Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fearless and indomitable? Me and my feminist anger

Recently I published a blog entry on the state of women’s rights in Australia, with some ideas for change. This post was the result of a gradual surge in my awareness of what was going on in the media and other major aspects of social life that was detrimental to women.

The trouble is, the more I’ve been focusing on the problem the more rattled I’ve become. So I thought I’d have another look at the issue, both at what was bugging me from an objective standpoint, and how some of my personal issues affect my feminism, sometimes detrimentally.

(Further on in this blog entry my family is going to come in for criticism. My aim here is not to bag my parents but just to make an observation about cause and effect.)

Loss of momentum
There are a couple of objective reasons for my personal feminist genie flying out of her bottle recently, although I have to say firstly that what I’m talking about here is very much the mainstream. I know there are young feminists out there, as well as older active feminists, fighting to move things forward. As a non-activist, I’m ignorant of what is probably a huge range of continuing initiatives and projects.

It’s just that this isn’t, in the main, reflected in the mainstream media. And what appears there is an incredible lack of interest in feminism – even though the issues are still as glaring as ever.

I think this is the difference between now and, say, ten years ago. Then, there was still a sense of a continuing need for change. Now, in the mainstream at least, the momentum’s just not there any more. And that is, frankly, a bit scary. We’ve had feminism since the late 1960s. If it’s abandoned as an issue of mainstream interest, what’s going to happen in the long term to women’s fragile status?

Recently a popular television program, The Gruen Transfer, ran an online discussion about a controversial fake advertisement that aimed to counter discrimination against ‘fat’ people, an ad that an agency had created for the show (in fact the discrimination under discussion was specifically the kind directed towards ‘fat’ women, as in the ‘fat chick jokes’ the panel discussed).

The discussion was all-male, and in high dudgeon I wrote to the program about my ongoing concerns about the sexism of the show as a whole, and how oblivious that discussion panel had been to the irony of the fact that they were an all-male group sitting around attacking discrimination (an article by Liz Conor with a similar point – much more articulate than my letter – appeared in The Age newspaper that weekend).

I got a very calm email back from Amelia in the show’s production office. She welcomed my letter and informed me that the reason why there were so few women on the show’s panel (just one of my complaints) was that only 6 per cent of creative directors were women. That was that. Discussion closed.

For me, of course, the discussion was just beginning. Only 6 per cent! Wasn’t that a worthwhile topic for debate, I thundered back. In fact, why not discuss on the show the following points (presenting a series of bullet points about the sexism of the Australian advertising industry). No response to this second letter, which was actually a bit more measured than the first.

Doesn’t she get it, I thought. Isn’t feminism a central issue, the major issue of our time besides climate change? How old is she? Was I becoming irrelevant, overreacting to a problem that was clearly not one at all to the younger generation? I was not a happy camper. I took her dismissal as a kind of death knell for the mainstream feminism I’d known.

Bring back the collective!
Another legitimate worry is that, again from my mainstream viewpoint, there don’t seem to be the same large numbers of nurturing groups and spaces that feminism created for women to develop their skills before taking them into the mainstream.

I’m not for a minute saying the collective is dead, or pretending that I’m up with what the women’s movement is doing these days. But in the 80s there were more cultural and activist collectives than you could poke a stick at. There were media collectives, writing collectives, printing collectives, feminist performing groups and feminist journal collectives (yes, not everyone in these groups was Leonardo Da Vinci but the same goes for men’s groups).

Activist collectives such as Healthsharing Women, women’s refuge collectives, pro-abortion groups and groups against incest and domestic violence also proliferated. Their main aims were to change the laws and conditions to improve women’s status, and empower and provide services to women, but they also enabled their members to develop important skills in an all-female environment.

Marion Halligan is just one example of a writer who benefited from being part of a collective. She is a successful baby boomer author who got a lot of early support in a women’s writing collective called Seven Writers. Why was it important that they were all women? Because such groups were less threatening for non-confident women and they didn’t have the blokey culture that could so easily intimidate and sideline.

In Australia at least, sexism and misogyny are stubborn beasts and I would argue that such nurturing spaces are still needed.

If collectives are not revivable then we need two alternatives:

More mentoring – this happens in business but needs to happen in all areas, including among high-profile successful women who are in a culture of individualism. Female comedians, for example, who don’t get a decent running on television any more, would especially benefit.

Industry campaigns – women in male-dominated industries, especially advertising and the media, need to get together and create public awareness campaigns about the need to seek gender balance in those industries, both for the good of the industry and Australia in general. These campaigns should include a call for the return of affirmative action, and if necessary should shame the organisations concerned into action.

I have some other, legitimate concerns too, before I get on to the personal stuff. As the recession grinds on and businesses get more desperate there’s more and more temptation to use images that objectify women to sell stuff.

