Over 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?
This post was republished at Women’s Agenda.