Sunday, May 3, 2009

Creeping misogyny

Often when I write about an issue that ‘gets up my goat’, as Kath Day-Night would say, the act of putting my ideas down soothes me. But since I’ve been focusing on the issue of women’s rights in Australia, the picture just seems to get more drastic – we need some smart, quick action across many fronts to make this a fairer country for everybody.

As a feminist spawned in the wild, rebellious, radical women’s movement of the early eighties I assumed things would just keep getting better for women, and in the nineties they seemed to be. But the issue of women’s social and economic progress is now on the backburner, and women are slipping behind in so many ways. At the same time the portrayal of women in the traditional media has gone sharply downhill along with a general ‘dumbing down’ of content.

In writing the following about my own country I’m fully aware that the majority of women in the developing world are in a far worse crisis. I don’t think the two are unconnected, of course. It amazes and saddens me that feminism is considered a dirty word in the West, or merely unfashionable, when so many women in the developing world have no control over their reproductive lives, no safe place to give birth, and suffer the effects of obscenely high infant mortality rates.

We still live in a world where millions of women can’t leave the house without male chaperones, where child brides are raped by their decades-older male ‘husbands’, where rape is a routine weapon of war in the Congo, and where many wives and sex workers risk contracting AIDS because they don’t have the social power to insist on protected sex. In such a world, what exactly is the alternative to feminism? There is none.

Below is a summary of some of the main issues related to feminism that desperately need some government and community attention in Australia.

Domestic violence
An amazing one in three women will experience some form of violence in their lifetime, prime minister Kevin Rudd said in a recent statement.

In 2005 the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated that more than 1 million Australian women had experienced violence at the hands of a previous partner since the age of 15; this represents 15 per cent of women aged 18 years and over (ABS 2006, Personal safety survey Australia,. cat. no. 4906.0, ABS, Canberra). Women and children’s lives are still being shattered by such violence in their hundreds of thousands, although I acknowledge that a minority of men are also victims.

We need stronger laws nationwide to ensure that the violent partner always leaves the family home. We need tougher prison sentences to deal with men who kill their partners who try to leave. We need more funding for anger management and much greater police protection for those women who have left their partners and live in fear of their lives. And we need to recognise that some men do not bash their partners but seek to control them by keeping total control of the finances.

Housework and childcare
The quality of the public debate around responsibility for housework and childcare has degenerated to an extraordinary degree in recent years. It’s a given now that women have the main hands-on parenting and housework role and that they are the ones who have to do the balancing act if they want to work outside the home. Women are now constantly advising other women about how they can do it better; the Australian Women’s Weekly is full of stories about such women, held up as role models for the rest of us.

Recently there was a debate on Radio National about a book a woman wrote on the challenges of combining parenting with artistic endeavours. The author confided without irony that she had squeezed writing the book in between caring for her children. The women involved in this discussion did refer to their (male) partners, but always in terms of the degree to which their partners supported them in their juggle/struggle – there was no sense in which it was a responsibility that might be shared equally.

Sadly, an Australian rural journalist lost her life in unfortunate circumstances about a year ago. She seems to have been one of those women who fell into the job and was naturally good at it. But the media coverage of her untimely death emphasised that she felt that mothering was her most important role. But why should she have to choose? And why is it suggested that this is the definition of a good woman – one who puts her children before her career – and not a good man?

Now, when it comes to gender roles and parenting the notion of individual choice is sacrosanct in our culture and I do not want to challenge that. Plenty of couples with babies and young children work it out in their own way; plenty of women want to be the ones to give up their careers for the first years of their child’s life. That’s fine. But the way things stand now, the debate is totally skewed in favour of the female partner doing this, even if she’s better qualified and earning more than the male.

We also need to remember that, sadly, a huge percentage of marriages end in divorce. Women who compromise their careers are leaving themselves open to poverty and lack of superannuation should they divorce – the statistics certainly bear this out. We need a systematic change in job design and employer attitudes to ensure that if women choose the role of full-time parent for the first years of their children’s lives they are still able to advance their careers.

We also need more options for part time work and family friendly hours generally, for both men and women, so that men can better share the burden of parenting as the children get older.

Body image
We bring up our young girls to be narcissistic and overly concerned with their appearance, and through the media and consumerism the culture as a whole sexualises young girls. This is leading to a situation where young children are developing eating disorders even before they hit puberty. Too much focus on appearance and their bodies detracts from the ability of young girls to act on and in the world.

Women in the media
According to commercial television, women now have a bewildering variety of career choices – whether it be porn star, neurotic housewife or emotionally over-invested mother.

Images of women on television are, I would argue, at a crisis point, even on non-commercial stations. Just one example: there is a very popular half-hour evening program in Australia called The Gruen Transfer. It’s an ironic, humorous take on the role of advertising in our society, featuring a host who is a stand-up comic, two regulars from the advertising industry, and two guests from the industry. I enjoy watching this show because it uses humour to tell some home truths about a form of media often taken for granted.

But the host and the two regulars are both male, and only one of the guests is ever female. This means four men on the panel and one woman! (The word ‘token’ springs to mind.)

