At 16-years-old, I penned a self-portrait poem about my identity, continually searching for clues to who I was by looking into others. Understanding they had their own identities that were different from mine, I confronted a confused sense of self, concluding I was a “complex body of ideas, thoughts and beliefs.” Moreover, I acknowledged feeling inadequate, sometimes criticising and condemning others for those inadequacies, feeling alone to work myself out.
In The Sunday Age Life magazine of February 3, 2019, columnist Wendy Squires wrote, rather angrily I surmised, that she didn’t “want to be slotted into pigeon-holes…(she) can’t escape or deviate from…Because I like to think of myself as ever-changing, a life in progress. …Like my gender or eye colour, these are mere aspects of who I am, not the sum total.” She elaborated that “I long for the day when…(selective) aspects of a person are not all-defining but simply part of a complex whole.” More than 20 years after I wrote my poem in 1980, I similarly detailed in an unpublished novel that I too refused to be slotted conveniently into some rigid box, albeit a shoe box as I then labelled it.
These days as identity politics manifests itself on an almost daily basis in the mainstream media, I ponder how limiting a specific identity can be, inadvertently denying or obfuscating the complexity and contradictions we embody as human beings. Why some people choose one single identity such as gender, race, religion, political affiliation or sexuality as a definition of who they are is undoubtedly personal, perhaps even private, but I believe this simplicity undermines who we all are; complex by dent of being human. Indeed, entertaining a one-dimensional identity can be psychologically violent, destructive for self and others so perceived as it can easily shroud other pertinent points about us.
I empathise with Wendy Squires as by the time I was 30, I too felt angry about the judgements and perceptions of others who assumed so much about me because of their selection of one single identity factor as the summation of who I was, adopting a one-dimensional attitude that belied my complexity. For many, it was being female, for others being Jewish, for some, being a journalist or working in TV and even being a lesbian as my appearance seemed to suggest to them. In some ways I am still angry, realising however over the past nearly 40 years at 69 that it is a problem for them rather than me. Failing to appreciate my multi-dimensional self, they projected their inadequate and narrow mentality onto me, their simplistic blindness labelling me a psycho, a man hating dyke, a paranoid Jew or an unhappy spinster as they deemed appropriate over my life.
Few people ever seem to contemplate our complexity and that one’s identity, be it woman, Jew, unemployed, mentally ill or poor, proscribes the rich tapestry of self. Moreover, some people are now consciously seeking these single identities as a cause celebre to justify the discrimination and even dislike of those not sharing their supposed sensitivities.
Over the past few years, gender has unequivocally been understood as a unifying identity; women are this and men are that as I’ve written so often before, but since the #MeToo movement of 2017, females are now expected even more to unite as one voice against the male patriarchy that supposedly limits their destinies. Certainly, with the second wave of feminism in the 70s, women declared the Sisterhood is Powerful with women supposedly united then too, but while the rhetoric was rousing, reality contradicted it, more women denouncing those self-defined feminists as man haters, even deluded. Generally, nothing much changed in those days for women, but since then, there have been substantial developments for women with more of them in politics, in senior corporate positions in previously male dominated professions and greater lifestyle choices available without the social stigma of being somehow aberrant or abnormal as I copped nearly forty years ago.
One female NSW criminal barrister, Margaret Cunneen, aged roughly in her late 40s or early 50s, (she started studying law in 1977) when asked whether her gender ever held her back in an interview in the Sunday Herald Sun Stellar magazine on February 3, 2019, replied: “Even the most antediluvian men don’t now think that women can’t be as able lawyers. Maybe 40 years ago, but not now.” What’s interesting about her reply is that she singled out men, yet another single identity, as if all barriers to women even forty years ago were erected, possibly unconsciously, by a single gender, men. Using a one-dimensional perspective, she is either blinded by gender identity or has simply never countenanced, maybe ever experienced, female bitchiness or bullying as a barrier to success. Furthermore, she doesn’t seem to consider that women could limit their own aspirations through lack of self-belief and confidence, far less problematic to blame men. Perhaps she doesn’t want to point the finger at women for fear of recrimination. Let’s all be united in our understanding of the past discrimination against women, if you pardon my sarcasm.
