In case you missed it, it’s International Women’s Day (IWD) this week. There’ll be the usual celebrations, most not that well attended, and a few feminists getting together to look back on past victories. But the feminist agenda, which in simple terms seeks equality for women, appears to have stalled.
Feminists have never been part of the mainstream, though I was surprised when teaching a class of university students a few years back, at the venom directed at feminists. It seems the old stereotypes – man-haters, lesos, unattractive – still hold. When I asked the students what they thought feminists wanted, answers included cutting off men’s balls, world rule (looking back on history lends the latter misconception some merit) and a good fuck.
Admittedly, these students were the first generation of their family to attend university. However, I came across the same response, though more polite and not always quite as unanimous, repeated at universities where students came from much more privileged backgrounds. Perhaps there are feminists out there who are also axe murderers or eat children, but I’ve yet to meet them.
Maybe another reason equality has stalled is that on the face of it, things look pretty good for today’s young women. Many can go to university and do so in large numbers, they choose careers other than teaching and nursing, they have access to contraception if they can afford to pay for it and they frequent bars and pubs. Perhaps it won’t be until these same young women marry or settle into a permanent relationship and have children, become single mothers, or pursue careers, that they’ll realise they’re a lot less equal than they were led to believe.
Women in today’s workplace still earn less than blokes, they work harder for promotion but are often overlooked in favour of men for more senior positions, and when they retire, have far less income to retire on. If they have children, most of the childcare, or organising it, will be left up to them. They will often work in poorly paid casual or part-time positions in order to prioritise family, especially in the pre-school years. When they return to full-time work, they will find themselves still responsible for most of the housework. If illness strikes or parents become aged and frail, it is more than likely they will be the one who’ll do the caring.
It is an understatement to say that male violence against women also prevents equality. Women between the ages of 15 and 44 are more likely to die, become disabled or ill due to violence against them by their male partner than for any other reason. I won’t dismiss entirely the increasing attention governments pay to this sickening statistic, but do refer to S J Finn’s insightful blog that asks whether governments want to appear to be doing something rather than actually doing something.
Pollies after accolades for doing something about violence against women without upsetting their blue-collar heartland make good use of de-gendered language; language that appears never to have heard of the word feminism, let alone feminist theory or analysis.
And so now we have intimate partner violence, family violence or domestic violence – worrying, when most young women would never identify with domestic or family violence and yet are an age group at great risk – not violence against women by men. All the advertising campaigns, the white ribbons on men’s lapels and the harnessing of misogynist men’s sporting groups (a dismal failure by any measure), won’t reduce male violence or challenge public attitudes that support violence against women who apparently sometimes deserve it, if we consistently fail to name men as the main perpetrators.
Sexual violence similarly flies under the radar. Even though these crimes are among the most under-reported, research still shows that fifty-seven per cent of Australian women are sexually or physically assaulted at least once in their lifetime. Yet politicians, law enforcers and media refer to forced oral, anal and vaginal sex as sexual assault. Such language does little to convey (in fact masks) the violence and horror of these acts.
Last week, Lara Bingle, an unlikely feminist, had the nerve to get pissed off when an ex allegedly sent a revealing photo of her to a woman’s magazine. Jon Faine, self-proclaimed devil’s advocate and guardian of journalistic balance, under cross-examination from Kristen on the talkback line (whoever you are, you were magnificent), more or less said that any woman who appears in public in various stages of uncladness has little if any right to object when her scummy boyfriend sends a privately taken pic to further the legend-in-his-own-lifetime mythology.
Lara Bingle, however unwittingly, has shown that the forces of patriarchy and capitalism are still to be fought and that feminism is as relevant to young women as it was to their mothers and grandmothers. The Lara Bingle incident also did what other feminists have failed to do for eons (apart from that marvellous stirrer, Germaine Greer), and that’s get women talking and thinking about feminism.
For all the great work of feminists past, many of the usual suspects are sounding tired, dated and sometimes way too middle-class. It’s time to hand over to a new generation of feminists if we want feminism to be more that just a memory we celebrate on IWD.