This show should have been planned with gender balance in mind – the ABC is obligated through its editorial policy to provide a range of views from a cross section of the community. But let’s just give the ABC the benefit of the doubt for a minute and assume the show is reflecting the realities of the advertising industry.

If this is the case, it’s a worry for two reasons. Any industry that in 2009 excludes women to such an extent (and this is one where top execs earn seriously big biccies) has a major problem and should take a good, hard look at itself. If it’s a boy’s club it’s putting up major barriers against the talent and creativity of half the population.

But there’s another, just as pressing issue: the people who design the ads we’re bombarded with every day have a huge influence on our lives. And increasingly they’re portraying women in the most retrograde ways.

A recent ad for Nutrigrain breakfast cereal featured a 30-something mother whose sole aim in life seemed to be to see her son grow up to be an iron man (shades of Nazi Germany, where women’s main role was to produce male fighters for the Aryan cause?)

Another one showed B-grade celebrity Sonia Kruger, having taken her vitamin pill for the day and ready for a morning out. She was wearing heels so high I wondered how, despite the vitamins, she was going to make it out the door.

In fact, high heels – which can cause serious foot and postural damage over time – are becoming increasingly common on ads with daytime settings, ie with women dressed in ‘daytime’ clothes.

Yet another ad, supposedly hip and ‘with-it’ on gendered attitudes to housework, seems in fact to be trying to resign us all to the status quo. It shows a young couple expecting visitors, with the woman fussing over the state of the house and the man trying to reassure her. But she insists on cleaning the toilet, with the advertised product, as he watches approvingly. So it’s fine for women to be ‘neurotic’ about housework – lets men off the hook nicely. We desperately need more female advertising executives to show more realistic, wide-ranging images of women.

I don’t even want to talk about the skewing of programming overwhelmingly towards men in the area of sport – it’s too depressing. Of course some women watch sport and listen to sports commentary on the radio.

But it would be interesting to do a large survey on the breakdown of viewers and listener types in terms of gender, and my guess is you’d find that they were overwhelmingly male – so both our taxes and consumer dollars (ie what we unwittingly pitch in for advertising costs) are skewed towards male viewing and listening.

My local ABC radio station, for example, turns into a sports station on the weekend. And Channel’s Ten’s only HD station shows sport only, most of it being played by males – if that’s not masculinist, what is?

Sexist language
I’m troubled by the increasing use of the word ‘mankind’ in the media. This is related to the use of ‘man’ to mean ‘humans’ and ‘men’ to mean ‘people’ (the last is far less common but I think the connection is important).

Why not say ‘humankind’ instead of ‘mankind’? It’s one more syllable and two more letters. And it sounds kinder and more inclusive, because it is. It reminds us of our common humanity, to boot.

But what’s so insidious about ‘mankind’, you might well ask. Everybody knows it means women as well. Aren’t there more important things to worry about?

But ‘mankind’ and ‘man’ as collective nouns don’t clearly mean either ‘men and women’ or ‘all members of the male gender’. They mean one or the other depending on the context, which can change without notice. This very slipperiness of the meanings is the problem – the impossibility of pinning the meaning down. These words render women as ghosts or mere shadows, liable to appear one minute and disappear the next. At very best they subsume women into men, just as Eve was born of Adam’s rib and was originally part of him. At worst, they simply cause women to vanish altogether. The language ‘disappears’ them.

Male defensiveness
I am amazed at the defensiveness of some men when they feel confronted by what they see as reversed sexism, and it bothers me how quick these men are to jump to this conclusion – revealing a misogyny and fear of women’s power.

This male defensiveness can be really over the top. A few months ago I was listening to two female hosts on my local ABC radio station, filling in for a male host because it was a public holiday. One male talkback caller rang to have a whinge about the fact that two women were hosting, as if it was some kind of feminist conspiracy.

In another talkback radio program on the subject of equal opportunity laws, one man complained about the title of an ABC television comedy, Stupid Stupid Man. He seemed to miss the point that the show was mainly about men, featuring at least four men and only two women.

Why does all this matter?
It matters because it is morally wrong to effectively castrate and in some cases sexually enslave half the population.

It matters because if we allow misogyny to go unchecked it feeds on itself. More than 20 years ago, in her book The Reproduction of Mothering, feminist psychoanalyst Nancy Chodorow theorised that misogyny was so widespread because it was women who mainly looked after male children. She wrote: ‘psychologists have demonstrated unequivocally that the very fact of being mothered by a woman [I assume she means solely] generates in men conflicts over masculinity, a psychology of male dominance and a feeling of being superior to women’. She called for ‘a fundamental reorganization of parenting, so that primary parenting is shared between men and women’.

This makes perfect sense to me. It is overwhelmingly mothers who frustrate us and deny us by giving us boundaries as we mature. But in many cases children also live with the resentment of mothers who want to do more with their lives than look after them. If there was more of a gender balance in parenting roles, not only would girls grow up with broader career horizons, but boys would be less misogynistic.