Cunneen’s gender bias, however singular, unconscious or delusional, is in stark contrast to another female in the women’s sporting arena, Lisa Alexander, aged in her 50s, appointed head coach of the Diamond’s, Australia’s national netball team, in 2011. In an interview in The Weekend Australian magazine, 2-3 February, 2019, she narrates she is a truck driver’s daughter who attended a low status government school, Cheltenham High, initially enrolling as a medical student where she found herself surrounded by students from private schools. “I felt like I was a bit of a shitkicker.” In any event, she had a boyfriend, falling pregnant to become an 18-year-old unmarried mother. “I felt I was judged pretty harshly at the time, and that’s partly why I talk about females being very vicious to other females. Those harsh judgements aren’t as widespread now, but you’re still looked upon as white trash.” Similarly during the 70s in my twenties and later too, I encountered much abuse of a sexual nature from women, not just from girlfriends, but family members and work colleagues too, disparaged for being promiscuous and having sex without any suggestion of love.
Lisa discontinued her medical studies, but when her daughter was six months old, she began studying a double degree in maths and physical education at teacher’s college and wanted to play netball. “Part of what I do in leading is pricking and prodding our society, because as a high-performance coach, that’s what I do”. Yeah, why not?” is what I say. Admitting she had to choose her words carefully, (why- fear of recrimination again?) she comments on women: “I’ve experienced sexism from females as well as men; sometimes it can actually be mums and the women in our society-our Australian, Western, very formed society- who are holding girls back. (As my mother and sisters tried on me while my older sister still continues that behaviour.)” She raises the question: What can drive that? “Competition, pure and simple. Women have been conditioned by a patriarchal system to compete for scarce resources, whether it be a life partner or a senior role. This conditioning leads to behaviours that pit women against women. My way is by being as honest as possible about my own journey, talking about the barriers I’ve faced. Most have come from other women, not men. And unfortunately, I’ve experienced being pilloried by other women for calling out these behaviours.”
Relating to some of her experiences particularly within my own family as well as girl-friends, it is refreshing to read her history as I’ve penned many of the same experiences. Why do we think women will, even should, support women simply because they are women? Why is gender perceived as unifying that divorces others with different appendages? Why haven’t more women voiced their experience of female viciousness towards them and other females? In my website non-fiction book I wrote about the odd female who has called it out and over the past five years, Lisa Wilkinson of TV fame did mention women being unkind to women. Moreover, Peta Credlin, formerly PM Tony Abbott’s chief of staff and now a columnist on the Herald Sun and TV host on Fox News, wrote on International Woman’s Day in 2018 that she had also experienced nastiness from women. And tech giant company CEO Rebecca Carsons is on the record as having said “women can be harder on women than men.”
In the Sunday Herald Sun on February 10, 2019, a new male columnist, James Weir, detailed “The scary power of angry internet mums” who attacked glamorous, former model and now successful businesswoman, Bec Judd, for throwing a birthday party for her five-year old daughter. One mum branded the party as “utterly disgusting! What overindulgence for a five year old. Would probably feed a hundred homeless people for a month.” Weir acknowledged that he was “nervous even writing this,” similarly to Lisa Alexander being careful about her choice of words. The fact is Weir continued to highlight that “When Facebook mums first united, we thought it was terrific-an uplifting space where women could support women…I know that’s what got me hooked. …But then it all turned and became a cutthroat world. ..Suddenly, mums were backstabbing and undercutting each other…now, no one’s safe…” Methinks the headline writer should have labelled these women jealous rather than angry, but analysing their diatribe, maybe it is anger at themselves as they cannot afford to throw such a party. Who really knows?
