Why women of the right will never call themselves feminists

feminist-motherOver the five years I’ve been writing about politics I’ve steered clear of feminism: mostly because I don’t really know much about it. I didn’t do gender studies at high school or university and, perhaps most importantly, it was never raised as an issue at home.

My parents never told me I had a natural disadvantage in life because I was female. Not once, ever.

But I was told many, many times that if I studied diligently, did well at school and university, and worked hard at my chosen vocation, I would be successful and, by extension, happy.

Before you jump to conclusions about my privileged Tory upbringing, let me explain.

My Dad came from a middle class family, but Mum’s was working class. Both were rebels in their own way, and despite being fiercely intelligent neither finished school. They both had children out of wedlock in their late teens (yes I am one of them), ended up with a family of four kids by their mid-20s, and spent the next two decades trying to provide for their family.

With no education and no trade, both my parents were unskilled workers. We went where the work took us – up and down the east coast of Australia for much of my early and middle childhood, as far south as King Island where Dad worked in the mine for a year, and as far north as Darwin, where amongst other things he worked for a time as a wharfie. At one point Mum and Dad worked in the same factory, timing their shifts to make sure at least one parent was at home. Once we settled in Darwin, Mum worked in retail for a while.

With poverty comes generosity, and my parents were generous to a fault. Particularly during our time in Darwin – when my siblings and I were teenagers – my parent’s home was literally an open-house for any kids or adults needing a bit of respite from their regular lives. A bed was always found, a meal always provided, and the door literally open 24 hours a day for anyone who needed it.

In many ways my parents were simply replicating the generosity of their own families, who’d taken us in many, many times over the years with nary a complaint, although we usually arrived on the doorstep in the middle of the night with no notice or money.

By this point Dad had finally let out his inner artist, painting the walls and ceilings of our housing commission home with galaxies, spaceships and doors to other dimensions. Pieces of Dali-esque sculptures were scattered around the overgrown garden.

It wasn’t necessarily an idyllic lifestyle, particularly not for someone like me who prefers order and predictability to chaos and spontaneity. There were still bouts of the violence and alcoholism that had marked our earlier lives.

But in many ways my parents embodied the socialist ideal – their home was your home, regardless of your age, race or socioeconomic status.

Perhaps they betrayed this socialist ideal by instilling right-of-centre values in their children. Or perhaps those values more successfully took root in my psyche because I was already predisposed. However it happened, I emerged from those years with a strong belief in the power of the individual, the merit of hard work in the pursuit of excellence, and the right of those who’ve worked hard to enjoy the profits of their endeavours.

I was raised to believe that I could – and should – do anything that I put my mind to. And never once was I told that being a woman would get in the way of that pursuit.

Obviously, every person’s story is different, but I wanted to tell you mine to demonstrate why women who are instilled with right-of-centre values don’t or won’t see gender as an impediment (or an excuse).

Those of us who are individualists believe it is our responsibility to do the very best we can, and if we fail it’s not society’s fault but due to our own limitations – be they in capability or effort. Julie Bishop encapsulated this yesterday at the National Press Club when she said:

“For me I refuse to acknowledge [the glass ceiling]. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist. But the approach I’ve taken is that if I want something I’ll work hard and set my mind to it and it comes off that’s great. If it doesn’t I’m not going to blame the fact I’m a woman. I’m not going to look at life through the prism of gender.”

The extension of this philosophy is the refusal to use gender as an excuse for one’s lack of success or failure, or to become a ‘victim’ of one’s gender, as Bishop accused Gillard of doing:

“she was judged by her competence and that’s where she was found wanting. She then turned herself into a victim. That was her choice. As far as I’m concerned she was judged by the public and the media by her competence, honesty and performance as PM.”

I’ll spell it out – women with a strong sense of individualism view another woman using gender to explain her failure as resorting to self-victimisation rather than taking personal responsibility for that failure. Granted, there’s a lot of other politics packed into that particular statement by Bishop about Gillard, but that doesn’t diminish where Bishop was coming from on the question of gender.

Having thought about my own upbringing, I’m going to push the question of self-victimisation a bit further. Had I been raised by parents who were acutely aware of the gender-imbalance, creating a self-awareness that society considered me a second-class citizen simply because of my sex, would I have emerged with a victim mentality? Would I have studied as diligently, worked as assiduously, or achieved as much as I did (before my retirement from corporate life) if I’d known I was effectively being hobbled every step of the way? Or would I have been discouraged from the outset, and resentful of being the victim of my gender?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. All I know is that I raised my own daughter, who like my parents did not finish school or go to university, to be assertive, canny, hardworking, and to believe that she can do pretty much whatever she puts her mind to (other than be a brain surgeon, obvs). So by 21, she had worked her way to manager in a retail company and was responsible for numerous stores, staff and financial reports. I’ve never once discussed with her that being a woman might hold her back.

Does this make me an advocate or opponent of the fight for the advancement of women?

I know this a long-winded explanation, but I feel the “why won’t conservative women just call themselves feminists” lament is (perhaps deliberately) missing the point. Refusal to adopt the term doesn’t mean a woman doesn’t believe in or advocate gender equality and the advancement of women. And insistence from women of the left that women of the right must embrace the term is typical of the reasons why they won’t.

Many female individualists and conservatives will continue to resist being dragooned into the ‘feminist cause’ as long as it’s seen to be an activist, anti-man movement.

Some forms of activism can be attractive to individualists but it’s the antithesis of what it means to be a conservative. Conservative women support the status quo, and when change is needed then it must be incremental. They see activists, and the revolutionary change they espouse, as anarchistic and alien. Insisting these women should self-identify as a feminist is demanding they do something that goes against their deepest grain.

