Let’s Talk Post-Feminism when we’re Post-Patriarchy

17 / 04 / 2014

Isabelle Lane examines some recent political comments about feminism, managing to meld in some popular culture references as a point of contrast. From Le Tigre to Tony Abbott she provides a young woman’s thoughts on understanding gender discrimination in current discourse.  Isabelle is a ‘Triple A’ student intern at the Victorian Women’s Trust and we warmly publish her opinions on Sheilas.

By Isabelle Lane

“Because they will try to convince us that we have arrived, that we are already there, that it has happened.” – From Feminist Sweepstakes, Le Tigre (2001)

These few simple lyrics by dance punk band Le Tigre, “the feminist version of N*Sync” frontwoman Kathleen Hanna once quipped, have been bouncing around in my head lately, and not just because of the pulsating drum machines and catchy hooks. It’s the sentiment that keeps reoccurring as I follow, somewhat wearily, the articles, debates and opinion pieces that have colonised the media discourse since Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced his Cabinet of 18 men and one woman last year.

Despite the indisputable disparity, conservative media pundits, Liberal party politicians and regular Joe Bloggs on the internet have attacked the efficacy of affirmative action policies, arguing that mandatory quota systems are redundant. We have reached an enlightened age of equality where positions of power are determined by merit and merit alone, they tell us. May the best man…er…person…win.

Last month, Senator Michaelia Cash, the Minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women, made headlines by proclaiming that she doesn’t identify as a feminist.

“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,” she said.

Senator Cash, like many of her Liberal party colleagues (though not, interestingly, the Prime Minister, a recently anointed feminist himself), appears keen to consign the feminist project to the dustbin of history.

Well, clearly, Senator Cash hasn’t listened to the latest Beyoncé album.

It may at first appear incongruous to bring Beyoncé into a discussion about Australian politics. It is not.

Arguably the biggest pop star on the planet (named by Billboard magazine as the “artist of the millennium” in 2011, perhaps a little prematurely with 989 years still left to go…), Beyoncé wields the considerable influence that comes with her stratospheric fame.

Her worldwide hit ***Flawless devoted an entire verse to an excerpt of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2012 speech entitled ‘We should all be feminists’.

“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller

We say to girls: You can have ambition, but not too much

You should aim to be successful, but not too successful

Otherwise, you will threaten the man.”

In Australia, the current government is doing a good job of expounding on this, telling girls, and women, that if they fail to gain entry into the highest echelons of power, then it is due to their own deficiencies, and not as a result of systemic, institutionalised sexism that 200 years of feminist activism has yet to overcome.

“Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” Adichie concludes over Beyoncé’s wailing background vocals.

Despite what some conservative politicians would have us believe, feminism is alive and well and more relevant to young women than ever.

Far from Senator Cash’s assertion of feminism as a mere historical footnote, young women are continuing to engage with feminist thought and activism worldwide.

For women of my generation, so-called ‘millennials’, gender inequality is still of fundamental concern. Research from American based nonpartisan fact tank Pew Research Centre shows that 75% 18-32 year old women, and 57% of men, think that more changes are needed to give men and women equality in the work place.

Figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in February showed that, “on average, full-time working women’s earnings are 17.1 per cent less per week than full-time working men’s earnings (a difference that equates to $262.50 per week).”

Despite this persistent gender pay gap, speculation arose in the media last month that the government would seek to scale back existing regulation requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report on measures of gender equality in their workplaces.

The Prime Minister later denied plans to change the regulation, but added that the government would “continue to consult” on the matter as “there has been a lot of disquiet in the business sector about the implications of the gender reporting.”

In her 2000 book Feminism is for everybody, feminist cultural critic bell hooks sought to demystify and de-stigmatize feminism. She wanted to repackage the message of feminism, which had become tarnished and distorted by misrepresentation in the “patriarchal mass media”, in a simple and easily understood way. 

“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression,” hooks says.

“As a definition it is open ended. To understand feminism it implies one has to necessarily understand sexism.”

“As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem.”

This key stumbling block is patently evident in the current discourse around women in politics. In the debate over affirmative action quotas, sexist rhetoric and spurious arguments about “merit” abound.

The evidence is in that mandatory quotas, both here and in many other countries such as France where they are an accepted and successful part of the system, are vital to accelerating the process of gender parity.

Labor instituted a quota system in 1994, with the Labor governments between 2007-2013 achieving the “highest representation of women of any of the major Australian political parties (36%), as well as a record number of women in any Federal Cabinet or Ministry.” (Emily’s List)

One of the lone voices speaking out about this issue from the conservative side of politics is long-serving Victorian MP Sharman Stone.

“I think the evidence shows we need a different, more systemic intervention,” Dr Stone said.

“That could be a target, a quota, it could be a whole range of things, but one thing’s for sure, we need a greater proportion of women in Australia’s Parliament.”

So when I hear a chorus of white, male, conservative politicians telling women that, sweetie, you’re just not quite good enough, but you’re “knocking on the door,” I know that as a society we are not there yet. I remember that, “they will try to convince us that we have arrived, that we are already there, that it has happened.” It is clear that much work remains to be done.