Myth Busting Feminism

20 / 03 / 2014

By Sarah Capper

International Women’s Day, on 8 March every year, is that time of year when we are able to celebrate, pause and reflect. And sometimes gasp.

In the political sphere, we had our Minister for Women, our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, declaring at an International Women’s Day event that having three daughters has turned this “unreconstructed bloke into a feminist”.

The PM mused that “this is a nation which has smashed just about every glass ceiling, but we need to do more – we need to do more.”

Granted, if you were to put money on any federal pollie “smashing” anything, you’d back Abbott and his speedo-loving, bike-riding, former Oxford boxing-champ physique. Now that he’s on board with the sisterhood, ahem, the trick will be in convincing him precisely what more needs to be done.

Abbott’s adoption of ‘feminism’ may have come as a surprise to some, including possibly his Minister Assisting the PM on the Status of Women, WA Senator Michaelia Cash who may have missed his purple, green and white memo.

In the week preceding IWD, Cash ducked and weaved the question of whether she identifies as a feminist – which in itself generated a response, at least from Greens Senator Larissa Waters, who, perhaps in foreseeing a new ‘Apocalypse Now’, spoke of the “horror” of Cash’ non-answer.

Of course, in a modern day media landscape, Cash was pressed during the week to expand on her views, and explained to Fairfax:

“I have never been someone who labels herself. In terms of feminism, I’ve never been someone who really associates with that movement. That movement was a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now.”

Labor Senator Penny Wong responded, telling Fairfax that feminism “is more than a label, it’s an expression of your ideals.”

“Feminism is about equality. It is a belief that we advocate for women’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexes. I think many women and men would be very disappointed that the person in the government who is supposed to be advocating for women, doesn’t wish to assert those ideals.”

While Tony Abbott declaring himself a feminist is indeed newsworthy, such debate over the word ‘feminism’ is unremarkable in that it rears its head every couple of years.

In her weekly column in the Australian newspaper last week, Janet Albrechtsen took on the issue – and the response Senator Cash received – in her piece pointedly titled ‘Sticklers for Labels Tagged as Groupthink Suckers’, complete with the sub-heading ‘It’s no surprise feminism has become a dirty word for many’.

As one of the few regular female commentators with privileged, prime space in commercial media, Albrechtsen used her column to embody many of the myths associated with feminism and feminists, discrediting those who embrace its principles and ignoring some of the major reasons why.

At least three main myths of feminism can be extracted from her piece last week, which, it should be added, inspired letters to the editor over the following days, many in support (or at least the ones the Oz chose to publish),

Albrechtsen Myth 1: The Ol’ Merit Argument.

While Albrechtsen conceded that Senator Penny Wong’s response to Cash about feminism being about ideals was a “fine-sentiment”, she argued “scratch the surface, and it’s a most disingenuous one”, citing Wong’s use of “leg-up quotas that helped her score a comfy Senate spot and helped her retain it last year in a nasty battle with fellow Senator Don Farrell”.

Farrell, a former union boss and factional heavyweight, stood aside for Wong to take the number one spot in 2012. As Anthony Albanese said at the time “It certainly is no shame being number two to Penny Wong”. At a glance, it was a move that made sense. Wong is a proven political performer. A barrister and solicitor by trade, she has held senior ministry positions in the previous governments and performed well across her portfolios. It could be even argued on merit – that ol’ chestnut – that Wong deserved the number one spot.

But more generally speaking, the merit argument, which people like Albrechtsen and the letter writers who wrote in support of her piece often peddle, is furiously flawed. A quick glance at the Abbott Ministry and the merit argument is laughable. As the ABC’s Annabel Crabb wrote at the announcement of just one woman in Abbott’s 19 cabinet line-up that “the traditionalists’ defence of organisations that proudly appoint “only on merit” … find, time after time, that an astonishingly high proportion of the really excellent people also have willies.”

And as Albrechtsen’s colleague in The Australian Niki Savva wrote, “The fact there was not one other woman Abbott deemed worthy of inclusion in the cabinet, even though he acknowledged they were knocking on the door, was appalling. Sorry ladies – lights on, no one home.”

