Australian fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar has reportedly awarded Foreign Minister Julie Bishop the title “Woman of the Year”. In doing so, the fashionista’s bible has kicked the barely contained hornets’ nest that is the feminist movement’s need for the label to be embraced by all women.
Excerpts of the magazine’s interview with Bishop, released to publicise the edition before it arrives in newsstands and on iPads, emphasise the Cabinet minister’s refusal (again) to describe herself as a feminist.
“Stop whingeing, get on with it and prove them all wrong,” Bishop is quoted as saying. In what has already been latched upon as criticism of former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Bishop is also said to exhort: “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim.”
Such advice will likely kick off another round of condemnatory opinion pieces from the stable of fine Australian female writers who are proud to call themselves feminists. Just as they did after Bishop made similar statements to the National Press Club last month, feminists will imply Bishop’s rejection of the label equates with rejection of the movement and refusal to recognise what it has achieved.
The problem with these analyses is that none of the writers can possibly know what a “woman of the right” thinks about feminism. This is because self-proclaimed feminists almost universally have a progressive point of view and have little understanding (or acceptance) of how conservative or other right-of-centre values may influence the thinking of other women.
Just as a man trying to explain feminism is often dismissed as “mansplaining” because of the clear disconnect between the perspectives of men from women, it’s time we started calling out “left-splaining” when it comes to progressives telling us what women of the right think about feminism and the advancement of women.
Bishop’s comments about “getting on with it” and “proving them wrong” is grounded very much in the individualism that is part of the Liberals’ ethos: 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. This philosophy emphasises every individual’s 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.
Bishop’s acceptance of this individual responsibility was evident in her comments to the National Press Club:
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 if 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.
Accordingly, Bishop accused Gillard at the National Press Club of “turning herself into a victim” rather than accepting that “she was judged by her competence and that’s where she was found wanting”.
It could be a mistake however to jump to the conclusion that a similar quote provided by Harper’s Bazaar is Bishop having another go at Gillard. In saying “Please do not let it get to you and do not become a victim, because it’s only a downward spiral once you’ve cast yourself as a victim,” Bishop could well have been exhorting women generally not to hobble themselves by accepting they’re handicapped by gender.
The flaw in this logic of course is that no matter how hard women strive, no matter how smart or what levels of excellence they achieve, there are still societal barriers preventing many women from achieving equity in pay or recognition let alone the levels of success envisioned by Bishop.
This is the nub of the disagreement between women of the left and women of the right over what should be done to progress the advancement of women. In the most basic terms, women of the left see the need for society to be changed, whereas women of the right see it as a matter of individual endeavour.
And without left and the right recognising and finding ways to accommodate these different perspectives, real progress will never be sustained.
It’s all very well in these days of fractured political philosophies and the rise of the anti-politician to say that left and right are no longer useful ways of grouping what people think. But when it comes to discussion of feminism, these labels are still a useful guide to the differences of opinion.
Women of the right are just as committed to the advancement of women as their sisters on the left. Women of the right are mothers too, and they want to see their daughters have prosperous and fulfilling lives. These women don’t reject the principles of feminism – equality and the advancement of women – but they see them being achieved in different ways. If that view is flawed, yelling at them to take on the feminist mantle will not correct it.
Perhaps the actual underlying concern for feminists is not that women of the right won’t accept the feminist label, but that they are disinclined to recognise the role of the feminist cause in what has been achieved so far. The union movement would be similarly disappointed in the lack of acknowledgement that it gets for having delivered improvements in pay and workplace conditions over the decades.
If that is indeed the root cause of the call for women of the right to embrace the label, then the feminist movement has lost its way.
Surely the advancement of women is an important enough issue for the need for accolades to be set aside. The only way forward is for women of the left to find a way to bring women of the right into the fold to work together on ending discrimination against women.
Some of those women 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 ever be complete.