Speech given to the VIEW Clubs ND International Women’s Day Luncheon, 9th March 2018
A couple of weeks ago, I was at Circular Quay, waiting for a ferry. It was not particularly late – about 8.00 on a Thursday night. I had been to a show at the Opera House with a friend and we were both catching ferries home. The wharf was crowded. I looked around and said to my friend, “Nowhere to sit”. A man – middle aged, plump, for some bizarre reason wearing a hat at night – was sitting on the seat in front of where we were standing. He looked up at me and said “You can sit on my lap if you like luv”.
It took a moment for the reality to sink in of what this complete stranger had just said to me, and in that moment, my ingrained politeness took control and I said, “No, thank you very much.” My brain caught up in that split second, and I followed it with “Why on earth would I want to do that?”
I’m in my sixth decade and in the eyes of most of the stylised heterosexual world, I’m pretty much washed up as an object of sexual desire, and I’m fairly sure this man’s comment had nothing to do with any actual desire or expectation on his part that I would sit on his lap. So what did he actually want?
Of course I can’t possibly know exactly what was going through his mind at the time. Perhaps he genuinely did think to himself, “Oh, there’s a hot looking older babe. I’ll ask her to sit on my lap and I know she’ll be delighted and happy and we’ll have fantastic sex and maybe fall in love and get married and then she can look after me.” Or maybe the limit of his thinking was “Woman. She should be paying attention to me.”
Fundamentally, in some basic and unacknowledged way, he wanted my attention. More than that, he felt entitled to my attention and he wanted me to know that he was entitled to it. He wanted me to feel all the things I did feel – surprised, disgusted, annoyed, sick. He wanted me to know that all he had to do was say something like this in order to gain a measure of control in my space.
And it worked. Because here I am, using it as an example at the beginning of my talk here today.
This tactic where men control women’s spaces plays out very successfully, in myriad forms, countless numbers of times every second of every day here on planet earth, and it has done since records began. As women, we are constantly aware of the male presence. Whether it is walking home at night, internal radar on overdrive, keys in one hand, mobile in the other, walking faster than we normally would, sticking to the middle of the road, avoiding dark shadows and bushes…. Or on public transport, wishing the man next to you would close his legs so your knee didn’t have to be in contact with his; squashing yourself into the corner to try and avoid this unwanted contact. Or at work, wondering if that casual male hand that just drifted across your buttocks was intentional, or wishing that the male client would talk to your face and not somewhere between your shoulders and your hips.
With all of this going on, it is hardly surprising that a fundamentally pointless comment from a stranger on a ferry wharf can put us on instant alert. Is this person a threat or just an idiot? Is he getting the same ferry? Is there somewhere I can sit so he can’t see me? What do I do if he gets off at the same stop and follows me to my car, parked in a dark street near a park because that’s the only place to park?
The bottom line is that it is exhausting being a woman in this world. The sense of safety and unconcern that most men seem to carry around with them has never, ever been mine. And I’m pretty sure it’s never been any of yours either.
Do any of you sometimes think about what it might be like to go for a walk around your neighbourhood at night, on your own, when it’s cool and quiet, for the simple enjoyment of walking? I do. When I watch movies where the male protagonist goes off to a cabin in the woods to have some “me time” and stays there, unconcerned for his safety, for several days, I wonder what that must be like. I would never do either of these things, because the training of my entire life – to never put myself in a vulnerable situation in case some man takes advantage of my vulnerability – would make it an unpleasant experience of watchfulness and fear.
As it happened, the man at the ferry wharf was just a silly person making a pointless comment. He and his female companion – yes, he said what he said in full view and hearing of her – caught a different ferry and I did not feel threatened. But the line between that and how it could have played out is a very thin one indeed.
So here we are, International Women’s Day 2018 and the theme for this year is “Press for Progress”. I’m probably not supposed to say this, but I confess this theme made me sigh and mutter, “What, again? Why hasn’t gender inequality been relegated to the history books already?”
In a small act of rebellion, I devised my own hashtag for IWD this year – hashtag-why-aren’t-we-there-yet – because I think this is a far more important question that everyone needs to be focusing on for IWD now. We talk fairly constantly about how women are constrained from reaching a variety of goals that men seem to achieve as a matter of course. We all know that gender inequality is real – well, there are a fair number of both overt and covert Men’s Rights Activists who would dispute that statement, but as they tend to be hostile towards women generally, I habitually discount their points of view – we all know that gender inequality is real.
We know that the world is shaped around masculine privilege and that as women, we have basically had to fit in with it for a very long time indeed. Masculine privilege pervades almost every aspect of our lives and because we grow up with it being normalised, we often don’t begin to even see it until something happens that crystallises our awareness. And once we do become aware, it is impossible to stop being aware.
