Another International Women’s Day has been and gone. So where are we?

Two weeks on from International Women’s Day and its flurry of corporate empowerment, it’s clear that the exercise has become little more than a nice pink fence to neatly corral all those pesky women and their supposed rights off to the side.

There were a flood of press releases, corporate events, well-meaning conversations, panels and workshops. They all hit the same points: we must empower women, aren’t women great, etc. But after these events, women still went back to jobs where they aren’t paid, protected or promoted as much as their male counterparts, and they went back to their homes with just as many chores and threats of violence as before.

Across these events, repetition is as much a theme as are the women themselves. Interviews, panels and guest appearances all pick over the same women presenting the same points, as they always do: we die too much, we are prevented from earning enough, we have choice, things must change. But things never change so long as we ask, say and do the same thing.

This repetition reduces women’s hard-won appearances to little more than clip-show recaps devised by lazy producers trying to fill an empty space. The impact is significant because – in a media landscape where time is of the essence – women’s precious moments are spent re-educating an audience on the basics they never really care to learn because they never view women the same as men. We’re never given the chance to become knowledgeable if the teacher is forced to give the same class she did on day one.

Both factors position women as looped recordings: able to perform on cue and ready to be filed away until the next time they are needed. Like niche characters with little influence on the everyday world whose priorities are set and controlled by men as the dominant, default gender.

There is no greater illustration of the gender divide between these niche and default positions than media representation. Women are considered so niche they have to have themes built around them such as a women’s Q&A special, or the ‘women’s section’ of a newspaper or a ‘women’s show’ (which never airs in prime time). Meanwhile, men dominate the media they control so they don’t need themes because everything is assumed to be relevant and accessible to them.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder women have to repeat themselves or that the world is less shocked by sexist politics than by a ‘woman’s issue’ taking centre-stage.

Take Australia’s refusal to sign the UN’s International Women’s Day statement because it advocated for better sexual health education and access to abortions.

Our country prefers empty platitudes to actual rights, as access to abortion is determined on an increasingly inaccessible and fractured state/territory basis. Just days before this embarrassment, the Labor Party announced a plan to tie federal health funding to providing abortion services. It’s a smart plan that works with existing structures and provides a streamlined response to an otherwise undependable right.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s response shows exactly how forgettable women are to the LNP. He told reporters he was ‘a bit disappointed that it is being raised on the eve of an election in a very politically charged context.’ He continued: ‘I don’t find that debate one that tends to unite Australians and I certainly am not going to engage in the political elements of that discussion, because I frankly, I don’t think it is good for our country.’

This is where things begin to tie together.

Abortion has long been considered a ‘women’s issue’ partly because it’s mainly women’s rights that are under threat, but also partly because men can refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their actions. The mere fact that female biology is involved automatically switches it from a human right – the right to consistent healthcare procedures around the country – to a right of women only, shuffling it back to the end of the queue as a niche issue.

Of course, the prime minister doesn’t want to debate abortion services. He is bound to lose if he argues against them – since 80% of Australians support abortion rights – and he certainly can’t argue in favour of them, being the head of a party with almost no women in it and having chosen to prioritise his religion – one whose business model is founded on denying choice, including the choice of abortion – over everything else. Labor already trounced him over this thanks to women politicians more than able to dominate the debate, popular support for abortion rights, the realisation there is a precedent to making abortion a federal issue, and the placing of RU486 on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The ‘women vote’ is often tied to family policies like baby bonuses, childcare and paid parental schemes. That’s where politicians like Morrison are comfortable – with women being reduced to an assumed biological function and their interest only being piqued when it relates to their offspring and unpaid labour. This makes for easy policy-making (save for paid parental leave) and an easy media opportunity to grab what they consider an easy vote.

Of course, Labor’s women’s health plan is dangerous to Morrison and the LNP since it’s the antithesis of how they prefer to discuss women (that is to say, not at all). But more than that, it takes what is considered a ‘women’s issue’ and demands that it be discussed in greater detail than women are often given space to do.

But will the media provide the space for this policy to be debated? Judging from the response to the plan’s launch, and aside from Buzzfeed’s Gina Rushton – whose excellent coverage of reproductive rights is reaching increasing levels of depth and education – the answer appears to be ‘no’.

Considering that media loves messy drama more than a fourteen-year-old, there has been suspiciously scant coverage on something Morrison considers so divisive. Reporters spent more time on Morrison’s ham-fisted International Women’s Day message than about a radical reform to increase reproductive rights. If the media can cover franking in ever-more exacting and confounding detail, how can it not do the same for abortion access – especially during a week when women were at the forefront of the news?

The answer is clear, as always: women and their views and issues are considered secondary to the ‘default’ by media, politicians and society. If the men controlling power can’t be interested in women’s rights, they assume no-one will and carefully ignoring them might ensure no-one ever does.

That doesn’t mean that either this proposed plan or the fight for accessible national reproductive rights is lost. It’s just a reminder that the struggle for women’s rights happens daily beyond the view of a world that desperately tries to ignore what it does to us and hopes we follow suit.



Image: UN conference room, Flickr

Amy Gray

Amy Gray is a Melbourne-based writer, regularly published by The Age and The Guardian. She often covers feminism, media and digital culture.

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