Writing for the Conversation at the time of Abbott’s cabinet announcment, Deakin University academic Michelle Smith provided an excellent analysis and rebuttal of the merit argument:

“The metaphor of a running race is often used when comparing models of equality. The formal model, which people invoke when they discuss merit and “the best person for the job”, sees all competitors take their place on the same starting line.

“It does not make allowances for whether some of these metaphorical athletes might have been coached at the Australian Institute of Sport with access to elite trainers and equipment, while other competitors might arrive at the line after being self-coached and with no running spikes to wear. Clearly, the second competitor is at a disadvantage in this “fair” race. Yet what if he or she actually had the potential to be the fastest if given access to the same resources?”

In response to policies like “leg-up quotas” as Albrechtsen calls them, and organisations like the Labor Party’s Emily’s List which supports progressive female candidates, Smith argues:

“It means acknowledging that the running race already sees most women start on a tremendous handicap, and that some of our “best” candidates might actually be confined to the spectator’s box unless we take action to work toward equality of outcome.

“Australia is a country with affection for the notion of a “fair go”. We therefore ought to realise that getting somewhere on “merit” does not mean that there were not better candidates out there who lacked the same privilege and opportunity.”

Indeed. But merit wasn’t the only argument Albrechtsen posed in her piece last week.

Albrechtsen Myth 2: The Choice Debate. And feminists supposed ignoring of it. Ahem.

Albrechtsen: “That men and women don’t always compete in equal numbers is routinely explained as structural discrimination. Lost in that debate is the reality of so many women’s choices. Years of research confirm that women’s preferences are often different from men. The decision by even well-educated and ambitious women to devote time to that endlessly messy, maddening and rewarding job of child-rearing has never been treated as a legitimate choice and never been part of the feminists’ conversation.”

Never been part of the conversation? Google feminism and motherhood and you get over 3 million stories. Women, including feminists, have been discussing the correlation of choice and motherhood for decades, if not for over a century and well beyond. Anne Marie Slaughter’s article in the Atlantic last year ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’ attracted over a million readers, and sparked a furious conversation across the globe from women, men and yes, feminists alike. The conversation has well and truly continued to rage.

In terms of women’s preferences in the workplace, Associate Professor Isabel Metz recently provided some stark comments in an IWD piece published in Melbourne University’s ‘The Voice’. Metz, who has been examining gender equity in the workplace, described it is a “myth” that women leave the workplace in large numbers due to family reasons:

“I found only one in 10 women in positions at supervisor level or above left their organisations for family reasons: rather, many felt ‘pushed’ out by women-unfriendly organisational cultures. These women were not leaving to stay at home; they were leaving in search of ‘better’ employers.”

Despite equal pay being legislated over 25 years ago, Metz says the gender pay gap is still real.

“This issue of the gender gap, be it in relation to pay or representation in leadership positions, is very complex. It varies by industry and sector, but it exists all the same,” she says.

“There is a growing body of evidence showing that when you control for ‘variations’, such as career breaks, personality traits – let’s assume introverts may be less willing to negotiate their pay than extroverts – length of work experience, and level of education, we still find a gender difference in pay that is not explained by all the personal factors.

“That unexplained residual is partly attributed to gender discrimination in pay. It exists and it is not explained by one factor only, nor is it explained only by women’s personal circumstances such as career breaks.

“It involves an intersection of personal factors on the women’s side, and factors embedded in socialisation (stereotypes; status hierarchy in our society; social roles ascribed to men and women) and social networks (who you know or are connected with in influential networks) on the decision-maker’s side.”

Further, Metz argues “Australia’s relatively poor position in terms of accessing female talent, compared to other countries like us (eg, the US), should raise questions about our decision-makers, not about the women.”

But perhaps Albrechtsen saved the ‘best’ til’ last, with her implication that feminists are too busy naval gazing with trivial issues.

Albrechtsen (and Razer) Myth 3: “Feminism has become a middle-class wank fest devoted to feeling good.”

The quote is attributed to Helen Razer’s column last year, which Albrectsen herself admits makes for a strange bedfellow in her column. Albrechtsen: “There is something deeply unsettling when a clique of well-to-do women spends more time lamenting its own petty grievances and ignores the real human rights abuses that plague women in the not-so-rich world.”