As Alexander copped it from mums as a new mum, albeit an unmarried one, it seems more mums are bitching about more and more mums, so is it all about competition for scarce resources in a patriarchal system as Lisa Alexander believes? The answer to that is complex too but I believe the issue is more than just competition for scarce resources. It is indicative of a trait in some women that reflects an abusive bitchiness based on personal discontent and jealousy of others perceived as happier, richer and more successful than they are. They are putting other women down to keep themselves up but this isn’t the blog to discuss it now. Suffice to say I am glad a few women, and a man too, are now writing in the mainstream media about how women can be vicious to women. But why not more? Is it because they fear being pilloried (perhaps persecuted is more appropriate) by women for daring to unmask their masquerade as supportive sisters? Given that even Weir admitted he was “nervous” about writing what he did, why? Was he is he, scared of the repercussions of exposing women’s antipathy to women as Lisa Alexander was pilloried for? We know men have competed against men in the workforce for centuries, and of course, competed for women too, with some men criticising other men for all manner of matters ever since I started reading and listening to the media, so why is it so frightening or nerve-wracking to expose women’s criticism of women? Is there some assumed intelligence, however erroneous, that women would, even should more significantly, support women? Why are the responses so different for women compared to men? Is it that exposing women’s malevolence towards women undermines their efforts to gain equal opportunities and equity in society? Or do some people, women as well as James Weir, think it will have this negative albeit unintended effect? Maybe too many people, women and men similarly, are just frightened of the truth about women, still believing, naively and ignorantly, that women are not intrinsically capable of being vicious, bitchy and unkind, let alone sadistic towards other women. These people may entertain views, however invalid and unrealistic that women are “saints”, always nice, loving and caring individuals especially about other women, and any maligning of them is tantamount to maligning their quest for equality, fairness and justice, moreover, their efforts to end discrimination and harassment against them. Pointing the finger at men as the only gender responsible for the abuse and emotional and psychological violence against women is far more socially acceptable and convenient. Reality as I have experienced it and now read about it exposes that as an inconvenient truth. Of course, I cannot know why Weir was nervous but Lisa Alexander’s experience of being pilloried for calling out women’s viciousness to women seems to encapsulate why Weir might be nervous, maybe even more so because he is a man daring to expose some women’s unpleasant truths.
Whether Cunneeen is delusional or simply naïve and/or ignorant I don’t know either but maybe what we should be appreciating is that any single identity regarded as intrinsically unifying can be a misleading and misguided misunderstanding about the nature of identity. Irrespective of whether we’re discussing gender, religion, sex or politics, those who entertain one single identity fail to appreciate the complexity not only of themselves, but perhaps more importantly, most others. I know that while I am Jewish, though not practising or observant, on the kibbutz with lots of other similarly non-religious, young Jewish people from around the world, I shared few common experiences with them as a Jew, except for a couple of American Jews from New York. Moreover growing up, there were huge differences in my sense of being Jewish compared to some of my Jewish girlfriends, finding this with males too as I aged. Being Jewish was not a unifying aspect. Being female also didn’t mean I embraced other females as ‘sisters’ and for that matter, my politics was also more individual. Although in my twenties I supported Labor, there were big gaps between myself and other Labor voters, especially about Vietnam. Like most, I didn’t believe Australia should be there as it was their war but unlike these other young Laborites, I didn’t support the Viet Cong or believe in communism, already jettisoning those beliefs after living on the kibbutz, but consequently was oft maligned for being a hypocrite and insincere in my attitudes.
Having a sense of self is without doubt extremely important, even more having a very strong sense of self, but believing that one’s identity, specifically singular, ipso facto unifies one with others of that identity, only dupes people into a false sense of security that can be caught out too often. Surely, understanding a shared humanity is far more unifying than being female, Jewish or black et al, and this understanding needs to supplant all identity politics. That’s not to say that at different times in different contexts and for different reasons, being female or Jewish or black or gay is not relevant. These singular identities can be overwhelmingly significant for others, sadly too often from my experience, usually responsible for the sexist, racist and ageist attitudes some people adhere to. These attitudes are based on generalisations that place all blacks, women, or those over 60 among others, into one singular identity group that defy genuine appreciation of what it is to be human. Limiting and one-dimensional, they are often destructive in their manifestation, and can be attributed to many dictators throughout history who persecuted their opponents. For example, the Bolsheviks who denounced all middle-class, self-employed people during the Russian Revolution, Hitler and The Jews, blacks, homosexuals, communists, intellectuals or gypsies, and even Putin who recently locked up lesbians for daring to confront the laws prohibiting gay sex; likewise in so many countries around the world. The implication of a single identity can be catastrophic for those entertaining it and for others too.
Enhancing understanding, compassion and kindness towards each other implies identifying as human with all the imperfections and foibles that encompasses. It is also involves acknowledging the complexity of being human while simultaneously and happily accepting, even embracing, human differences. Believing in self is paramount but expecting we can all share and unite in a single identity is fatuous, only undermining and diminishing our unique individualism and sense of self.