Back in 1913, English author Rebecca West said “…people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a door mat or a prostitute.” Almost 100 years have passed since this quote and yet, despite some big developments, the label “feminist” is still a dirty word – an insult even. So shameful are the connotations associated with feminism that young women commonly issue a disclaimer prior to stating an opinion on equality: “I’m not a feminist, but…”
The fact that the movement which brought women voting rights, domestic violence and sexual harassment laws, the right to obtain birth control, protection from employment discrimination (particularly on the basis of marital status) and parental leave has been demonised in such a way is sad and troubling (not to mention insulting to the women who devoted their lives to these achievements). Worse still is the common assumption that feminism is no longer relevant, that its work is done and we should all now just get on with it. Because to my mind, there can be no doubt that there is still an urgent need for a movement that furthers gender equality.
In our own country, there are still alarming rates of inequality between the sexes. We live in a time where, even though Australian women get better university results than men, a female university graduate will be paid $2,000 less than a male graduate with the same degree. As her career progresses, she will go on to watch around 9 out of 10 Board positions be given to her male colleagues even though the women around her were more likely to have relevant post-graduate degrees. By old age, she will have worked much harder than her male counterparts (taking into account housework and childcare as well as paid work), yet she will be 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty. And although a young woman today is likely to work full-time for a large portion of her life, she will still retire with significantly less money to help her through her old age because she will miss out on earning superannuation during the years she takes off to have children – and yes, it’s still more likely to be her that takes this time off than her partner.
The reality for women on an international level is much more tragic. There are many statistics I could quote, but I just want to focus on one that I find particularly chilling: Between 100 and 140 million girls and women are currently living with the consequences of genital mutilation.
These aren’t women’s issues – these are issues that affect everyone. Both because, as Martin Luther King Jr once said “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, but also because equality is not just for women – men can benefit directly from action to address the problems.
Let’s take the issue of the low level of women in upper echelons of companies. Many people shrug this off as an unavoidable result of women choosing to have children and taking primary responsibility for raising them. But is it really unavoidable? In some countries, caring for the future generation is seen as so vitally important for society that there are policies requiring (and paying) fathers to take parental leave. Immediately, this makes a “woman’s issue” into an ordinary workplace issue and lessens the gender divide in care-giving roles. What’s more, it gives fathers an unabashed excuse to spend time with their new babies. Other countries have capped unpaid overtime – not only does this immediately level the playing field between Mums and their colleagues, it also gives Dads the chance to leave work in time to have dinner with their kids without fear of jeopardising their career prospects.
Equality brings benefits to men and women.
So why isn’t feminism relevant again?