“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives that strength.” – G.D. Anderson
I am a feminist. No, that does not mean I hate men. In fact some of the most influential people in my life have been, and are, men. No, I haven’t burnt a bra, but looking at my collection that sounds like a really awesome idea (out of interest, there is ample myth behind the much-peddled stories of ‘bra burners’). And, no, I do not buy into the rhetoric of extremism, which includes conservative fundamentalism that shrouds itself in religion and espouses ideas about a woman’s place/role in society. Recently Calvinist Baptist speaker, John Piper, offered his opinion about women in the workplace and what role women should or should not aspire to?! Women’s work roles, according to Mr. Piper, should be preferably ‘non-directional and non-personal’ towards men, so as not to ‘compromise profound biblical and psychological issues’! Just … no … words … Folk like Piper also have set ideas about what it means to embody the feminine way of life, using the Bible as a means to authorise their fundamentalist perceptions. Thankfully, these types of gender ideas draw critique and protest from a variety of camps. Trust me, I know the speel of people like Piper. Years ago I even tried to adhere to their notions … but not very successfully. It felt a bit like dancing the salsa with concrete platform heels! But the purpose of this post is not to discuss the mind numbing thoughts of gender roles from patriarchal Praetorians, but rather, to offer a very brief history of the women’s movement and why we need feminism more than ever. We seem to be taking backward steps: “Reassertions of an idealised past and a restored ‘women’s place’ are occurring, from Kabul to Cambridge, at a time when the international community has concurred that women’s rights are a global good.” – Kavita Ramdas
I firmly believe in equal rights and legal protection for women. There exists diverse sociological and philosophical theories that drive advocates to campaign for the rights of women in political, cultural and economical spheres. Feminism can be viewed as ‘social’ history, but the primary feminist claims are political, and therefore it is better considered a gendered narrative of political history.
One of the great pioneers of the feminist movement was the french poet and author, Christine de Pisan (1364-1430). According to Simone de Beauvoir it was “the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defence of her sex.” Christine’s most revolutionary work included, Epistre au dieu d’amour, in which she discusses and critiques society and the status of women. But it was La cité des dames (1405) that profiled her as one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in history.
Feminism, as an organised movement(s), fighting for the equality of women, has been active for well over 100 years. Historically, the movement has been described in ‘waves’. The first wave feminists focused their struggles primarily on gaining legal rights such as the right to vote (women’s suffrage) and property rights. The second wave feminists focused on a broad range of issues in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s, including discrimination in the workplace. The third wave feminism arose in the 1990’s primarily because of the backlash and perceived failures of initiatives created by the second wave feminism. Less galvanised over issues than the previous two waves, the the third wave enlisted women from every age, race and class, as equality was anything but realised.
When I look around the globe today I am deeply grateful of the difference women and men who have gone before us have made in paving the way for women’s rights. Yet we also recognise that each generation needs to take up the cause for a better tomorrow for we have a long way to go:
- Every 90 seconds a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. Most of these deaths are preventable, but due to gender-based discrimination many women are not given the proper education or care they need.
- As many as 1 in 4 women experience physical or sexual violence during pregnancy.
- Women make up 80% of all refugees and displaced people. Instruments of genocide such as sexual violence and rape are often directed at women and girls.
- Women are seldom included in formal peace processes. Women are usually not represented among decision-makers and military leaders, the usual participants in these processes.
- As of January 2012, women held 15.1% of all presiding officer posts in governments in the world.
- More than 16.4 million women in the world have HIV/AIDS.
- The US government estimates that 600,00 to 800,000 victims (mostly women and children) are trafficked globally each year, and 14,500 to 17,500 are trafficked into the US.
- Women account for 70% of the population living in absolute poverty (on less than $1.00 per day).
- Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18.
- 603 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not yet considered a crime. (SOURCE)
Here is an interactive link providing information about women’s rights country by country.
Historically, Australia was somewhat progressive when it came to women’s rights. Shortly after the Federation the government passed an act to allow women to both vote and stand in the 1903 Federal Election. It was the first country to allow women to run for Parliament. Sadly, Indigenous women were not given the vote until 1962. On that point, Australian feminists need to broaden the narrow constructs of predominantly ‘white’ equality and include racial equality. There must be intersectionality in feminism to ensure no one is left behind in the conversations.
Today, violence against women is one of the most widespread human rights violations in Australia, with one in three women over the age of 15 having experienced physical or sexual violence. Discrimination is the source of this violence, and there is growing pressure on the government to adopt preventative and protective measures, and to prosecute and punish perpetrators. Women in Australia also remain significantly underrepresented on boards and at senior management levels and the gender pay gap continues to widen, with women earning on average 82 cents in the male dollar.
Yes, there is much work to be done both on this sunny isle and abroad. The oppression of women is not an unfortunate aberration, but is systemically entrenched in culture and society, reinforced and powered by patriarchy (which interestingly undergirds the 3 dominant religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam … but that discussion will await a future blog post). The next set of feminists have their work cut out for them as they seek to challenge patriarchal notions and continue to advance women’s rights. But we stand on the shoulders of giants, people who toiled endlessly and refused to bow to injustice. I honour their memory today. And, yes, of course I’m a feminist. It would be ludicrous to live a life claiming the benefits of relative freedom that others have forged without making every effort to contribute to a better tomorrow for women.