I also reckon that since September 11 there’s been a huge surge of masculinism in Australia. In her book The Terror Dream Susan Faludi has identified this trend in the US. Why would we be immune?

This isn’t to say I’m a conspiracy theorist: I don’t think these trends need anyone to be gleefully rubbing their hands together in some backroom, planning the downfall of womankind. The thinking behind decisions that impact badly on women does not need to be conscious.

But it’s more than all this that is behind my extreme angst.

When the political is (too) personal
What worries me is that I’m taking all this very personally. I’m getting angry too often. I turn on the radio in the morning and I hear that Catholic students demonstrated against Obama when he spoke at a Catholic university because he’s pro-abortion, and I’m upset before I’ve even had my cornflakes (on the plus side I also know that he’s actually quite popular with a lot of Catholics, hopefully because of his social justice aims and credentials).

The point is, I have enough things to be angry about to write an angry letter every day, but I don’t have the time or the energy. And it’s not good to get as upset about gender discrimination as I am becoming.

Where does this river of anger stem from? My parents were both lower middle class Catholics. Although their upbringings and family life were not that similar, the households they grew up in were both a toxic mix of religion and misogyny, bound up with personality and age factors in each set of grandparents. This toxicity continues to have effects on my mother, my aunties on both sides, and at least one of my sisters, sometimes in their ability to make decisions within their households.

Sadly, my parents were unable to give me, and to various extents my sisters, any sense of personal and psychic space, or of entitlement to our own wishes, desires and feelings. They had little vision for our futures beyond marriage and motherhood.

When I see women’s needs and rights ignored, when I see the invisibility of women in mainstream media, it’s me who’s being ignored, it’s my needs that are being trampled on.

The way my disorder manifests owes much to my being a female with an intellectual ‘bent’ in my family set-up. I feel helpless to change my own state, and that’s echoed in the helplessness I feel when I encounter sex discrimination.

I don’t make much money and I don’t have a lot of social power. I’m envious of men no more intelligent than me who are on large incomes and active in the world. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, for me to directly join the fight with other women to improve our status. Except of course, through the letters I write and my blogging.

So I immediately jack up. And jacking up every day is exhausting.

What would Jessie Street do?
Jessie Street was an Australian feminist and human rights activist. She first encountered sexism at the age of seven on a ship. The boys were allowed to climb up the rigging, and as a girl she wasn’t. She knew that wasn’t fair.

She was president of the United Associations [of Women] on and off from 1930 to 1950. With women having gained the vote, and decades before second wave feminism, she campaigned for equal rights for women in the public sphere – including equal pay and the right of married women to work. Among her achievements was helping to set up Sydney’s first contraceptive clinic in 1933.

She joined the Australian Labor Party and sought pre-selection as an ALP candidate. In 1943 the Labor machine men pre-selected her for an unwinnable Liberal seat, Wentworth (ironically now the seat of Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull). They would later curse themselves for not helping her win the seat after she gained a huge number of votes. She never gave up. She actually ran for the seat a second time, in 1946, and unfortunately was unsuccessful.

In 1945 Street was chosen by prime minister Curtin as Australia’s representative to the conference that formed the United Nations, and she made sure the aims of the UN charter included women’s equality.

If Jessie Street was in my situation, she wouldn’t stop fighting. She’d simply keep channelling the anger however she could.

Rage, anger, feeling indignant
Germaine Greer has said something to the effect that rage is destructive and crippling, because it prevents the person experiencing it from clearly articulating their anger. It’s not so much rage that cripples me as a feeling of being indignant.

Many feminists get angry. But being indignant suggests that a particular situation or event has hurt your dignity. You feel that it damages you personally. Anger can be a response to wrong doing. Being indignant is a sense of outrage at something negative directed at the self. I think I would rather respond to misogyny with anger than the personalised outrage I feel twenty times a day.

So what’s to be done? I’m not suggesting I become politically neutered, and I certainly won’t stop being angry and concerned.

But I do need to cultivate some kind of radical acceptance. I live in an imperfect world. I can’t change that world, although in small ways I may be able to influence its workings. I still struggle with these basic tenets. I grew up with the refrain ‘It’s not fair!’, and the assumption behind that protest is that it should be. But life is not fair.

One solution is to watch less tele and read more. This is a goal anyway, so it dovetails well with my desire to read more. Other solutions include:

Be more ‘discriminating’ about what I do watch. I already watch Medium because I like the family set-up and the power the heroine has. If I have to watch tele, I’m going to favour shows that portray women with personal and social power (one exception will have to be The Chaser).

Instead of always focusing on the bad (and there will always be bad) focus on the good things that are happening in regards to women and in the world generally: the small victories, the big successes, the grassroots projects.

Soothe myself by watching an internet clip of KD Lang belting out ‘Crying’ or by listening to Diana Krall. Cheer on Anna Bligh, the first woman in Australia to be elected state premier rather than achieving her position through a male stepping down. Find out more about what feminists are doing.