Ah, the look over there argument! This sentiment ignores the reality of the work of what Tony Abbott says still “needs to be done”, in our own backyard. I don’t believe any feminist denies the struggles women face across the world and in particular in what Albrechtsen deems the “not-so-rich” world. Yes, a lot of work to advance women’s rights needs to be done abroad. But this should not come at the cost of ignoring issues that remain locally. Such relativist arguments are a distraction from the reality that women still face an uphill battle – ie are not on equal starting lines, as Michelle Smith argues – right here at home.

In the documentary Growing Up Gayby examining gay parenting by ‘gayby’ Maya Newell, there’s a touching moment at the end with Janet Albrechtsen. Albrechtsen has previously railed against same sex marriage and gay parenting. But having spent significant time with Newell, having examined her own upbringing, she concedes at the end of the film that perhaps having loving parents is actually the most critical element to bringing up children.

Perhaps Albrechtsen would like to spend a day with a women’s organisation or an organisation combating violence against women (many which identify as feminist), to hopefully better appreciate the breadth of project work the sector continues to undertake. A woman is killed in Australia every week by her partner or ex-partner. In Victoria, crimes relating to violence against women are the only statistics that continue to rise. While on the improve, the law, which Albrechtsen has a background in, continues to work to the detriment of women, particularly in excusing men’s violence and in not recognising women’s histories of violence.

Finally, Albrechtsen’s suggestion that feminism is “having problems attracting recruits especially among young women who haven’t bought into the “have it all” tosh” is not well-grounded.

The internet and social media has made feminism more accessible than ever, with a younger generation of savvy thinkers increasingly adopting the ideals and gasp, the label. Writers and feminists like Clementine Ford are increasingly popular with peers and beyond. Events like ‘Cherchez la Femme’, run by the infectious feminist Karen Pickering, must be attended early, because latecomers will often be relegated to standing room only areas, with a room full of feisty, young, intelligent feminists (and some top blokes too!) regularly engaging in debates on topical issues.

Contrary to Albrechtsen’s belief, a lot of young women are discovering feminism and are identifying with it.  Whether in their 20s or 30s or earlier than that, many young women can appreciate the sentiments expressed by Dale Spender, whose definition on feminism still remains so very relevant:

“Feminism has fought no wars.  It has killed no opponents.  It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions…for safety on the streets…for child care, for social welfare…for rape crisis centers, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, “Oh, I’m not a feminist,”  I ask, “Why, what’s your problem?””

Albrechtsen seems so locked into a rigid and limiting construction of feminism that she can’t see, and appreciate in positive terms, the civilising and growing impact of feminist values.

Huge and growing numbers of Australian men, especially younger generations, have no difficulty embracing the ideals associated with gender equity and feminism. Instead of perceived threat, they absorb the values of feminism in practical and intelligent ways. They appreciate that gender equity brings benefits all round for their lives as well as for women – achieving better work family balance arrangements, benefiting their personal relationships, and indeed the lives of their partners, sisters, daughters, colleagues, friends and mothers.

Like Damon Young, who in 2010 wrote about why he identifies as a feminist:

I’m a feminist because I take my wife’s selfhood seriously … I recognise that she’s an educated, intelligent person with a vocation of her own – and she deserves to cultivate it. She’s a loving mother who wants to see her kids between the hours of seven and seven. And, finally, she’s a grown woman, who likes to spend time with her handsome husband. Importantly, she sees me in similar terms. So instead of enforcing the separation of labour, we share the burdens and joys – in the interests of sanity and empathy. We both work part-time, look after the kids and do menial chores. We play, eat and work together. In this, feminism isn’t an abstract ideology or slogan. It’s a quality of the relationship.

With this in mind, it’s also worth recording that on International Women’s Day, the United Nations Executive Director for Gender Equity Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka declared that “Gender equality isn’t just a women’s issue. It is an issue for all…”

sarah@vwt.org.au

Postscript:

At an IWD Honour Roll event in Daylesford this month, VWT Executive Director Mary Crooks gave the keynote address. Joining her on the speaking line-up were two local high school students from Daylesford Secondary College – Lotus Hackenberger who spoke on Women in Leadership, and Chloe Wrigley who spoke on Media Distortion of Body Image. 

Photo from the Daylesford Advocate

Both girls already recognized the importance of striving for gender equity. With their permission we reproduce the words they spoke at the event. We thank them for their contribution and look forward to hearing more constructive critiques, thoughts and ideas from young women.