It matters because, as Thomas L. Friedman says in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded, climate change and shrinking biodiversity threaten our existence on this planet, and we need all the human ingenuity and innovation we can get. We need the brains and energies of the 50 per cent of the population who are currently stymied in one way or another.

It matters on an international level because we desperately need every girl in the world to be educated, because she will have fewer children. I’m not being paternalistic here: educated women in general choose to have fewer children, and they may also have more economic and social power and more access to reproductive choices.

It matters because statistics show that the more rights women have in a particular country the more that country prospers. Ironic isn’t it? In those countries that oppress women the most, individual men may have undue sexual and social power – but the country as a whole will suffer.

Ideas for change
Here are just some possibilities for bringing the rights of women back into the spotlight in the Australian context.

A new book needs to be written about the state of women’s rights in Australia – what’s feminist Anne Summers been doing lately? There have been some new titles in the last couple of years but they’ve had a bit of publicity and then sunk. This new book should not have the word ‘feminism’ in it. Feminism is not the problem. Masculinism is. The book could be called something like: Masculinist Nation: The New Misogyny in Twenty-First Century Australia (even though it’s the same old stuff, just finding new inventive ways to manifest itself).

Start a new, national lobby group with a raft of aims/demands, something along the lines of the National Organisation of Women (NOW) in the US. It’s a great name and acronym – why can’t we steal it? We do have an organisation called the Women’s Electoral Lobby but it has a very low profile and the name suggests that it has a limited role.

Representatives from this national organisation could commence a speaking program for all schools, talking to both sexes about the history of feminism and the continuing struggles. (For non-Australian readers, the country is going through a drawn-out masculinist worship of all things warlike at the moment – this is not all bad, the average soldier needs to be remembered, but it must be balanced out with women’s ‘war stories’.)

For example, young people should know that in first wave feminism British women suffered force feeding (do they know how horrendous that is?) so women could have the vote. And in second wave feminism women put in untold hours of unpaid work to lobby for equal pay and equal opportunity, safety in the streets, equal access to uni education, safe places and legal safeguards for victims of domestic violence, legal safeguards against sexual harrassment, changes to divorce laws, etc etc etc.

Ask these young people to name one of the women who started second wave feminism in the US – they won’t be able to and no, Gloria Steinem was second generation – and then talk about and show images of some of these largely forgotten heroines.

Make a federal government minister responsible for improving the status of women, with no other ministerial responsibilities. She must report to parliament each year about progress according to set criteria. Don’t let her be Tanya Plibersek. She’s a nice woman but way too gentle. This woman needs to be a hard hitter, tough but fair.

Start an advertising campaign telling men they’re not doing enough around the house and that the house is just as much their responsibility as it is their partner’s. Make the ad cheeky and funny and suggest extremely subtly that they might get more nooky if they do their bit – but frame it mainly in terms of the fair go.

Start a new, non-government Australian website that is a portal to a range of Australian women’s groups and websites devoted to feminist issues.

Immediately legislate for paid maternity leave (no, we still don’t have it as a legal right in Australia).

Start an information campaign aimed at Australian male migrants to explain to them in their own languages the status of women in Australia and what the legal safeguards are. Provide funding for information campaigns in the languages of migrant women to inform them of their legal rights in relation to sexism, domestic violence, work and so on.

Bring back affirmative action, not just for women but for all minorities, gays and lesbians. Affirmative action is misunderstood: it is not about plucking women/minorities off the street to make up the numbers. It’s about looking at the barriers for full participation of various groups in politics, the workforce, education and training, recreation and the arts, and working to remove those barriers.

Empower Indigenous women to take leadership roles in their communities and provide funding for culturally sensitive campaigns and services for both men and women around domestic violence and alcohol addiction.

A brighter future
I guarantee you that life in Australia would be better, and over time our standard of living and reputation for innovation over many areas would improve, if the government and community worked together to improve the status of women in Australia.

South Australia was one of the earliest parts of the world to give women the vote, in 1894, and Australia was one of the first countries to legislate for a universal aged pension. We can recover our reputation for enlightened social policy – if we dare.


  1. Why don't you expand this into a book? YOu have made all the points. (I would perhaps add a section on economic inequality, the persistence of the lack of equal pay and the continuing lackof paid maternity leave). You could turn this into a terrific book in no time at all. You don't need me to do it! Although I do have a new book coming out in July but it is not on the subject of women's equality.
    best wishes
    Anne Summers

  2. Hi Anne,

    thanks heaps for reading my blog entry and for the encouragement. I read your book The End of Equality a few years ago and have been influenced by some of your ideas. I think it is one of those books that you absorb and it becomes part of your thinking. I totally agree about the problems of continuing lack of equal pay and maternity leave.

    As for me writing a book on this issue -- I would love to, but I'm a bit stretched for time (not to mention lack of expertise).

    Also, to be honest, I have tried to get books on other topics published in the past and without a 'name' it is pretty difficult. So I guess I would be concerned the effort expended would not result in a published book.

    However, after writing this entry I decided to find out more about what was going on feminism-wise in Australia -- things are happening, but we just don't hear about them in the mainstream media -- and I'm planning to blog about that.

    Look forward to your new book coming out!