Tag Archives: History

Misconception Corrections: Feminism Is Not Hate or Terrorism

Man is not the enemy here; but the fellow victim.

— Betty Friedan

Popular opinion nowadays frequently labels Feminism as ‘Hate’. Feminism as Women Hating Men, feminism as the flag of Angry Lesbians, feminism as Terrorism enacted by those hateful females to instill fear in our enemies, men.

The actions of women before us – radical gestures of empowerment, outrage or defiance – often define the feminist movement, providing memorable samples of revolutionary behaviour to be assembled in a case against it in our contemporary, politically-correct society. Why, were Feminists not those who stormed court houses to make their case, who smashed shop windows on London’s high streets, who marched with banners bearing messages of impassioned resistance to patriarchy, who used their naked bodies to make political statements on a global scale? Did they not hijack mainstream media with their own agenda, throw themselves into public disgrace by breaking the law, fill gallery spaces with graphic vaginal iconography (representations of female genitalia), make paintings with menstrual blood and rally women to revolt against the very foundations of western society?

These are things that women did for the cause of feminism, yes: they adopted the language of social change because passivity and acquiescence had proven ineffective. What was heard – what was moving and memorable – were words and actions that so shocked and disquieted the public that their plight became at least a blip on society’s radar. Feathers were rustled to rouse rigid minds to flight: this, irrefutably, is still the case. Almost everything you think of has been done before; you need to find a way to shock and move your audience lest your work go tragically unnoticed.

Susan B Anthony: helped establish the American Equal Rights Association in 1866 with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, which vocalised her calling for the same rights to be granted to all regardless of race or sex. Anthony and Stanton created and produced The Revolution, a weekly publication that lobbied for women’s rights in 1868. The newspaper’s motto was “Men their rights, and nothing more; women their rights, and nothing less.”

Alice Stone Blackwell: in the early 20th century, Blackwell translated and published several volumes of verse from various oppressed groups, notably Armenian Poems (1896 and 1916), Songs of Russia (1906), Songs of Grief and Gladness (1908; from Yiddish), and Some Spanish-American Poets (1929), and she wrote against czarist oppression in The Little Grandmother of the Russian Revolution—Catherine Breshkovsky’s Own Story (1917). Her focus was not on her own experience of oppression: it was on the cause of equality for every person, everywhere, regardless of gender, race or religion.

The Redstockings: Womens’ rights lobby group The Redstockings stormed a hearing of the New York State Joint Legislative Committee on Public Health in 1969, which was considering abortion law reform. They objected to the hearing, asking “Why are 14 men and only one woman on your list of speakers—and she’s a nun?” The committee chairman countered that these were the experts on the subject, to which The Redstockings responded by saying that there were no better experts on abortion than women.

We need to be long-distance runners to make a real social revolution. And you can’t be a long-distance runner unless you have some inner strength.

Steinem to People magazine, 1992.

The Guerrilla Girls: a group of female artists passionate about leveling the patriarchal playing field that had always been the Arts, this group’s motto is reinventing the F word: Feminism! The Guerrilla Girls formed in 1985 and threw long-accepted ideas into the light of interrogation, and the under-representation of women and racial minorities in major galleries and publications was their overarching focus. To me, the more important message is conveyed by their decision to mask their identities with gorilla masks, drawing the focus away from their identities and directing it solely towards the issues. In this way, their modus operandi was not to terrorise, to obfuscate, or to hide; it was not about who they are or gaining notoriety for championing the cause of women everywhere or ingratiating themselves as artists with political motivations.

Judy Chicago: few will be unaware of Chicago’s iconic work, Dinner Party (1979). Indeed, Chicago chose to depict the women of Western society throughout history with fine porcelain sculptural representations of their genitalia. Widely misunderstood and considered, at the time, obscene and antagonistic, I see this work is the wrangling of femininity out of obscurity and into a self-contained symbol of power, pride and beauty. By taking the institutionally and socially taboo vagina and flipping into an art object and symbol of female empowerment, Judy Chicago subverted prevalent notions of femininity as inferiority—as lack of masculinity—and earned herself a permanent place in feminist history.

the-dinner-party-by-judy-chicago

Today, what characterises ‘feminazism’ is the impassioned expression of outrage, defiance and frustration by women online and in the streets. ‘Feminist rant’ has become a term with which such expressions can be swiftly and subtly discounted, and one that is frequently stamped on outspoken womens’ rights activists, from Australian politician Clementine Ford to global comedic success Amy Schumer. Other MPs who have voiced feminist notions have been hit with criticism for ‘not being able to handle mean tweets’ (mean being physically threatening or using, more often than not, the words ‘slut’ or ‘whore’) or labelled as humourless ‘control freak feminists’ taking issue with petty annoyances.