Many women of the right are white, middle-class women who are mostly blind to privilege, and who feel incredibly threatened by those who expose the privilege enjoyed by white middle-class men. That’s right, they feel threatened by the women who expose the privilege, not those who have it. This is because the ‘activist’ women are seen as not only trying to disrupt male authority, but also the comfortable lives of the women who did not know until then that they were being oppressed by their men.

I believe the fight for gender-equality will never be successful until women of the left accept, and are willing to take into account, that women of the right think differently because they have different core values. Feminists who keep trying to change these foundation stones of a person’s philosophy and attitudes, by insisting individualist and conservative women embrace the label, are simply wasting their time.

Like Bishop, I believe in gender-equality, the advancement of women and the need to continue pushing for the inequality gap to be closed. I tend not to write about it because I know so little about the issue from an academic or political perspective.

But having been raised in a family that experienced domestic violence, and done some reading on that subject, I’ve grown to understand the role that sexism has in violence against women. This will be the ‘feminist’ issue that I will continue to write and agitate about.

I remain, however, uncomfortable about taking on the feminist label.

So, this is my plea to the self-described feminists who genuinely want to bring women of the right into the fold to work together on ending discrimination against women. Stop insisting on adoption of the label, and start finding ways to educate privileged women about gender-disparity without threatening their “way of life”.

For those women who think that’s just not worth the effort – because privilege – its worth remembering that some of the privileged women of the right you eschew today will be the CEOs, board directors, and MPs of tomorrow.

Only with their acceptance of the real need to address gender inequality, and knowledge of how to do it, will the task be complete. Isn’t that outcome worth much more than silly mind games over a label?


Equality these days means having to take abuse too

Burning effigy of PM John Howard, Nat Library of Aust

Do feminists want equality for women or not? If they do, then they need to accept that any person who holds the office of Prime Minister will sometimes be described in extremely offensive terms.

Honestly, is calling John Howard a cunt any less offensive than calling Julia Gillard a cow? Is the placard wielded at one rally depicting Gillard as Bob Brown’s bitch any more hateful than the burning of John Howard’s effigy at another?

No, they’re not. I don’t buy the line that the use of a gender-based epithet somehow magnifies the injury intended upon the recipient. As I’ve written before:

While the words of protest and criticism levelled at Julia Gillard are disrespectful and even abhorrent, they’re not the first to be used against an unpopular Prime Minister. In the battle of words and thoughts that is politics, people often throw the first epithet that comes to hand. The fact that some of this abuse is gender-based doesn’t make it sexism.

While a woman might be called a bitch, a man could be called a prick. Either could be called a fuckwit. The gender of a word does not invest it with any more hate than another. In fact, some female terms of abuse can apply equally to men or women. Either an elderly man or woman crossing the road in front of an impatient hoon might be called a “silly old cunt”. Anyone who lavishly courts the press could be called a “media whore”. “Bitch” and “bastard” are usually gender specific, but they carry about the same level of insult. Equally, “male” words can be just as readily applied to women. Dickheads and arseholes are not exclusively men.

So, instead of trying to beat up this week’s “old cow” comments about the Prime Minister as the latest blow to feminism, how about we tackle the real issue: the apparent acceptability of hate speech in public rallies, forums and online political discussions.

It’s been going on since at least the Howard years, or do we prefer not to remember that?

Lego’s not as pink as you think

Here’s my debut piece for the online news and magazine site The Hoopla, in which I argue that the rants about pink lego are a load of rot. Enjoy :-)

#Slutwalk will not show our daughters how to get respect

Women around the world are participating in #slutwalk to reclaim the “derogatory” word and the right to dress however they wish, whenever they wish.

These women are incensed by a Canadian policeman who candidly opined that women should not to dress like sluts if they want to avoid being the victims of sexual assault.

These women have accused the policeman of being a misogynist and a proponent of the victim-as-perpetrator excuse for rape.

Perhaps they are right on both counts. But in fabricating a mildly controversial PR stunt that advocates the celebration of being a “slut”, these women are grievously wrong in encouraging others to dress in a sexually provocative manner whenever they want.

To do so is a grave disservice to all women, particularly young women, who are striving to be seen and treated as equal and capable in relationships, social settings, learning places and the workforce.

Before I am misunderstood, let me say up front that there is no excuse for rape. Not ever. No woman or man, regardless of their dress, demeanour or behaviour, should be subjected to sexual activity against their will and there is no justification for doing so.

The rightful denial of “sluttishness” as an excuse for sexual assault (which more often than not is an act of dominance rather than sexuality) does not however shield a provocatively dressed woman from a litany of other negative responses from those who observe her.

Some will see her as sexually aggressive or promiscuous, while others will conclude she has no self-respect. The worst judgement of all will be that she is a bimbo with no capacity for rational or analytical thought. Perhaps these responses would be elicited regardless of the woman’s attire, but they undoubtedly would be amplified and reinforced by sexually suggestive clothing.

Is this prejudice acceptable? No of course it’s not. But it exists in pretty much every part of our society – the very places where our sisters, daughters and female friends live, learn and work.

But holding a public march to celebrate the very nature of sluttishness is simply counterproductive.

Pseudo shock tactics like this do nothing to promote an understanding and acceptance that women who choose to dress in a feminine and attractive manner are also smart and capable and must be treated with respect.

The sad truth is that a woman shouldn’t dress like a slut if she wants to be taken seriously or treated as an equal.

Protesting against unacceptable justifications for rape is one thing; teaching our daughters how to get respect in their relationships and workplaces is another thing altogether.

The #slutwalk may achieve the first but it will undermine the latter. Perhaps the sluts need to take a good long look at themselves.

If you’d like to hear a radio interview I did with @CarolDuncan on this post, just follow this link

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