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Three things I would change about feminism

I spoke at the International Women's Day Feminartsy Story-share last week, on three things I would change about feminism today. Here's a transcript of the talk!


I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we’re meeting on, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respect to their elders past, present and future, as well as any first nations people in the audience here today.

I would also like to note that in 2018, First Nations women continue to have a life expectancy of 10 years less than non-Indigenous women in Australia, and that is unacceptable. This inequality and marginalisation can be seen across health, education and employment outcomes for First Nations women. We need to continue to stand with and for our First Nations sisters, and follow their leadership in this fight for equality.

So, tonight’s theme, in honour of IWD is ‘three things I would change for women, so we could achieve gender equality’. But, as Feminartsy is a benevolent dictatorship and I can basically do what I want, I have decided to tweak the theme for my own purposes. I will instead be speaking about three things I would change in feminism today, so we could actually get some shit done.

This is not my first feminist rodeo. I have been actively identifying as a feminist for over 13 years now, and in that decade and a bit I have seen frustrating trends emerge within the movement that I feel limit our efficacy, and also distract us from pushing for the concrete, measurable outcomes in policy that will directly disrupt systems built on patriarchy and inequality.

So here’s my rant –

Change number one: end the woke Olympics for good so we can work in solidarity.

Ah, ‘wokeness’. Never before has a term simultaneously beguiled me and moved me to tears of fury. For those of you who have escaped the tyranny of wokeness, here’s a crash course:

For centuries, the mainstream population has been wandering around, occupying the world unaware of their own privilege, which allows them to experience a kinder, more enabling life than many others have access to.

This privilege can come in many forms – being white, being able-bodied, being a man, having wealth, having good health, having support structures and family, having an education etc. As we all know by now, these gifts are not handed out equally in this world of ours, and it is only recently that we have started identifying the truly negative impacts of social inequality that creates systems built in favour of the privileged, reliant on the suffering of the marginalised.

It’s awesome that this awareness has entered the mainstream – that white, middle-class men the world over are becoming ‘woke’ to their privilege (and maybe feeling a little but ashamed of it) is both satisfying and optimistically heralding a time of change.

But instead of using this moment in time to drive for some outcomes, I feel like feminists today are instead intent on playing the woke Olympics, and using wokeness to create another system of hierarchy that silences many and doesn’t allow intention to be taken into consideration when people attempt to engage with the issues. The Woke Olympics pits people against each other based on how much oppression they’ve experienced, and then shuts down and often attacks those that are on the wrong side of the line. It makes it impossible to have a meaningful, inclusive conversation, and it reduces everyone to the bare facts of their identity.

Look. This is not a #NotAllMen moment – I am 100% for calling out privilege and forcing people to interrogate their own position in the existing patriarchy. But I also hate how we are essentialising minorities based on their features of difference, in a misguided attempt to create equality.

For example, my woke passport lists my ethnicity, my gender and my disability. But those things are not central to how I define myself. More importantly, they may give me insight into a different type of lived experience than others, but they don’t mean that I know more about brown women living with chronic illness than I do about Harry Potter fanatics or Daria Morgendorfer. When people expect me to be connected strongly to the identity they assign me, it is just creating a new box for me to be sealed into.

Yes, our differences dictate the way we experience the world, but should we be reinforcing this, to the point where conversations are regularly shut down instead of opened up?

Can’t we move past the anger of proving that inequality is always based on bigotry, sexism or ableism, and instead, now that we have acknowledgement of that, focus on a more productive conversation?

Which brings me to Change number two: I want feminism to try for a little less conversation and a little more action.

Look, I acknowledge that I created a feminist website that now churns out feminist think pieces and memoir every week. Feminartsy is adding to the noise for sure.

And I don’t have a problem with that, or any of the other websites, books, groups, TV shows, etc that add to the content and discourse on gender equality.

What I do wish though is that we would all spend some time looking away from the screens in our lives, and thinking about the actual, tangible sites of gender inequality that we could be pushing for solutions to.

Look at childcare. It is unaffordable, often badly located in relation to workplaces, and because our industrial relations are still ultimately built for an all-male workforce, the inflexibility of our childcare system means women (who still take on the majority of caring responsibilities) are increasingly in part-time roles, and unable to access leadership positions.