It is easy to forget that we are all victims of a distorted way of thinking that inhibits global equality, and that equality, not antagonism, is the purpose—the only reason—that women express their frustrations, or at least it should be when they call it Feminism.

In the fight for equality, we are not fighting against each other: women are not fighting against men or fellow women, nor race against race, nor religion against religion.

 

Misconception Corrections: 1) Feminism Is Not… Degrading | Self-Victimisation | Redundant

While Feminism never disappeared from the collective consciousness, its manifestation has ebbed and flowed in four unique waves. Each wave served an absolutely vital purpose in improving life for women by advocating for social, economic, political and cultural equality.

Feminism in its earliest form rose from the dormant embers of 1900 years of inequality and oppression. Women’s social duties and responsibilities were not treated as equal to those of men: they worked longer hours for smaller wages, held no agency for those meagre earnings and were denied self-ownership because they were represented by their husbands and fathers. Its pioneers, the Suffragettes, challenged patriarchal power as it was, in this way, institutionalised in law and government. University professor and author of several essays on American culture, feminism and gender politics, Christine Stansell, once poignantly expressed the complex circumstance of early feminism.

Such challenges do not arise simply from a collective sense of sisterhood; they do not grow automatically from women’s everyday relations with each other. They involve a conscious organisation, collective changes in consciousness, and a shared set of ideas about the nature of power and how to seize it.”

They had no other choice: either they do something or forever be owned by, and inferior to, men, subject to laws they had no part in making or enforcing. In the utter absence of power, women banded together to develop strategies for change and advancement, with a focus on obtaining the right to vote. To do this required action above and beyond themselves, those men and those employers: they had to change the policy that upheld legislated inequality.

Emboldened by their dissatisfaction with their societal position, women – mothers, wives, workers and scholars – launched peaceful demonstrations and political protests for equal pay, self-ownership and voting rights. Their messages fell on deaf ears, and their punishment into hands desperately clinging to their privileged position. Suffragettes were beaten during protests, fired by their bosses, abused by their disapproving husbands and estranged from their children, for whom men were the sole legal custodians. They garnered negative publicity by staging happenings of public nuisance, ignoring the laws that ignored them, and were subsequently imprisoned in endless attempts to silence them.

Their battle was eventually won, but at great cost and with great sacrifice: women lost their families, jobs, freedom and even lives in the fight for these fundamental rights.

Just because we now enjoy social, economic and political equality does not mean that the driving purpose of feminism is redundant, nor its principles stuck in those decades in which women were victims of patriarchal mistreatment.

Feminism is Not Degrading | Self-Victimisation

Referring to the plight of the Suffragettes is a way of contextualising the social, economic and political rights that we now take for granted. The fight for equal rights was a war, and holding those who fought the battle – or suffered oppression before it was won – in living memory shouldn’t be frowned upon. Feminism does not decree that without it, you wouldn’t be able to get a job, it embodies the beliefs, actions and sacrifices made by others before you which are the reason that you can get a job. Feminism is not about what a disadvantage it is to be a woman: it is about leaving all remnants of disadvantage behind and addressing areas of society in which this progress – whether due to bureaucratic complexity, corrupt management or lacking information/education – lags.

Feminism is Not Redundant

Aside from the fact that there are still countries in which women are equally as oppressed – or worse so – as the Suffragettes, there are many reasons why Feminism is still a positive, relevant and important movement.

