Feminism’s Latest Ripple

I am actually tired of writing on the topic of Feminism and I vowed I never would again. But here I am, I cannot help myself dipping into the question again. Being tired of it does not mean that I think it is unimportant.

I have recently read two books on the topic, first was Clementine Ford’s “Fight Like A Girl”. I have just finished Tracey Spicer’s memoir, “Good Girl Stripped Bare”, an interesting and beautifully written memoir even leaving aside its feminist themes.

On finishing, with a few unanswered questions plaguing my mind, I saw a tweet of Helen Razer’s opinion. I followed it up by reading her article on the value (or actually lack of value) of “femoirs” or “individual’s accounts of their representational problems”.

We still have a long way to go and a lot of questions to answer.

I have been a feminist for many years. My mother, who attended University in the 1930s and who was not able to continue teaching after she married was not too much of a philosophically outspoken feminist but rather a quiet questioner who encouraged my sister and me to do exactly what we wanted to regardless of gender. My father went one step further and taught us to be somewhat self sufficient, use tools, cut wood, build stuff (including dry stone walls) and he would not let us get our driver’s licences until we could do basic things like changing the wheel if a car tyre blew.

I have, like others, met lots of institutionalised misogyny in my working life of about forty years. This has been in a couple of professions in city and country NSW and in London, UK. In the early days I also met lots of negativity about equality from women as well as from men. But I have been fortunate enough not to have met with personalised bad behaviour. I was lucky enough to have met and worked with good men, despite many of us having differing opinions throughout all that time.

In my student days attitudes varied. As a young primary school girl in Sydney the girls and boys were separated and I did get a bit exasperated when Clive James, just a schoolboy, with his friends always hogged the floor or microphone when we got together for occasional special functions and debates. But I can now see why! On the other hand when I went to a country high school the boys were extremely pleasant and inclusive. Perhaps I got called an idiot if I scored an own goal during one of the pick up mixed games of sport we occasionally played. But that would have been well deserved. We had a few races on our bikes down two mile hill to school but nobody ever tried to trip me or any of my friends – even the very pretty ones!

On the other hand I got very short shrift from the High School Principal of the early fifties when I visited him with a self initiated petition that included some boys’ signatures, that we should have a choice that was not gender related about whether we went to “woodwork and tech drawing” or “home science and needlework” classes. In English the choice we could make of books from the recommended sources varied very much according to whether it was a boy’s or girl’s choice. We did it very much 50/50 and made compromises with one another.

At University we females were not allowed to wear trousers in public or to our formal dinners in college. I do not know whether this was a male or female initiated rule but it was administered by women. We got over the latter ban by rolling up the trouser legs under our academic gowns and feeling rebellious!

At Law School in 1960 onwards there was little negativity, that we heard anyway, from the boys, or should I say young men, in the classes. They shared lecture notes with us as well as with one another if we had to miss a lecture. We spent a pleasant time in the Library together or in the Catalina Coffee shop below the Law School, discussing interesting issues. Individually the lecturers were encouraging and appeared even handed.

On the other hand there was clearly some institutional doubt. In our nicely fitted out common room, which had been formerly used by the males, the Urinal had been turned off but had not been removed. That would have been going a bit too far.

During my indentures as an Articled Clerk I was treated with respect and friendliness and did get the same work opportunities as my fellow male Articled Clerks . I sometimes felt I was given a little more “looking after” as I was the first female articled clerk the particular firm had had. (I did get asked a few times by my fellow clerks if I could type – we all shared and competed for the time of the secretaries and sometimes they were very busy. They thought, being female, this might have been one of my skills. Not actually an insult!) Of course I had to wear a hat in court – but then they had to wear ties and take any hats off!

I met institutional problems when I tried to go back to work as a solicitor after having children, but none framed in a personal way to me. This was, of course, well before the days of maternity leave.

Why has the active discourse become worse and worse as time has gone on yet the conditions have steadily got better for women? Why are women more often subject to unacceptable behaviour now than the much smaller number of us were way back then?

