Some women, as well as some men, too, celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8 as triumphant testimony that the quest for women’s rights has moved far ahead. In Australia, after all, we now have a female PM, a female Governor-General and many female cabinet ministers, including the first female Attorney-General. Indeed, there are women on company boards (albeit only a few!) and a female CEO of one of our largest banks. What could there be to feel sad about? Yet, other women castigate IWD as a futile fanfare into the failure of the cause. Others simply say it is insignificant, even irrelevant! Women’s destiny is still as the Second Sex!
There is some validity to all these viewpoints. I never called myself a feminist in the idealistic even halcyon days of the 60s and 70s when thousands of women marched to voice their vehement cry for equality and liberation (revolution?) Certainly, I talked loudly, at times aggressively, about the need for fair and just attitudes to women not only at work, but at home and at play too. But too many women at that time seemed to blame men for their oppression, desexing themselves and labelling all males as the enemy incarnate. I could not adhere to that dictum as in my workplace as it was the men who encouraged my endeavours as a fledgling journalist and supported my initial success. Indeed, it was some of my female colleagues who were polite, even friendly to my face, only to stab me in the back and condemn me with malicious gossip. Jealousy ran rampant in the competitive race in the newsroom (and these kind of nasty antics continued to bedevil me in many other workplaces in later years, too). Of course, there were some men who labelled me a slut for making love, not war, and a few too who were as jealous of my success as the women, but I steered clear of them and talked instead with men who became my allies. There weren’t many female friends.
Indeed, it was women; albeit my mother, two sisters and a woman I thought was a close friend who offered only put downs, disinterest and negative sadism when I returned to Australia and couldn’t get a decent job. Moreover, after my breakdown, it was another female friend who told me I had had delusions of grandeur for believing I deserved better. And the female psychiatrists I once consulted in the years after, could only express the same oppressive put downs and dismissal of my abilities and talents. (I wanted to be famous was how one epitomised my desire to be a writer!) There were no positive words from any of them, let alone encouragement or support, including from my family, too.
The list of women being cruel to women is sadly endless; seemingly making a mere mockery of IWD. But nonetheless, it IS also true that some women DO support women, working tirelessly to improve their lives by helping fight for economic and social justice. They are often behind the scenes, the quiet achievers who lend their skills, talents and hard work to women victims of abuse, domestic violence, depression and poverty et al. They might not sit on boards and they might not make the headlines, but they offer their wisdom and support to millions of women around the world (in however small ways) who suffer every day from the pain of oppression.
I recently saw a TV documentary about a young woman in Afghanistan striving to enhance the lives of other women in her country to access education and learning; to end the violence, rape and torture against many of them and while it is very dangerous for her to do these things, she continues to strive. She is a truly inspiring woman and I applauded her efforts with tears in my eyes. The only ‘crime’ of many women in these sort of countries (and the list is endless too including Australia) is being women; no more or less.
So what have we achieved? Many thousands of women in Australia (particularly indigenous women) still live in abject poverty, denied access to the kind of lifestyle many other women enjoy. It was generally the educated and reasonably affluent women who took to the streets in their overalls a few decades ago, and it is these same women who now enjoy an even more affluent and comfortable life. Poor women are still poor, abused women are still being abused and there is widespread injustice before the law in rape, crimes of violence and discrimination hearings. It takes a lot of money to go to court to fight for equity and equality and most women just haven’t got it. There was a very disturbing article in the newspaper on IWD about a psychiatric clinic for women-only because too many female patients aren’t being listened to or accorded the respect and understanding they not only need, but deserve, wherever they are treated! There are still two different norms of behaviour for men and women, in the psychiatric arena as much as anywhere else. When men talk about their achievements in job interviews, they are perceived as confident and successful, women are too often regarded as egocentric even manic! Confidence in women is delusional! Better to stay down with the rest of us! One woman gets up and she’s a threat to the social pecking order for many, many women!
A lot clearly hasn’t changed! There is much to feel sad about, much to malign about IWD and see it as mere tokenism in the fight for equality for women around the world, to be ignored or dismissed as nothing more than a waste of time, money and effort. Canadian writer Kate Fillion crystallised the problem in one perspective in her 1996 book Lipservice where she details the lack of sincere and genuine commitment to the feminist cause by women who supposedly call themselves feminists. She outlines how women can be worse to women, more critical and disparaging about their so-called friends, arguing there is no real international equality for women because the many words uttered and written about the cause by women are nothing but lipservice. On one level, it’s depressing reading, but giving up the fight is to surrender to the norms of a traditional, sexist and at times, even fascist perspective, where the power of a few, men as well as women, control our destiny and our social and economic future. And we simply must not allow that to continue. One male psychiatrist I saw many years ago when I was complaining about the sexist nature of the profession acknowledged that change was slow, and while it might anger us sometimes, it is without doubt, axiomatic for our world. But you have to keep talking, hoping someone might listen and realise they were wrong in their disregard for women’s rights. Changing just one person’s view is to achieve something, a start at least, and you can’t change the world overnight.
That’s our challenge as women, or for me, as a femmosexual; to go on talking, elaborating on my arguments for justice and fair play, however old I get and however frail. Some women have achieved what they wanted, albeit they’ve often played the games as established by men, but at least they are in positions of power to institute real change where they can. My hope is that they want to do this; to use their power and success for the many women who languish at the bottom of the ladder in silence and suffering. We need to change the rules of the game, to ensure more and more women can access education, the courts and fight on equal terms in our conservative and conventional society where conformity still dictates the norm of behaviour for us all. We still need a revolution to achieve real justice, (many men are oppressed by these norms, too) to eradicate the social, political and economic inequalities and as the suffragettes stood shoulder to shoulder so many years ago, so must we (or whoever wants to continue the fight)! It’s not an easy fight to confront the profound and established attitudes of centuries past, it can be frustrating and thankless, at times making us feel angry and helpless, but it’s not meaningless or worthless. Indeed, IWD is even more pertinent now at a time when too many well-off, comfortable working women think the battle has been won. We must replace that selfish self-interest with a global perspective that embraces all women, to focus both on the achievements of some women and the future challenges ahead with fortitude and patience!