On the eve of International Women’s Day, Alana Schetzer meets the women giving feminism a good name.
Want to know the most infuriating question for a feminist? Ask them if feminism is dead.
“If I had to spend my energy convincing people that feminism is alive and that I am in fact not a figment of their imagination, I would have no time to even get to talk about the issues,” says Clifton Hill activist Karen Pickering. “Feminism is healthy and robust and vibrant and necessary. I know it is.”
Pickering, 34, is part of a growing feminist community in the inner-north who converge to talk, laugh and debate about equality, or the lack thereof. Every month, 60 to 70 women – and men – take part in Pickering’s Cherchez la Femme forum, discussing current affairs and popular culture from a feminist perspective.
‘‘I genuinely believe that most people want to understand and fix a genuine injustice,’’ says Pickering. ‘‘So the more you can change those public conversations, change the tone of them and challenge the stereotypes, then the more productive we’ll be in solving the problems.’’
That conversation will extend across the world on Thursday, March 8, as billions of people celebrate International Women’s Day.
In Melbourne, dozens of events will be held to acknowledge hard-fought battles and shine a light on sexism in society. Cherchez la Femme will host IWD celebrations with a line-up of dancers, musicians, poets and comedians at Collingwood’s Grace Darling Hotel. Meanwhile, at the Forum Theatre, the non-profit International Women’s Development Agency will host Half the Sky, a cabaret-style event featuring music, cabaret and comedy.
As well as celebrating the achievements of the women’s movement over the past 101 years, the IWD events planned throughout Melbourne reflect the energy and attitude of the new generation of feminists.
While Germaine Greer and Anne Summers remain important figureheads, women such as Pickering are regenerating interest in the fight for equality and respect. The fact that she’s funny doesn’t hurt, either.
Although this new breed of feminists identify themselves as part of the women’s movement, they are divided on the next important step in improving women’s rights and tackling issues such as the way high-profile women are treated in the media and how women who dress ‘‘a certain way’’ are labelled.
Fitzroy North writer and activist Clementine Ford, 30, is one of the most articulate voices of Melbourne’s new feminist movement. Her passion started before she was even aware of the issues: when her parents asked her and her sister to do the dishes.
‘‘I used to get really frustrated by this because my brother could just go off and do whatever he wanted. My mum would try and placate me by saying, ‘It’s just that I know you’ll do a good job and if I get Toby to do it, I’ll just have to do it again’.
‘‘I remember thinking, ‘You’d only have to do it again because you’ve given him a reason to not do it properly and you think he can’t do it properly because he’s a boy’.’’
Addressing this imbalance became the first of many feminist acts for Ford. Today she focuses on broader attitudes towards women.
While much of the important legislation, such as the end to discriminatory work practices, was enacted in the 1970s, the way women are treated and discussed publicly and privately has been much slower to change, she says.
Case in point: when Fairfax blogger Samantha Brett recently wrote that women ‘‘know that a good push-up bra is a better investment than any PhD’’, Ford sent out a slew of tweets to her 4700 or so followers pulling apart Brett’s argument.
‘‘The reason I have such a poor success rate with getting jobs is because I don’t have gigantic man magnets going to the interviews for me,’’ she tweeted in typically acerbic fashion.
“You can change all of these laws but you still have to change the culture and community,’’ says Ford now. ‘‘That’s where we’re at now: trying to change the minds of people who feel like we live in this really equal, secure environment. Because we don’t.”
What also grates is the perception that feminism is about women versus men. Men have a lot to gain from feminism, too, she says.
‘‘It’s also to help men achieve the same equality that women have: the equality of being able to express their emotions without being called a ‘wuss’ or ‘unmanly’; the right to stay home with their kids while their wife goes out to work without being called a failure.’’
What feminism today is trying to achieve, Ford says, is getting everyone to question what sort of society they want to be part of. Ending the judgment of women based on their clothing, looks or shape is a big part of that.
The ‘‘blaming the victim’’ mentality is a major challenge facing feminism – and society. It was also the motivation for last year’s Slut Walk, a rally organised by Pickering which aimed to confront the idea that a woman is ‘‘asking for it’’ because of the way she dresses.
‘‘The central issue of Slut Walk is that if you are a victim of sexual assault or rape, it’s not your fault and I think that’s very uncontroversial,’’ says Pickering. ‘‘But it’s often negotiated in the public sphere that if a woman wears certain clothes or stays out late or goes home with a man, then she has brought it on herself.’’
Both Ford and Pickering believe another one of the biggest hurdles facing feminism today is the stigma associated with the word itself.
‘‘The way that feminism is spoken about in the public sphere is just another barrier,’’ Pickering says. ‘‘There is no stereotype of a feminist that’s reliable.’’
Animosity towards the word is a trump card for those who wish to suppress it, says Ford. ‘‘I always say, if you don’t want to call yourself a feminist because you think that means you don’t shave your legs or armpits, or men won’t want to sleep with you, that is the very reason why we need to continue to have this conversation.
‘‘Why is it so offensive for a women not to shave her legs? If we’re still in a space where a woman’s body is revolting unless she primps and preens it within an inch of her life, then obviously feminism is relevant.’’
While Ford and Pickering believe there is still a long way to go before Australian women are treated equally, feminist and musician Deborah Conway argues that the fight for equality in this country is ‘‘largely sorted’’. The real battle, she says, is in developing countries and nations where discriminatory laws remain.
“There are huge problems in a lot of countries that don’t adopt a Western liberal democracy and I think it’s beholden on women who do have equal rights to fight those battles,” says Conway, who will perform at Half the Sky.
She points to the current make-up of Australia’s elite as evidence of how far the women’s movement has come. ‘‘At this point we have a female prime minister, a female governor-general, Australia’s richest person is a woman and we have one of the world’s most powerful corporate women in [Westpac CEO] Gail Kelly. I’m getting shivers; it’s fantastic.’’
Joanna Hayter, executive director of the International Women’s Development Agency, has seen first-hand the two-speed progress in equality being made across the world. She says while much of the feminism debate in Australia centres around attitudes towards women in positions of power, in countries like Saudi Arabia, women are still waiting for basic rights such as leaving their houses without a male guardian.
“It’s pretty great to be an Australian woman, let’s admit that,’’ says Hayter. ‘‘We can choose whatever we want to choose. It’s amazing.”
* International Women’s Day is Thursday March 8. Half the Sky is at the Forum Theatre, Flinders Street, city, from 8pm. All proceeds go to IWDA’s work with women across Asia and the Pacific. Details: International Women's Development Agency.
Cherchez La Femme Celebrates International Women’s Day at the Grace Darling Hotel, 114 Smith Street, Collingwood, from 7pm. Details: visit facebook.com/#!/cherchezlafemmo.