Let’s think for a moment about women’s toilets. Ladies’ loos are an oblique form of masculine privilege – there are never enough of them, they tend to be small and awkward, and because going to the loo for a woman is usually a two-handed job, there’s never anywhere to put your handbag and coat so that they aren’t draping in something unmentionable or getting wet next to the hand basins. Men get to wander in, do their business and wander out again in fairly short order, women invariably have to queue. We know this is how it happens – we’ve lived with the queues for the ladies’ loos every day of our lives. I reckon that the day somebody builds a public venue with enough women’s toilets so that there is never a queue for them will be the day that we know we have real equality.
Masculine privilege pervades every aspect of our lives, and in some very dark and unpleasant ways. The recent #MeToo movement has brought into public consciousness the dark side of entitlement, but as our Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, said, it’s nothing new. What’s new about it is that now we talk about it. Back in the day, we didn’t talk about it. Like the queues for the toilets, we just accepted that this was a normal part of our existence as women and did our best to manage it.
In my first job as a receptionist in a car repair outfit in Brisbane, there was an old guy who all the girls knew to steer clear of. He would always stand just a little too close, position himself near your desk so he could see down the front of your top, be the first one to open a door for the ‘ladies’, and then stand in the doorway so we had to squeeze past him (impossible to do without some part of your body coming into contact with his). He was the epitome of the “dirty old man”. Nobody censured him or took him to task over his behaviour. Instead, all the girls took responsibility for avoiding him whenever possible, giggling politely at his antics because if we displayed irritation or distaste, that was an invitation to tell us we shouldn’t be so sensitive.
In my next job as a secretary in a multinational, we girls used to serve catered food to the all-male boozy boardroom lunches our bosses regularly held with clients, and clear up afterwards. No woman ever got to sit at the table, of course, other than to take the minutes. After one of these events, I was cornered in the kitchen by a male client who put his hands where they shouldn’t have been and tried to kiss me. I pushed him away and said a few choice words. When I raised it with my male bosses, they told me not to take things so seriously, and that the client had complained about how I behaved towards him. And a career opportunity in that organisation was suddenly no longer available to me.
Fast forward ten years and I was living overseas. I had been working as an office manager and my boss and I had a flirty thing going on. I was most definitely a willing participant in this. But when it came to the crunch, good sense prevailed, I drew away and said yeah, probably not a good idea. He agreed and the flirty thing was over. A little while later, I started dating another man and lo and behold, while I was on holidays in Australia, I got a phone call from the boss to tell me my services were no longer required.
Ten years later, I was a full-time university student in Australia, finishing my Honours year and preparing to start my PhD which – through a few twists and turns – eventually became about gender inequality and feminism and sexism and how it just never seems to really change. I was at a Christmas barbecue with all the neighbours in the street in 2006 ish. It was late, most people had staggered home and I was helping the hostess clear up the empties. One male neighbour was still there and as I bent down to pick up an empty bottle, he grabbed my hips and did something sexually suggestive to me. I was shocked and horrified and disgusted and I dropped everything and went home, feeling angry, frightened and tearful. This was only – what? – maybe 12 years ago? And even then, his behaviour, while disgusting and degrading and all those things, was seen as “just a joke” by everyone except me. The man in question seemed to think I should have been flattered.
So… I finished my PhD 5 years ago and started working in the field of gender equality and diversity and inclusion, and while I acknowledge that we have come quite a long way, still I find myself asking that question every day: “Why aren’t we there yet?”
There’s no question that progress has been made. Women do now sit in some boardrooms and occupy positions of power and influence. Education for women to the highest levels is now pretty normal in our society and the idea of married women and mothers being in paid employment is no longer shocking or illegal. Women have easier access to birth control and are less at the mercy of their reproductive organs than at any time in history. Women’s voices are raised and given airtime, albeit in some cases selectively and often with a substantial backlash from the Men’s Rights Activists and other online trolls.
Did you know that on Wednesday this week, in protest at International Women’s Day, Men’s Rights Activists wore face masks – you know, those blue face masks that surgeons wear in all the best TV medical dramas – with anti-women slogans on them? One said “Never support women”. Never support women. That man clearly felt he had to make that statement in public. The wonderful thing about social media is that his face with its abhorrent mask is now plastered across every corner of the internet. Face mask or not, someone will recognise him….
So yes, there has been progress and there continues to be progress. Since the last International Women’s Day we have seen some amazing movements. We have seen #MeToo start and build up a good head of steam, and then #TimesUp joined it, along with #MenToo. The Everyday Sexism movement has highlighted the kind of nonsensical comment that the ferry wharf guy made to me, and the foundational disrespect for women that such comments illustrate. The Pussy Hat movement, derivative of the wonderful women’s marches spurred by the election of Donald Trump, has given a symbol to the modern face of feminism.