I’d like to put this into perspective, but I have long struggled to express my frustration with the ‘women are equal now, get over it’ logic (with which I believe many of the video’s stars are familiar). Lost for words, I turned to more primal communicative tools: a black Biro, some coloured felt pens and a piece of paper:

IMG_4213

To say that, in less than one-twentieth of the time in recorded history, almost 2000 years of oppression can be resolved and forgotten, seems preposterously ignorant of the bigger picture here. Can colonising races, having destroyed the culture and livelihoods of indigenous people of their acquired lands in a mere fraction of their existence, declare the score even by outlawing racial discrimination and granting rights to the formerly persecuted some decades ago? No. The score is not even: the colonised and the colonising are not born on equal footing. Resolution to any degree requires a doctrine of equity rather than equality, whereby consideration of the significant, continuing financial, cultural, social and ethical difficulties faced by disenfranchised indigenous people.

In a similar way, thousands of years of inequality have left remnants in our social and cultural consciousnesses which perpetuate the values of patriarchy. They are so deeply entrenched in our society and collective psyche that we are often not aware of their operating in our homes, workplaces, governments and everyday interactions. The biological designation of child-bearing to women continues to hinder their career trajectory due to management strategies in the recruitment and return to work stages, and parental leave legislation sustains a salary (and superannuation) gap which undermines the tenet of equal-pay-for-equal-work policy to which many cling as a comprehensive solution. And, though targets are being ardently worked towards by our businesses and governments, women remain largely unrepresented in management and policy-making positions.

This is the purpose of contemporary feminism: addressing and removing those remnants of inequality that imply women should be a certain way, do certain things, choose a certain lifestyle and limit us by doing so. Women, as well as men, should be, do and choose of their own will. But for their choices to be made free of these inhibiting stigmas, as are those of men, there is much still to be changed, and much to be understood.

Misconception Corrections: Feminism Is Not…

Feminism has always been, and will always be, an evolving set of values and principles. Like all ideological movements, it is socially, culturally and politically receptive. The time and place in which it operates necessarily dictate the circumstances it fights to overcome and the ideals it fights to achieve.

Having become a loaded term, Feminism suffers now more than ever with damaging misconceptions about its purpose, its people and the progress that it has made and can continue to make. This video, in which people from all walks of life are asked to describe what Feminism means to them in one word, provides a comprehensive summary of these misconceptions, which include labels such as ‘self-victimisation’, ‘terrorism’, ‘hate’ and ‘female privilege’.

 

The next few Femoirs will comprise a series of responses to the misconceptions voiced by men and women in the video, who represent far larger social groups who hold similar ideas. Using the developmental timeline of feminism, I will respond to each of these misconceptions by following the trail of social, cultural and political opinions voiced about the movement throughout its lifetime.

I believe that the cause of these distorted impressions is lack of- or misinformation, and the false representations of feminism created by misinformed people using its name in the public arena. By addressing these misconceptions with information and analyses echoed by university curriculum, I hope to begin to resolve them and restore the integrity and reputation of the feminist movement.

Foremothers

What makes a woman a Feminist? Some things that shape our identity are universal: from our parents we inherit our biological make-up, our language and a spate of social and personal mannerisms. But change is instigated by those who break away from the frictionless familial, societal and cultural mould and forge a new path for themselves, undaunted by uncertainty. I cannot claim to have taken this kind of solo leap into the unknown: a century of empowered women have fought policy and prejudice to allow me – us – the opportunities that are now my rights. Moreover, the lives of my foremothers are emblazoned with tenacity, independence and self-belief in times before these values were so ardently indoctrinated for women.

With this in mind, when my maternal grandmother recently asked for help in recording memoirs of early life on a Dictaphone, I took the opportunity to enact my own information-gathering agenda. I prepared some questions with which to gently nudge her through cloudy memories and meandering stories of formative years (allowing maximal flexibility for the elderly person tangent factor).

My grandmother grew up in small town New South Wales, the second of nine children. I’m told that they “lived off the smell of an oily rag,” but not by Nan, to whom this seems to be an extraneous detail. Her father was a ‘service car’ (taxi) driver whose strict, Methodist parents had rejected him on account of his choice of wife: when he chose to marry a woman whose unapologetic delight in dancing would surely drag him to hell with her, they wrote him out of their wills and wiped their hands clean of him.

