The F Word

As a teenager I rejected the idea of feminism. Of course I didn’t understand it, so what I Imageactually rejected was the idea that my gender was an ‘issue’ worthy of any debate. I associated feminism with man-hating lesbians who brought gender into conversations where it didn’t belong. It was something ‘of its time’ – a time of suffrogates and bra-burning. I was grateful, of course, but in the way you might be grateful to the early settlers, or your grandparents for having fought in world wars.

I categorically denied, right into my 20s, that I would be in any way held back or disadvantaged by being a woman. The feminists had done their job, thanks very much, now bugger off and let me get on with conquering the world. Like most women of my generation, I was going to have it all. In the earlier years of my ‘career’ I was interested in an academic discipline that’s largely male dominated. I refused to engage with feminist discourse at Uni or take the feminist ‘unit’ of either of my majors, because I resented the stereotype of a woman being only interested, or at least predominantly interested in, ‘women’s issues’. In some ways I was grateful to be female because it might give me a competitive edge, yet I was absolutely determined to get ahead based only on merit. Gender was irrelevant to me because I could rise above it – wasn’t that what the earlier feminists had argued for?

As I’ve gotten older, however, my views on most issues, feminism not the least, have softened. There are shades of gray everywhere. I’ve come to appreciate women more, in all their variety and for all their voracious strength. The image of the bitter middle-aged divorcee (think that final scene from Jerry Maguire where the support group are sitting around bitching about men) that repulsed me in adolescence (after all hadn’t they failed their femininity? Hadn’t they given up and gotten old and cranky and redundant, proving that they couldn’t successfully ‘have it all?) now drew sympathy. At only 31, I ‘get’ them. I now suspect their bitterness was hard-earned and well deserved. By judging them, I was buying into the feminist blaming that has turned the ‘F’ word into something wildly unpopular.

Last week I went and saw Kathy Lette, she of Puberty Blues fame, interviewed at the Wheeler Centre. I’ve not read Puberty Blues. In fact I haven’t read any of Kathy’s books. I knew very little about her, except that she wrote ‘chick lit’ (not my genre), and was married to Geoffrey Robertson QC (the irony that who she’s married to matters isn’t lost on me). Titles such as ‘How to Kill Your Husband and Other Handy Household Hints‘ seemed to me to be brash, shallow, and frivolous – a brand of female assertiveness that I wasn’t particularly interested in, sceptical I suppose that chick lit was just another example of the ‘dumbing down’ of women. I misjudged Kathy. Seeing her speak last week, I was struck by the fact that she embodies, at least in her public persona, the best of what it is to be a woman. She’s funny, bright, warm and not ashamed to take care of her appearance. She epitomises a woman in middle age who seems to have achieved a harmony between the feminist stereotypes – the holy grail ‘middle ground’.

Monica Dux, who incidentally interviewed Kathy Lette last week, writes in The Great Feminist Denial (co-authored with Zora Simic) that feminism has become the enemy of women who feel failed by it – they held out a carrot that may yet turn out to be inedible. But could it be that feminism is a continuing battle and we’re judging, unfairly, an unfinished product?

I don’t know yet how I feel about most of these issues. I don’t know if we can have it all. I don’t know what that means. I vacillate between the two extremes of empowered femininity – a woman who is proud of her erotic capital, for example*, and her hairy-legged non-makeup-wearing sister. I’m glad to know I have options, and choice, but with choice comes decisions, and having to bear responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Is there a more potent symbol of femininity than motherhood? Children, and whether or not to have them, is probably the biggest decision I will ever make, and something I think about at least daily. My concerns about the impact it may have on my career path, the strain it could place on a relationship, and in fact whether I’ve become too used to my selfish easy life to be a good mother, are huge questions that I’ll reserve for another post. Suffice to say here that as I’ve gotten older and started to face choices like these, gender inequality has taken on a more personal resonance.

For a few years there I was ‘living the dream’ of combining full-time study with part-time work and full-time step parenting. It was bloody hard. As a result of just this taste of domesticity and without going much further on this topic, I can sympathise with women who turn their backs on their families and run off to join a commune. The experience left me with the knowledge that I am not ok with any preconceived ideas about what role I will play in a family unit. I am not ok with women being treated as doormats. I’m not ok that despite having come so far, women are still treated largely with contempt in the media, portrayed in advertising as either stupid or sexy, or worse – long-suffering. We are still, largely, wives, mothers and domestic goddesses. How many advertising scripts contain a guilt-laden entreaty along the lines of ‘don’t you want what’s best for your family?’ I am not ok with the astounding prevalence of violence against women in our society – in all societies. I am definitely not ok with the fact that we still only earn approximately 75% of a male wage and do 90% of the housework.

Clearly my understanding of feminism is embryonic, and in a decade I may have a different view entirely. I’m planning to read a lot of books on the subject and this is something I want to become more informed about, so as to firm up my own feelings about what feminism is, and how to continue to fight for the cause of equality for women.

*Now this is an interesting one. I came across this article last year in The Age – The Power of Erotic Capital, which basically argues that it’s ok for women to use their femininity, even if it means flirting, to get ahead in the workplace. You can read the whole thing here http://www.theage.com.au/lifestyle/life/blogs/ask-sam/the-power-of-erotic-capital-20110907-1jx06.html. Not sure how I feel about it, but it’s an intriguing concept – what do you think?

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