In this passionate and timely account, Emily Maguire charts a course through the history of Australian feminism—from the First Wave to the Fourth, from suffragists to Riot Grrrls, from equal pay to #metoo. Along the way, she pays tribute to those who’ve spoken up and taken action in the face of ridicule, dismissal and violence.
This Is What a Feminist Looks Like shows us how we got to where we are today—and reminds us that some battles must be fought over and over again.
Author, Emily Maguire and Zoya Patel joined us in conversation to further investigate these themes.
Emily Maguire is the author of five novels, including An Isolated Incident which was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Her 2008 non-fiction book Princesses and Pornstars: Sex, Power, Identity was a frank, personal examination of what it meant to be young and female in Australia. A Young Adult version of this book titled Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice was published in 2010. Emily works as a teacher and as a mentor to young and emerging writers and was the 2018 Writer-in-Residence at the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional, based in Canberra. Her debut book, No Country Woman, a collection of memoir essays on race, identity and the diaspora is out now through Hachette Australia. In 2015, Zoya was named ACT Young Woman of the Year for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media. She is the founder and editor of Feminartsy, an online feminist arts and literature journal, and is the former Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. She has written for a number of publications, including The Canberra Times, Right Now, Junkee, Women’s Agenda, and more.
What a Feminist Looks Like
*Speakers: Zoe Caley (Z), Zoya Patel (P), Emily Maguire (E)
*Location: National Library of Australia
Z: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Library of Australia as we celebrate the publication of This is What a Feminist Looks Like, the rise and rise of Australian feminism by Emily Maguire. My name is Zoe Caley and I’m the Manager of Sales and Promotion here at the Library.
As we begin I would like to acknowledge and celebrate the first Australians on whose traditional lands we meet. I pay my respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people past, present and emerging and thank them for caring for this land we are now privileged to call our home. I would also like to extend my respect to any first nation’s people with us today. It is a great pleasure to welcome you all this evening to our In Conversation with author, Emily Maguire, and founder of Feminartsy Journal, Zoya Patel.
The focus of our book publishing program here at the Library is to share the vast and rich knowledge that the Library’s collection holds. We approached Emily with the rather large project of pulling together Australia’s feminist history and she has delivered in spades. Clementine Ford sums it up perfectly when she says Emily Maguire was one of my first feminist inspirations and she confirms why with this remarkable insight into the history of Australian women’s fight for liberation.
In this passionate and timely account Emily charts a course through the history of Australian feminism from the first wave to the fourth, from suffragists to riot girls, from equal pay to #metoo. Along the way she pays tribute to those who’ve spoken up and taken action in the face of ridicule, dismissal and violence. It shows us how we got where we are today and it reminds us that some battles must be fought over and over again.
Emily’s latest novel, An Isolated Incident, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize, The Australian Book Industry Awards, Literary Fiction Book of the Year and the prestigious Miles Franklin Literary Award. Emily works as a teacher and a mentor to young and emerging writers and is currently the writer in residence at Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney.
Zoya Patel is an award-winning author, writer, editor and communications professional based here in Canberra. Her debut book, No Country Woman, is a collection of memoir essays on race, religion, feminism and identity. Zoya was named ACT Young Woman of the Year in 2015 for her commitment to raising the profile of women’s voices in the media. Please join me in welcoming Emily and Zoya.
P: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for coming out today and chatting to us. I'm really looking forward to getting into the conversation but before I do I would also like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land that we’re meeting on, I pay my respect to their elders past, present and future and I think it’s important given we’re talking about feminism today that we point out and note that Aboriginal women have been the custodians of culture and of stories on this land for thousands of years before white settlement and also unfortunately first nations women often suffer the effects of gender inequality at a far higher rate than other women. So just a few notes to kind of frame the conversation.
Emily, I'm so thrilled to be sharing a stage with you. I’ve actually read all of your books except for one which I realised today which is Princesses and Porn Stars but that’s obviously going to the top of the list but this is quite a departure for you from the novels and I think a lot of people would know you for your novels best. How did you come to writing this book?
E: Yeah, it didn’t feel like a departure when I started to dig into it and write it. I’m not a writer who has ever thought of myself as having a particular trajectory or career plan or brand, I kind of just go where the interest takes me so five novels, I’ve had two nonfiction books that are about young women and feminism about 10 years ago. In between I had continued to write about feminism in shorter pieces and also speak about it a lot with young women and sometimes young men in schools and universities. I was actually approached by the fantastic team here at the National Library of Australia publishing arm to consider writing this kind of history of the Australian feminist movement to draw on the incredible archives that they have, so many wonderful documents and letters and collections.
Straight away I was so excited by the idea because I realised that although I had all these conversations about feminism and felt I was very across where we are and what we need to do I didn’t really have any idea about how we got here. Just really broad strokes, I realised a lot of the feminist history I knew was American and British, that these where a lot of the stories we come so the opportunity to sort of really delve into the archives and the history and read up on it was just too good to turn down.
P: Yeah well as you spoke I was actually like yes, of course you do write about feminism all the time, just not necessarily in this particular format.
E: Yeah, that’s right.
P: I’ve just learnt that you’re actually a historian by qualification.
E: I'm absolutely not a historian, I would not claim that title. I have drawn on the work of many wonderful historians and it was really important to me to make sure all those references are in the back of the book because I do hope this is a fairly introductory history to some of these really great works like each sort of paragraph in my book, there’s whole tomes on them that I really hope readers will be interested enough to go and look up and read on them. I did actually do a history degree, though, I didn’t do postgraduate work and actually become a historian but I’m a very passionate amateur historian and it was just so wonderful to find – I think I sort of phrase it in the book that a lot of these particularly women that I talk about and stories from Australian feminist history, it’s not like no-one’s told these stories, they’re not forgotten entirely.
