No feminist ever helped me

There have been some comments about feminism in the Australian media that I can’t say I’m in any way comfortable with. I want to unpack them and hopefully come to a place where I understand where the speakers  – Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women  – are coming from.

Here’s the thing: every woman who believes that she deserves equal pay to men is a feminist. Though I lament the fact, I understand that there are people who dislike the term feminist. Some find it threatening. Some find it brash. Some believe that emphasising the female in the struggle for inequality is contrary to the goal. But whether or not you use the term, if you believe that your worth should be judged on your skills and merits and not on your butt size, you are a feminist.

But that doesn’t mean, as Julie Bishop said in her National Press Club address, that you’re against feminism in and of itself. I feel like for a lot of people the word feminism is less important that sticking up for themselves and their rights. When she said, “I’m not going to see life through the prism of gender,” I thought, Oh. That makes sense. That’s the way men live, so why shouldn’t it be the way women live?

But does that then turn the discussion about feminism, about equal rights, into a discussion about classism? Women like Julie Bishop live in areas, in cities, that are safe. They live in a world where they truly are judged for their merits, by whether they are qualified for a role or have experience dealing with an issue. But in other areas of the country, in other communities, that isn’t the case. I still get nervous walking the streets at night because I was taught never to do so, that it was dangerous. My family lived in a country city, as did my mother’s family. But my father grew up in the suburbs, and my mother’s parents in Amsterdam. Not places for children, any children, to be walking around under cover of darkness.

It really hurt me when the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women said “No feminist ever helped me,” because they did. Without feminism, women wouldn’t have the vote. Without feminism, women wouldn’t be eligible to run for parliament. Without feminism, the issues of her portfolio wouldn’t be there for anybody to address, let alone her, because they wouldn’t be considered to be issues. Women would be expected to sit down, shut up, and be available as required, and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about that.

Having daughters and wanting them to do well isn’t feminism. It’s being a good parent. That being said, having daughters and being close to them surely means that you’re privy to some of the more subtle women’s issues. Like having to pay tax on feminine hygiene products but not condoms. Like the fact that you get a rape whistle as part of your orientation pack at uni.

I’m not sure if refusing to acknowledge the glass ceiling is helpful or harmful. It’s certainly a thing that is or has been an issue in the past, but sometimes I feel like talking about it too much just makes people defensive. The fact is that the glass ceiling, if it does exist, cannot be broken except by qualified women, of which there are more and more. Calling attention to a thing just as often makes it worse, as people get defensive about protecting the status quo even though it may be being quietly chipped away at in the background by qualified, take-no-prisoners women like Sheryl Sandberg and Arianna Huffington. Whether there are more women at higher levels of business or whether it just seems that way because the ones that are there make so much noise, the fact is that once there is one woman, the “boys club” mentality must be broken, opening the way for others.

I think it’s a combination of the two things: women with more opportunities, who live in safer communities and grow up being told that they can do/be anything they want, are quietly breaking down the barriers that they’ve been railing against. But hasn’t that always been the way? The suffragettes were rich, powerful, had nannies and money and spare time. Those with less – less money, less power, less of a platform, less education – they’re the ones that suffer, that continue to suffer. The student who gets date-raped and then accused of lying. The woman who’s so busy working three jobs to get her kids through school, to the point where she simply doesn’t have the energy to leave her husband. These are the women for whom feminism – yes, feminism – is important.

It probably comes as no surprise to you to learn that I’m a middles-class white girl with a fairly safe, sheltered upbringing. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to go around saying that I don’t identify as a feminist, or that feminism isn’t important. Feminism isn’t about me. It’s about the fact that there are millions of girls out there who aren’t as luck as I have been, for no other reason than where or how or when they were born.


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