Taking International Women’s Day 2017 to heart

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Women in colourful clothes on a catwalk

Julie Anne Mitchell

National Heart Foundation Spokesperson on Women

An invitation too hard to refuse

Last October an email inviting me to attend New York Fashion Week came courtesy of the American Heart Association. Their Go Red for Women campaign, which raises awareness about heart disease in American women, is sponsored by Macys and a red dress collection fashion event is hosted each year. The event features leading fashion designers, film stars and well-known models all showing their support for women’s heart health.

Once the euphoria of opening that first email subsided I wondered if by accepting the invitation I was buying into a stereotype – namely that the only way to get women’s attention is to talk to them through fashion.

When it comes to style I am not your go-to person. I prefer High St Design to haute couture and consider myself lucky if I score a bargain at Myer or David Jones sales.

However, an invitation to this event is a rare and coveted thing so when it popped up in my mailbox, to say I was thrilled – despite my lack of interest in fashion – is an understatement. The invitation was too good to refuse.

Four months later, it was my privilege to be taken backstage at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York to see to models being prepared and interviewed by the media. I was seated in the second row to watch a fashion show only metres from Katie Holmes, the MC. The music was loud, the lights were bright, the dresses were gorgeous and the brilliant, shiny red runway was mesmerising. I was star-struck and for the next two hours, I had an experience I am not likely to ever witness again.

Can fashion be a feminist statement?

There is no denying that the ‘dress red’ movement in America is enormous. The event was established in 2003 by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and the American Heart Association, and supported by various other national health organisations. It aims to ensure women know they are at risk of heart disease (it is the number one killer of American women) and are aware of the steps they can take to protect their health.

A small red dress is their iconic symbol and for one day in February each year, American women are encouraged to wear something red. In Australia, the statistics are the same and we support the Go Red for Women campaign, but with a more overt message to make the invisible nature of heart disease in women more visible by working with women, clinicians and researchers.

I countered my argument however, by reasoning that fashion has the capacity to express things, way beyond the texture of a skirt or the shade of a blouse. It can be a metaphor, a sign or a symbol for something greater.

Take the Pussy hat Project. While I was in New York I stayed with my friend Barb and her daughter Tamara, who had both proudly worn their hand knitted pink pussy hats at the Women’s March in Washington on the 21 January 2017. Like hundreds of thousands of others, they had felt compelled to take action in defence of gender equity for all people in America – a sentiment that was echoed in demonstrations around the world.

In that moment, the simple act of wearing a pink hat or in the instance of heart disease in women, a red dress, symbolised something far more important than sartorial choice. It spoke to a belief and through identification with others symbolised how the power of the collective has the capacity to build recognition and drive change.


The theme for 2017 International Women’s Day (IWD) is ‘empower a woman, empower a nation’ and it calls on all of us to take small personal actions that can help build to women’s advancement.

Options for everyday action include:

  • in what ways will you challenge bias and inequality in the workplace, the school room or on the sports field?
  • How will you advance recognition of women’s achievements in the social, economic, cultural or political spheres?
  • In what ways will you mentor young women around you; to encourage them to aim higher and support them in their journey to achieve their goals?

In 2016 the IWD call to action was a pledge for parity. In 2017 the call goes further and asks us all to take action by registering our commitment at #BeBoldForChange.

Our 2017 International Women's Day pledge for action

Here at the Heart Foundation, our commitment is to challenge science in calling for more gender representation and analysis in medical trials to understand the subtle, but significant sex differences that exist in heart disease . We also want to see more recognition of gender differences in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of heart disease; more women enrolling in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses; and more representation of women in senior levels of medicine.

Precedents for this focus exist. Investment in breast cancer research in women over the last thirty years has made a notable impact on survival rates and the gains made in this space point to the potential that could be achieved elsewhere. Unfortunately, until recently, clinical research has either relied predominantly on male participants with findings extrapolated to women or has not involved high levels of gender analysis to look at the subtle responses men and women have to the different interventions tested .

As a result, though women have lower rates of heart disease than men in Australia, their health outcomes compared to men are much worse and this is a common trend across the globe. One can only imagine the improvement to women’s health that could be achieved if the full benefit of the tools and knowledge we now have, had taken greater consideration of the needs of women.

Women’s health is an equal rights issue and if that involves wearing a red dress, a white shirt, or a multitude of coloured ribbons to show support, I am all for it. Of course wearing your passion is not enough, it also needs to be backed by actions, thoughts and deeds. So on this March 8 International Women’s Day, reflect on what domain of women’s advancement you are going to champion in the coming year. Will it be health, education, workforce or something else? Whatever it is, if the mood takes you, scan your wardrobe and wear your colours proudly as you take action. We at the Heart Foundation will be doing the same .