But feminism itself is struggling to progress. The ‘third wave’ as it is known, or as I prefer to think of it – “Me” feminism – is becoming entrenched. Women are being told repeatedly that our experiences of inequality are, in fact, because we don’t know how to ask for what we want, we let other people take the lead and for some reason lack confidence to go after our goals. Neoliberal feminists such as Sheryl Sandberg write best-selling books on the topic, choosing to ignore the inherent position of privilege from which she writes. The rather myopic idea that an individual’s experience is representative of all women is a persistent barrier to gender equality and to embracing diversity of all kinds.
What we appear to be seeing is a new backlash, and one which is even more dangerous than earlier backlashes against women’s rights, because this one primarily comes from women, and particularly young women. Young women have been rejecting feminism and feminist thought in droves for the past couple of decades. Some say feminism is an out-of-date, old-fashioned term with unfortunate connotations of hairy legs and burnt bras and they don’t want to be associated with it. They say they believe in all the things feminism is about but don’t want to identify themselves as ‘feminist’; that they don’t want to adopt a label.
But as Nakkiah Lui – an icon of young feminist women – said in an All About Women panel last Sunday, young women need to use the feminist label because the more people who use the label, the harder it is to ignore what the label represents. Male privilege, or the patriarchy, is the system that is designed to maintain the status quo. Sexism is the mechanism used to ensure that women are kept within the boundaries of the system. Feminism is the resistance.
The interesting thing is that back in the days of burning bras, this movement that wanted to gain rights for women wasn’t widely known as ‘feminism’, it was known as Women’s Liberation. Back then – and I remember this clearly from my years of growing up in Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland – women marched, frequently and loudly. They clashed with police and got arrested and thrown in prison and made a lot of noise about how they felt about the male privilege dominating their world.
The 70s and 80s saw some real progress – it was no longer illegal for married women to work; rape within marriage was criminalised; women could apply for loans as individuals without needing a husband to guarantee their repayments. Sex Discrimination legislation was introduced. A swathe of changes were made that enabled women to interact with the world of work and money in ways that had previously not been available to them.
These gains were made by collective action of like-minded women who took the very clear view that the personal is political and who repeatedly challenged the institutions of the day to implement real change.
The current generation of young women has been raised in the age of neoliberalism where the individual is held responsible for everything that happens to her. If you want equality, neoliberalism whispers, you need to go out and take it. Only you can make it happen for you. If it doesn’t happen for you, well, you just didn’t try hard enough.
It’s a very neat and incredibly successful way to hamstring feminism. It also meshes well with modern sexist behaviours, or benevolent sexism as Professors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske theorised.
Glick and Fiske developed their theory of Ambivalent Sexism on the basis that sexism is a mechanism for maintaining the gendered power imbalance so that men retain the bulk of the power and women don’t get access to much of it. They suggested (and a great body of research has since supported their ideas) that there are two poles of sexist behaviour – hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. We are all familiar with hostile sexism – the overt devaluing of women as inferior to men, and expressions of hostility towards all things female. “What are ya, a big girl’s blouse?”
Benevolent sexism is an altogether more insidious beast. Benevolently sexist behaviour has the same goal as hostile sexism – to devalue women and femaleness – but it is cloaked in expressions of admiration and even love. So benevolent sexism might come in the guise of admiration for women’s remarkable mothering skills. A benevolent sexist might say that women are such gorgeous creatures, they can’t imagine why any of them would want to be in a boardroom instead of gracing the nearest day spa. Benevolent sexism is also often cloaked in ideas of protection for women – a very common example of this is telling women not to walk alone at night to avoid being attacked.
‘Me’ feminism gives power to benevolent sexism because it makes women responsible for fixing the system which is designed to prevent them from gaining power, and it cloaks itself in empowering rhetoric of self-actualisation, while ignoring the reality that without men moving over to give women space at the table, progress simply cannot be made.
Feminism – the social and political ideology that offers the strongest and most consistent hope for success in building a gender equal world – is being undermined from within and yet, here we are, being tasked with pressing for progress in a system that is designed to make sure progress is limited and patchy and ultimately unsuccessful.
And this is my question to all of you here today – What is modern feminism? What does it look like? How does it reverberate for young women? What will it look like for girls in education in the future? In terms of what the VIEW Clubs are all about, where does feminism sit? Does it have a place at all? And how is feminism responsible for our lack of progress? What does feminism need to do to help progress the gender equality agenda further?
My mother, a staunch supporter of women’s liberation who had never heard of the gender pay gap and would not have called herself a feminist, died before I got myself organised, dropped out of the mainstream of my life and became a mature age full time university student. I think she would have been very surprised but quite chuffed to see me being awarded my PhD in 2012. I think she would have been delighted to see me standing here and talking to all of you today about this particular topic, from a place of knowledge and understanding. So, as this is International Women’s Day, I’d like to finish my talk today by taking a moment to celebrate and say thanks to a woman who, certainly different, gave me the fire and understanding that took me on this journey, all the way to right here, right now. Here’s to you, mum.