His defiant resolution to marry for love rather than socio-economic or religious propriety marked, I believe, the inception of a culture of respect for women that would expand the possibilities in life for his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters and their daughters after them. Ken Wein set a precedent: rules imposed by, and opinions of, institutions – be they religious or cultural, or people, be they politicians or your parents – should not overshadow or eclipse one’s own educated judgement of character and personal code of ethics. Ergo, just because others alleged that women should be a certain way, did not mean you should believe or endorse it. Love and personal freedom are our rights and universal, primal needs, and by holding them to be more important than social and cultural regulations, Nan’s parents modelled liberal ethics that recognised and promoted equality, respect and acceptance.

Indeed, they were unfazed by Nan’s unusual tom-boyish behaviour. At age 5, her hair entwined in curling rags per her adoring, unsuspecting aunt’s tradition, she had her brother hack it off with craft scissors and ran excitedly to inform her parents of the change: “LOOK! YOU’VE GOT TWO BOYS NOW!” Nan and her hackjob bob clung to her father’s and brothers’ company more often than her mother’s and sisters’, playing with sticks and stones outside rather than babies and bonnets inside. Nanny’s parents were supportive and gentle, never smacking with a disciplinary hand, and their preoccupation with maintaining the familial home meant she quickly developed intellectual autonomy and maturity far beyond her years. By the time she was 12, Nan was the acting Eldest Child for 7 younger siblings, a role that she took very seriously. She coordinated the Sunday Schooling of her siblings which they did by correspondence, leading them to the Homework Tree and supervising their completion of all coursework satisfactorily. Nan was bright: her performance at school earned her a scholarship to local government school otherwise beyond the reach of her parents’ income.

She continued to excel in her studies as well as extra-curricular activities – she was a writer for and co-editor of the school’s magazine along with her best friend, a role that she would have pursued as a career in an ideal world.

Unfortunately, the world is not ideal, and university was not free. Nursing was within the familial budget, and unlike Journalism or Teaching, both scholarship and board were provided. Nan became a nurse at age 20 and got a job at Beaudesert Hospital where, a few years later, she met her future husband, Bernie. They married at age 24 and had their first of four kids shortly thereafter, and just like that, aged younger than I am now (having barely started my career), Nan’s career was over: by law, women could not return to work as public servants after having children. While the post-war government had employed married women to alleviate the shortage of labour, the marriage bar remained until 1966, as did widespread unease over the ‘proper’ role of women. Still, she was happy – this was the norm, and she loved her husband and children – but what happened to all that promise, all that pent up intellect and strength and drive?

Fate was kind to have given her two daughters who grew to match Nan’s indefatigable industriousness and incredible self-discipline. Studies have shown that communities with strong female leaders and daughters of working mothers have higher aspirations, complete more years of education, are more likely to be employed in management roles and earn higher incomes. Like many daughters of 1950s women, mum and her sister were raised with the knowledge that they could do anything they put their mind to – a climate of infinite possibilities and therefore, extremely high expectations.

It’s possible that my mother’s upbringing in this environment is responsible for a range of neuroses: a catastrophic, nuclear explosion probably still couldn’t stop mum from getting up at 5, going for a run, working a 12 hour day, doing a few selfless favours and coordinating the affairs of her parents and (adult) children. But it’s also the reason that she and her sister are both in high level management positions, my mother at a girls’ high school, being a strong female role model for not only her own two daughters but hundreds of other young girls at the precipice of their own independent, adult lives and potential careers. It’s the reason she chose to return to work after having my siblings and I, and that she was unfazed and resolute in doing so despite her (purest of heart and intention) mother-in-law’s repeatedly outspoken disapproval. It’s the reason she tactfully calls out everyday sexism with flawless argumentative intellect and points a finger at the remnants of patriarchy in our culture with an educated, analytical mind. Ultimately, it’s also the reason that I now do as well.

Through this retrospective of my maternal ancestry, one thing has become clear. I learned to demand respect and fight for equality down to the last socio-cultural stigma from Mum, and Mum would not be a model of feminist values if it weren’t for Nan: an obvious testament to the importance of strong female role models in the empowerment of women. But Nan would not have believed herself deserving of equal respect, rights and opportunities if it weren’t for her father, whose choices in life were manifestations of his own belief in equality, tolerance and liberal ethics. And to me, this is a powerful illustration of the fact that equality is a paradigm upheld by both male and female role models, never more powerfully than in collaboration.