too much appetite

The softness and sweetness of the melody and of Isabelle Aubret’s performance and voice gives a specific aura and impact to the song. It is not the angry Sanja, but it still works. What is beautiful about this song is how the lyrics tell this story in a mythological way. The victim was an innocent girl who died tragically, and when her body was lifted from the ground after being found, a spring (source) appeared under her. This is something you’d expect from the Greek and Roman Gods, who honour innocent victims by transforming them or creating rivers, springs and seas where they died.

Feminity and gender roles

This is a classic, and yet a very difficult topic to address. Because the critic of gender roles can quickly escalate into an utter reject of anything deemed “feminine” or “masculine”. And there is much to be found in Eurovision to have a nuanced approach to this issue.

Fighting gender roles…

First, let’s go back to the 1960’s, for the history of the contest has an incredibly relevant example in the Danish song for 1965. “For Din Skyld” (For Your Sake), sung by Birgit Brüel, had truly remarkable lyrics for its time, and they speak for themselves.

For your sake I wear rustling skirts
For your sake I’m girlish, sensitive and coy
For your sake I have to be conquered every time
For your dream is to tame me, weak and shy
While I bravely resist
Every time, must be like then
Every time I give, you’d rather take
But my dream is to love in friendship
I’m tired of my femininity
For it makes you so broad-shouldered
I don’t care for men, who are men
But for men, who are human
For your sake the comedy’s over
For your sake it’s time to take off the masks
For your sake your lover revolts
I’m not your prey, but peer
Human, I say it for your sake
For otherwise I’ll slide away

These lyrics were written by a man, Poul Henningsen, a Danish thinker who praised tolerance and democratic principles. And they make this song one of the very first work of a new wave of feminism in Europe at the time. Before the 1960’s, feminism was mainly political: it was about rights and liberties (to vote, to divorce, to work, to spend money, etc.). Only in the 1960’s and especially in the 1970’s did feminism started to fight gender stereotypes and social pressure, in Europe. In 1965, this message was still a minority one.

… without rejecting feminity

But yet, as I said, one must not completely reject feminity (and masculinity). IWD isn’t about that. And neither is Eurovision. Actually, on first thought, the contest might look very stereotypical as far as women are concerned.
After all, the generic Eurovision song is a love song sung by a woman, often vulnerable. However, a lot of those songs are loved by fans (“Everything“, “Unsubstantial Blues“, “Why Me?“). And love songs are a reflection of many realities that women experience just as much as men.
Also, one can’t deny how sexualized some female acts have been in recent years. But actually, they were either satirical (like Poland 2014) or conveying a strong “girl power” (“Shady Lady“). And make no mistake: those women knew what they were doing, and are confident in their feminity.
To me, one of the most relevant act on this matter is the Latvian victory in 2002. “I Wanna” combines the girl power, the love song with a woman yearning for a man, and the acceptance of feminity. This last point is important, because the whole choregraphy (wich definitely played a part in the victory) is about a woman coming to term with herself and her feminity, accepting it fully. And Marie N truly shines once she’s free of the men’s clothes. Only then does she take the upper hand in her relationship and become the sunshine in her lover’s eyes.

It’s all about freedom

I am certainly not saying all women must be like Marie N. But they shouldn’t be afraid to be so. Just like they shouldn’t be afraid to be like Marija Šerifović, Patricia Kaas, Katrina or Aminata. Or all of these, like Valentina Monetta.

Women in politics and female leaders

I have to confess, this issue is hard to compare with the other two. But I wouldn’t say it is less important, because the field is different. And broad: female leaders are not just in politics, and Eurovision has not much history with female political leaders. Partly because female political leaders are rare, and most parliaments and local councils have a majority of male members.
It is still important to remember that more and more women are heads of governments or heads of state in Europe, from the UK to Serbia, from Estonia and Lithuania to Malta.
However, some Eurovision female artists have made it into politics. The first one who would come to mind is obviously Dana, the first Irish winner. More than twenty years after her victory, she was elected to the European Parliament. She was also twice the candidate to become President of Ireland, as an Independant canidate, in 1997 (where she finished third) and 2011.

International Women's Day 2018
Dana’s presidential campaign in 2011, and Åse Kleveland in 2009

Another artist who made it into politics, but not only, was Åse Kleveland. She represented Norway in 1966, with her song “Intet er nytt under solen”. There, she was the first female artist who didn’t wear a dress, having chosen to wear a pantsuit instead. She was also playing most of the music in her act with her guitar, the orchestra playing only a small role in her song. Twenty years later, she hosted the first ever contest held in Norway, after Bobbysocks’ victory in 1985.
In the 1980’s, she occupied leading positions in the Norway Association of Musicians. And in 1990, she became Minister for Culture in Gro Harlem Brundtland’s third government (the woman who first wrote about sustainable development). In 1999 she became president of the Swedish film institute, then in 2007, chairwoman of the Norwegian Humanist Association, one of the largest humanist association in the world.
Of course, there are many more examples, such as the many women who are and were part of the teams organizing the Eurovision Song Contests, including three Executive supervisers, Christine Marchal-Ortiz (1996, 1998-2002), Marie-Claire Vionnet (1997) and Sarah Yuen (2003). Just today, we learned that Eurovision 2018’s Core and Creative Teams had several women in key positions: Show Producer, Head of Events and Logistics, Head of Marketing and Communication, etc.
==> Learn more about the official UN actions for IWD on unwomen.org <==
The ESCXTRA team whishes a happy (International) Women’s Day to all girls and women in the world, Eurovision fans or not!

Vincent Mazoyer

I'm a French Eurovision fan, and an ESCXTRA Editor since August 2017. I love following national selections and live tweeting on Destination Eurovision / Eurovision CVQD for ESCXTRA. Outside of this nice Eurosphere, I'm a "fan" of the audio medium, from radio podcasts to commercialy-released audios, Modern Pentathlon, and more generally a business and law student.

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