Perhaps the numbers are a clue. I think burgeoning numbers has partly increased male fear at what seems to some to be rapid, threatening change. Possibly the female lapse into more belligerence (maybe in desperation at what seems to some to be such an extended time frame for change) has not helped either.

The physical, sexual and verbal attacks which many of the “femoirs” reveal are disgraceful and the full weight of the law should be applied to anyone who acts or has acted in these ways. There can be no excuse whatsoever.

But where has the resigned tolerance I met and I gave back gone?

Annabel Crabb’s “The Wife Drought” is an interesting book and deals with the effect some of the changes have had and could have on men. She mentions the fact those men who want to help with child care are catered to in only a few workplaces, whereas women are already catered to more often. I agree with her that is hard on some men but I think this is something they have to deal with within the masculine framework. Yet I feel some of the “Mummy Blogs” types of thinking have also been, perhaps unwittingly, assuming that women should still have the primary “power” when it comes to children. If we are to be “equal” that must apply to all rights and responsibilities. Some women are also very reluctant to let go of what they consider to be their area of traditional expertise.

And surely the very things that very many women illustrate in these”femoirs” is that they prefer the way women interact rather than the way some men do, and this too must be considered. We want equality. We do not all want to be like some men. Take swearing as a small example. It’s not going to hurt anyone. It does not matter a damn if people swear or not. But traditionally it has been to make a point in an unusual situation. It should not be used, as I think Clementine Ford may do, to somehow pretend we are men. The men to whom I enjoy listening only swear when a point or an issue really needs it.

I tell two of my stories to show what I mean. My mother never swore. She did not, however, collapse in a swoon when others did! She just seemed to choose to use other words. One day when I was in my teens there was a large group in my parent’s home having a very animated discussion. I heard my mother’s voice “bull shit” – the very first time I had heard her swear. The room went silent. I think I may have heard a pin drop. And she had the floor completely.

On the other hand I took my two year old son out with me when I was buying some take away food one Saturday. At the time my husband was a Magpie fan. Next to us at the counter was a large man in football gear. My son’s face filled with awe as he pointed and uttered far too clearly with admiration in his voice, “Look a bloody Snouth!” Overuse of swearing minimises the point being made.

Overdoing the drama does not help either. We, women and men together, need to be co-operative, yet resolute, as we move forward with clear heads and aims.

Having been alive in pre pill days I never lose sight of the fact that the male/female balance started as an evolutionary matter and has been in place for thousands of years.

Women had the children and made the baby food. Men held the spear. The dynamics had to change when women decided they wanted a throw and it became possible to plan reproduction. And that was all a relatively very short time ago. We tut tut at other cultures who have earlier ages of consent in sexual matters and who practise polygamy (which is one way of sharing the burden). We look on those cultures as very repressed and do not realise it was such a very short time ago, right here, that the age of consent roughly followed puberty. The “choices” women can now make are still relatively very new. It all takes time.

We needed the suffragettes. We later needed someone like Germaine Greer to speak out and make a fuss while feminists like me just continued to try to practice the craft.

But what we need now is bravery in co-operation, men and women speaking out at the time about any poor behaviour, either institutionally or personally, and for us all to give support to women (and also to men) who speak out. Even if it is a bit late when it comes in memoirs, that speaking out may give courage to others. Here, while understanding what she means ( I had that same doubt when I finished Tracey Spicer’s book) I disagree with Helen Razer. We are at the point where we need to be completely open. We need to give public praise to anyone who speaks out at any time, to women to speak out retrospectively, to men who speak out now or even retrospectively , to men who take on half or more of the parenting of their children or who support women’s stances. We do not need to be dismissive and allege we do not need men to speak for women. It is their issue too. In these ways sharing will eventually be normalised. We need to make the whole discourse more inclusive in all ways, inclusive of the past, inclusive of all genders, inclusive of multiple solutions.

And while we extol the arrangements some couples make between themselves to provide equality between them, and now that we have a law that provides for maternity leave and the right to return to work, we must not mix the goal for gender equality with a quite different question. That is how much, if anything at all, is required of childless men or women or indeed people who have finished child rearing, to support workers with children? This is a completely separate question and is not nearly so clear cut as the absolute need for gender equality.

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About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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