Remind myself that, as Liz Conor pointed out in her Age opinion piece, I am relatively lucky in many ways when it comes to discrimination. Race discrimination impacts on some men in far worse ways than misogyny impacts on me, and this is another issue to stay aware of.

I’m not saying for a minute that this will solve anything. But I’m always suggesting that the ABC bring some gender balance to their programming. Perhaps I need to do the same in my own life.

The back foot
What I’m coming to accept, in thinking through some of these issues, is that this is not a good time for feminism. Yet there have always been feminists, even between first and second wave feminism (this is one of the pieces of history that gets hidden). Jessie Street was not part of a mass movement for women’s rights yet she soldiered on. Perhaps the initial gains of second wave feminism (which was, incredibly, a mass movement with millions of women, at least for a short time) are the miracle. Who can expect to live in good times with amazing social change all their lives? I’ll keep fighting, keep the flame of feminism burning, but I’m beginning to understand on a deeper level that I will never take the world with me.


  1. Hello Catherine,

    what an interesting and well-expressed article! Thank you.

    I have opinions on this subject, although I am not at all well-informed of the feminist movement past or present. My opinions will quite likely differ from yours - I apologise if my opinions prompt your anger to resurface.

    Firstly, I strongly believe that respectable, down-to-earth, intelligent women of prominence in the media spotlight today, do far more good for the feminist movement than fanatics hell-bent on beating their drum en-masse or solo in public. Women like Therese Rein, Quentin Bryce, Michelle Obama who stand up in public and are proud to be themselves, represent all women. They demonstrate, without raising the ire of half the population, that women can stand up and be counted without making a fuss and expecting medals.

    Secondly, I strongly believe that in many aspects of life, women are their own worst enemies and project such a negative view of women, that they turn the tide on themselves, along with women collectively. I do not have much personal experience of the present day workforce, but, I have accurate information on the following example: the coal mining industry has been under pressure to employ women for the operation of heavy machinery – fair enough, so far. But, working in a male dominated industry, the majority of women demand special conditions and treatment because they are women. Some also openly flaunt the sexual harassment laws and guidelines by behaving in a manner that would be totally unacceptable if they were men. The unrest and resentment these issues cause in the workplace stamp on any advancement in women’s rights. I imagine this is duplicated throughout the workforce in general.

    Another aspect of modern society that has a hand in portraying women’s rights as unfair, is the current child maintenance payments of separated parents. Although I realise that there are hoards of divorced fathers amongst the community who do not pull their weight as far as child rearing goes, many divorced fathers are going to the wall by the lack of fairness and individuality of child maintenance payments.

    It appears that it is fine for women to raise the issue publicly about domestic violence and child maintenance issues (and rightly so), but men do not appear to stand with any credibility when they attempt to stand up and be counted when the issues are reversed.

    This is an interesting issue, and I have more thoughts on the subject, but I firmly believe the above three broad aspects of the women’s rights issue are of significance.


  2. Hi Gaye,

    thanks for writing. Sorry about the delay -- I didn't realise this entry had a comment (!) so will have to make sure I get an email notification set up!

    I'm not angered by your opinions. I certainly can't argue strongly against the example of the coal mine, as I haven't read anything about this issue.

    I agree the picture is very complex. Women are just as capable of stuffing up, seeking power and exploiting a situation as men are. They always have been, I guess -- before any sort of feminism, individual women occasionally achieved power, and in those positions have been as capable of exploiting the situation as men have.

    I guess I would say that feminism has succeeded when we can call individual women to account without saying they represent all women and will set back the cause of women's rights. When a male politician stuffs up, no-one (or perhaps only a few particularly emibittered!) say 'this shows that men as a whole aren't fit to rule'. The man is judged individually, not as a representative of his sex. At the moment, sadly I think women in the public eye are judged more harshly than men when they stuff up.

    Child maintenance is another complex area. I guess I would say that, statistically women are poorer than men after a divorce. If women have custody of the kids they are also doing the unpaid work of childcare. Having said that, I know there are some men who miss their kids terribly after a divorce and perhaps that is part of the reason they object to paying maintenance.

    We need to find ways of making sure men are still involved in bringing up their kids, and that's one reason I think the workplace needs to be much more flexible, enabling both men and women to be involved in childcare.

    Re women in the workplace -- this is such a huge area that I feel I can't really address it adequately. I'm disturbed to think of anyone getting away with sexual harassment because they're women -- men should report it if they feel harrassed.

    I can't agree about the right to demand certain special conditions -- depending on what they are and whether they are reasonable of course. Women have smaller bladders than men, they menstruate, and so it's fair enough if work conditions reflect this, in any workplace. But I'm not sure what the special conditions are in the coalmine, so I'm just generalising.

    Anyway, I'm always happy for any feedback on what I write, even if it's not agreeing (as long as it's constructive as yours is!)