Women in Leadership, by Lotus Hackenberger

Lotus lives in Shepherd’s Flat and is currently in Year 11 at Daylesford Secondary College. She is a keen sportswoman, debater and actor and has been selected into the Kwong Lee Dowyoung scholars program with Melbourne University. Lotus took part in the 2012 Alpine school for leadership at the Dinner Plains campus. She is very passionate about women’s rights and how crucial it is for them to be involved in leadership roles. 

In the nineteenth century the suffragette movement persevered against great opposition to begin the process of gaining the vote for women.

Now, 200 years later, we realise that having the vote is not enough. To advance the cause of women, we need them to be equally represented in decision-making organisations – especially in parliaments and in boardrooms.

This is not news, really. We have been aware for some time how vital it is for women to have a real say in the decisions being made.

But establishing this equality is proving difficult, as Julia Gillard reminded us. Australian women have had the vote longer than almost every other country in the world, and were the first to get the right to be elected to the federal parliament, but it took decades to see the first women elected there in 1943[1].

Today we are seeing a lot more women in Parliament, but they are still strongly underrepresented, especially in Cabinet.

Let’s look at the situation in 2014:

Women make up just over 50 per cent of Australia’s population[2].

However, in federal parliament, the coalition’s cabinet is made up of 18 men and only one woman[3].

In Victoria the situation is only marginally better, with 4 of the 22 cabinet members in state government being women[4].

The situation is repeated in our businesses and professions

For instance, just 12 women are chief executives at Australia’s top 200 companies[5].

And women make up an estimated 60% of all law students, but only 19% of practising barristers[6].

The story is similar in other areas. The higher up you go, the wider the gender balance becomes.

Why is it important that there are more women in leadership positions?

Gender disparity in Australian workplaces, such as the disparity between men and women in leadership roles, perpetuates existing stereotypes about the role of women, both at work and in wider society, and increases gender pay inequity.

Further, research has shown that having significant numbers of women in leadership positions encourages and sustains other women[7].

And of course women need to have an equal say in the political, social and economic decisions made in this country every day,

What can be done to address this inequality?

We must encourage girls to take on leadership roles in their schools and communities – and provide good role models.

We must work towards making a real combination of challenging work and successful family life achievable for all women.

These things won’t be easy but surely the benefits are worth it.


Media Distortion of Body Image, by Chloe Wrigley

Chloe has lived in Creswick for most of her life, attends Daylesford Secondary College where she is currently in Year 11. She enjoys literature  and the performing arts and is a singer and keyboard player in the highly acclaimed “Hallway Jam Band”.  Chloe hopes to make a career in the education or performing arts fields when she finished school. Chloe is also passionate about women’s rights.

In the media there have always been issues. An ongoing issue frequently brought up is body image. For years there has been constant scrutiny of the perfect body. But what is perfection? Everyone has imperfections or things that make them different to others.

I believe that the media distorts body image. In our present day and age, women such as Marilyn Monroe are considered plus size or ‘fat’ when in past years they were considered the most attractive women in the world. Objectification is a huge issue as well. I ask you, have you seen a single advertisement recently that hasn’t been sexualised or enhanced by these so-called ‘beautiful’ people.

I believe that media distortion is a growing problem for our future generations. Young, impressionable people are being shown and told, whether it be by magazines, TV shows or even music videos, that you are only beautiful or attractive if you are skinny. And it is not only girls; many young men have also been drawn to the idea of perfection – and it has to stop.

Social media can be a woman or a girl’s worst enemy. We have seen this recently with the spate of photos of celebrities who have recently had babies and have regained their former figures in a very short amount of time. From Kate Middleton to Kim Kardashian, the message fuelled by the media seems to be, “You are a failure if you aren’t immediately back in great shape”. Aside from the fact that these celebrities have access to personal trainers and the like, this seems a sad message for already tired and stressed new mothers.

Of course physical health is important, but mental health is of equal importance, and between the airbrushing and the photo shopping and the subtle and not so subtle messages the glossy magazines bombard us with, it’s not surprising that anxiety is on the rise amongst females of all ages.

The media is a marketing source, but is it for the right reasons?

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Lotus’ Sources:
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