Ms Samantha Bolton, Dean of Studies
We live in a nation with a female Prime Minister and a female Governor-General. We live in a State with a female Premier and female Governor. In this context is feminism still needed? Is it relevant? As International Women’s Day 2012 draws to a close it is timely to reflect upon this. There are questions to be asked about feminism and its significance as a word and a concept in the twenty-first century context. These questions are particularly pertinent in a school of 1160 young women for whom the limitations of gender appear meaningless.
Clearly such thinking dominates the discourse surrounding gender politics if the myriad publications relating to the topic are anything to go by. The popularity of works such as Susan Faludi’s Backlash (1991), Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner’s The F-word: feminism in jeopardy: women, politics, and the future (2004), and The Great Feminist Denial by Monica Dux and Zora Simic (2008) suggest that discussions about the place of feminism in contemporary society are of import to many people. It is imperative that young women, as members of a thinking society, engage in these discussions. This will enable them to become more cognisant of their own views of feminism and develop an understanding of what it means in both a global and personal sense. There is no one size fits all approach to this topic – its complexity means that each individual must grapple with its meaning and relevance in their own lives.
Undoubtedly the notion of feminism has evolved since writer Rebecca West claimed in 1913 that, ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat’. This evolution of feminism since the early twentieth century has not been a smooth and uninhibited path though, as evidenced by the claim made by American minister, televangelist and political activist, Pat Robinson in a letter to the New York Times in 1992 that feminism was a political movement that encouraged women to ‘leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’. Such an assertion is obviously extreme in its censorious nature. In the same year author Susan Faludi’s statement that feminism ‘asks that women be free to define themselves instead of having their identity defined for them’ tends to be a more widely accepted definition.
The nature of feminism and what construes a feminist was discussed in a most thought provoking way on Radio National’s Sunday Extra programme as recently as last weekend (Feminism and the Thatcher legacy, 2012). The session was launched with the question of whether Margaret Thatcher could be viewed as a feminist. This was a point of disagreement amongst feminists Eva Cox, Monica Dux and Sabine Wolff. Dux’s comment that Thatcher was a spectre that haunted feminism because she wielded power but did not help other women was supported by Cox who articulated a view that feminism was not just about being pro-women but rather about shifting our culture so that women do not always have to function within constructs which are largely masculine. As with any political, social, cultural or religious movement, those who write or speak about feminism have strong convictions and are committed either to its promotion or to its denigration. As such, those seeking to gain an understanding of its meaning must be prepared to approach their readings and discussions with a critical eye and an inquisitive mind. Fortunately there are opportunities within the curriculum at this School to do just that.
Embarking on a unit encompassing a case study of second wave feminism with my Year 12 Modern History class in 2010 gave me more clarity regarding how the students viewed the term feminism. Interestingly it also gave the girls a greater insight into the concept and its place in their lives. What began with a discussion characterised by comments such as ‘I hate talking about this’ and ‘it’s stupid’ and ‘we can do whatever we want’, ended with sentiments which were quite contrary to this. These young women discussed their own experiences, including the reality that at times when they found themselves in joint (male and female) activities requiring them to speak and contribute on topics of social and political importance there was a tendency for the girls to remain silent and for the discussion to be dominated by the boys. These Modern History students, through their reading, were also able to confront the reality that they were in a privileged minority of the world’s women, most of whom live lives that are constrained by their gender in a variety of ways. Thus as the complexity of this thing called feminism, which they had compartmentalised as irrelevant to them, became clear, it was fascinating to watch many of the girls rethink their understanding of the word.
The assumption that as a nation with a female Prime Minister, Australia has moved beyond many of the issues confronting women in positions of power was addressed by Anne Summers in a recent Sydney Morning Herald article. Regardless of political viewpoint one must agree that Julia Gillard has been subjected to treatment both in the media and in parliament which has been shaped by her gender. She has been described as ‘deliberately barren’ in reference to her childless state, as ‘coquettish and giggling’ in her responses to President Obama and as a ‘menopausal monster’ on talk back radio (2012). Summers’ article links Gillard’s experience to the barriers that are still present for women seeking careers in politics or other forms of public leadership. Journalist Gillian Guthrie added to this commentary with her article in the Sydney Morning Herald this week, in which it particularly focused on the way that Gillard has been defined in terms of her childless state by fellow politicians, the media and voters.
Interestingly, the notion that having a female political leader can actually work against the ideals of feminism has been discussed in some forums (Feminism and the Thatcher legacy, 2012). Elements of the population may in fact see such a situation as meaning that women have now achieved equality, a dangerous assumption given that only twelve percent of private sector management jobs are held by women (Bastow, 2012), that only 25 of 100 people listed as Australia’s National Living Treasures are women (Robotham, 2012), and that women are still struggling to achieve representation in the country’s boardrooms (Pow, 2011).
While the relevance of feminism to young women in contemporary society is certainly contested, an examination of global political, economic and social statistics/trends would suggest that there are many layers that need to be unpacked in order to understand its importance. Understanding the plight of those women who do not fall into the category described as ‘white, reasonably well off, employed and/or university educated’ (Bastow, 2012) is a good place to start in this quest. Such women may be disadvantaged by poverty, religion, politics and geography. As critical thinkers it is also important that young women confront the possibility alluded to by Bastow that ‘the misogyny around them is so internalised and institutionalised that they don’t notice it’ (2012). Wherever one falls on the spectrum of feminist ideology, it is vital to continue to question the representations presented in the media of what it means. The stereotype of a feminist being a ‘man- hater with unshaven arm pits’ (Bastow, 2012) undoubtedly trivialises a movement that has been responsible for significant change in the lives of many. If one accepts Eva Cox’s explanation of feminism as being to put on the agenda issues which have been sidelined because they have traditionally been the domain of women (Feminism and the Thatcher legacy, 2012), then it has a collective relevance to our students, who will be the mothers, employers, employees and leaders of the future.
Feminism is not a dirty word. It is not an aggressive word despite the negative connotations that seem to be associated with it for many people. Feminists do not come from a single group in society. They cannot be defined in terms of age, colour, religion or socio-economic status. Some may say that in contemporary society feminists cannot even be defined by gender. The last century has seen immense change for women in Australia in terms of the law. As a result of the work of first and second wave feminists in particular, legislation has been passed to allow gender equality within the political, economic and social framework of society. The challenge for feminists in 2012 is to build upon these changes so that what is possible becomes a reality. For that to happen we need to do more than pass laws. We need to address the attitudes and beliefs of women and men so that the limitations of gender cease to exist for both groups.
Bastow, C. (2012, February 27). Do young women feel uncomfortable about Feminism? Ideas at the House. Retrieved 6 March from http://ideas.sydneyoperahouse.com/
Dux, M. & Simic, Z. (2008). The Great Feminist Denial. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.
Faludi, S. (1992) Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. London: Chatto & Windus.
Feminism and the Thatcher legacy. (2012, March 4) [Radio broadcast] Sunday Extra, Radio National retrieved 5 March from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/sundayextra/feminism/3867258
Guthrie, G. (2012, March 6). Put a stop now to mother of all insults. The Sydney Morning Herald Retrieved March 6 from http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/put-a-stop-now-to-mother-of-all-insults-20120305-1ue69.html
Pow, H. (2011, May 21). Australian boardrooms still full of men, women under represented. Adelaide Now. Retrieved 6 march from http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/national/boardrooms-still-full-of-men/story-e6frea8c-1226060368163
Robertson letter attacks feminists. (1992, August 26). The New York Times Archives. Retrieved 6 March from http://www.nytimes.com/1992/08/26/us/robertson-letter-attacks-feminists.html