It is one big contributor to a whole lot of problems. Why aren’t more of the feminists I meet (and I meet a lot) getting behind organisations doing important lobbying in this area, and pushing for a sustainable solution to this problem? Why do I see more articles online about Lena Dunham’s hysterectomy, and barely any about the fact that families across Australia are expected to pay around $100 a day for childcare, meaning that it almost always works out cheaper for the woman to just not work given her salary is likely to be lower than her partner’s? Not to mention the fact that low-income families often can’t afford it at all, meaning the primary carer (again usually a woman), is unable to enter the workforce for anything up to five years once their child is in school.

Forgive the heteronormative example, but this issue makes me particularly angry.

And if childcare doesn’t get you hungry for action, take your pick – rates of domestic violence, the under-charging of sexual assault perpetrators, the gender pay gap, the increasing rates of older women experiencing homelessness … there is a lot of serious shit here for us to get to work on, and yet when I talk to women and men who identify as feminists, these topics are usually dismissed in favour of discussing twitter fights and celebrity news. If we do discuss them at all, it’s with a sense of resignation, like we alone can’t change the world. Why is it all or nothing? Why can’t we add our voices together to make a consistent roar?

This time I will say #notallfeminists, but I don’t think we can deny the fact that today’s feminism has a slightly superficial taste to it.

Which brings me to my final change – Change number three – I would force feminism to disentangle itself from the capitalist consumer machine, which is critical to actually achieving gender equality.

Gender inequality is a funny term, because it seems to imply that it is separate to other inequalities. Like we can make men and women equal without having to address the discrepancies in class, social access, economic resources, race, and ability.

I know we all talk about intersectional feminism, but I feel like it’s been largely taken over by the woke Olympics these days, and I rarely see anyone except Helen Razer really having a go at capitalism in the feminist conversations I witness.

Capitalism is one of those terms that make me feel very old-fashioned when I pull it out into daily usage. It reminds me of when I naively joined the Socialist Alternative in university, not realising how hardcore it was.

Capitalism is predicated on the false promise of equal opportunities for all, which tells us that what we achieve in life is determined by how hard we try, not where we start from.

But we know that for a capitalist system to work, wealth has to be distributed unequally – inequality is not just a fact, it’s a crucial aspect of the whole system, and we reinforce it when we work our jobs, when we buy new products, when we choose to send our kids to the better schools we can buy instead of the local schools that are free, and when we use our capital to carve out lives for ourselves according to our economic status.

I’m not saying these are bad things to do – this is the world we live in. But when I see the way feminism has been co-opted into consumerist, capitalist culture, it makes me sad. And mad. I’m mad sad.

We’ve all done it – bought feminist apparel t-shirts, and clapped for Beyonce’s feminist sign. We allow feminism to be repackaged and sold to us by the very same brands that used to oppress women’s sexual and social freedom – the beauty magazines, the banks with their women leaders awards, the corporations with their ‘male champions of change’. The Justin Trudeaus, who can say the nice words, with the nice smile, and then continue to do literally nothing to address gender equality (just look at Oxfam’s feminist scorecard on the Canadian PM).

We’ve allowed feminism to become a brand, a token of cultural capital instead of the grassroots movement it needs to be for us to really make change. And we reinforce this whenever we tell someone they’re not a ‘real feminist’, suggesting that there is both power and singularity in that identity label.

I want feminism to stop applauding hollow attempts by white men the world over who are taking feminism and twisting it to suit their purposes. I want us to realise that celebrity feminists, no matter how genuine they are in their beliefs, are still perpetuating a capitalist system that allows women from indigenous, migrant, and working class backgrounds to suffer so that their audiences can continue to come to concerts and buy their albums/movies/whatever.

I want every women’s march to result in less posts on Instagram, and more letters and phonecalls to our MPs. I want us to stop thinking that someone else is doing the real work, and start doing it ourselves.

By giving this talk, I am falling into the same traps I’m railing against here. But doesn’t it feel good to think about the sheer potential of feminism, in this moment that we’re in today? We are so close. Let’s not be diverted, and let’s stay determined.

Thank you.

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