There are other feminist nerds and which I mean with a lot of affection and historians who have really done this research and written about them, it’s just that they haven’t got into the popular consciousness in the same way and that there’s these incredible heroes of our past who’ve really fought and had amazing breakthroughs and yet nobody’s heard of them. We all know Don Bradman and Phar Lap and all these other names that are household names for Australian kids growing up and not these feminist heroes.
P: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely true and I feel like part of what is so interesting about the book and really draws you in is the fact that it is very Australian, it actually looks at Australian feminist history in a way that as you said I certainly hadn’t come across myself and I’ve got a degree in gender studies. Were there any figures that you kind of came across but you didn’t know about beforehand in our feminist history that particularly struck a chord with you?
E: There were heaps, there were so many, it’s really hard to start knowing when to start. I guess the person who has almost been haunting me in a positive and a negative way for years now is Louisa Lawson because I grew up in a family that was very, very bookish but quite poor and we only had sort of three of our books and the rest were always library books that we’d come back and forward with. But one of those books was my dad’s which was Henry Lawson poetry and he didn’t actually need the book because he could recite the poems. He’d sort of grow up the son of a shearer and knew all those bush poets and those bush bards and to actually discover that Henry Lawson’s mother was this incredible writer, editor, journalist, suffragist, feminist. Her life was a really hard one in a lot of ways.
She was an extraordinary woman, she was a unionist, she was a real working-class fighter and she started the first female-targeted and also female-run entirely operated newspaper in Australia called The Dawn in I think 1888 in New South Wales and it was just a – absolutely revolutionary publication. There were some household tips and kind of familiar women’s magazine stuff in there but also articles about well what we would now call feminist issues so violence in the home, she was a huge campaigner to get support for women who were suffering what we now call domestic violence or family violence. She wrote about women’s financial independence, all of these kind of issues. She had an entirely female printing staff. They couldn’t be members of the union because women weren’t allowed to join the union so the union boycotted the paper for having non-union staff. They actually really seriously boycotted and sabotaged, in fact.
A few union blokes rented an office across the road from The Dawn office so that they could use mirrors and angle them up at the windows to blind the women as they were working in there so they couldn’t actually get their work done. I mean they went very far to get in their way and yeah, at one stage Louisa Lawson actually went down there with a watering can and chucked water on them and she just kept the printers rolling. She started The Dawn Club which was like a very early I guess in the ‘70s called it consciousness-raising sessions where women would come and actually talk about their lives and share their stories and she was just an absolutely extraordinary figure and I had never heard of her.
P: Yeah well you definitely get a bit of an insight through your book. I also feel like that story of the union workers is kind of the nonsensical actions of the patriarchy that could almost rival some of what’s happening now so life does continue in strange ways, doesn’t it? So I feel like one of the key things about feminist history is this concept of phases so the waves of feminism. Could you give us maybe like a really short summary of what those waves are? I think most people understand first and second wave but it gets a little bit more complicated when we get to third and then eventually fourth wave feminism. I feel like you define it in a really clear way, though.
E: I hope I can remember how I put it that was really clear. So look, I’m actually really sympathetic to the argument that we should get rid of the waves because the periods have never been that clearly defined and looking just at the waves model it ignores a lot of the work that went on between those so-called waves. Actually feminist struggles and feminist battles have never stopped but it is in some ways useful to talk about these sort of big groupings, I guess, of thinking and ideology.
So the first wave in Australia post colonisation was really all focused on getting the vote, the suffragists. Those women came from – a lot of them from the temperance movement, from the Christian temperance movement. They were really as Anne Summers would say the God’s police model of femininity and wanting to actually make a difference in society, particularly stopping alcohol or what they saw as the abuse of children and young women. All of their lobbying and working for that just really had a limit because they couldn’t vote and they had to kind of depend on the kindness of men to vote for things that were good for them. So the vote became a means to these other ends that they wanted to achieve.
The second wave or what’s often called the second wave in the ‘70s, I mean there was a reason it was called women’s liberation, it was about liberating women from the constraints of patriarchy and the roles that were expected and put on that. One of the to me closest to my heart for various reasons, part of that ‘70s struggle was to do with domestic violence which again Anne Summers has pointed out they didn’t have a term for when they first started working against it. But that was and unfortunately it remains such an enormous problem in Australian society and this idea that if a woman can’t be safe in her own home and have that safety for herself and her children, all the other changes and breakthroughs become not quite meaningless but it’s really difficult to care about anything else when you don’t have that personal safety of your body and in your home. So women’s liberation was an incredibly important movement in the ‘70s.
Third wave is where we do start to get more confusing. So broadly speaking I talk about it as ‘90s feminism but even though feminism has always been really diverse in terms of the thoughts and the ideologies, I guess, and ideas about how change should happen, in the ‘90s you did kind of get these different strands that were all united in certain ways which made them all feminists but you sort of had the Naomi Wolf power feminism which was kind of saying look, the last generation of feminists did achieve all this stuff, and I’m simplifying a little bit but kind of saying we just need to step out and take it now, take the power. There’s actually not that much more to do, it’s just that women aren’t actually standing up and taking the power for ourselves.
You had riot grrrl kind of feminism which was very much the girl and the title is a big clue there that it’s grrrl but it’s girl and so it’s a very youth-orientated and led movement. That was in a lot of ways about really coming individuality and the kind of power that comes from just being yourself.
Then there was the more academic feminist strand which I think has been enormously influential in a lot of ways to feminism now which we can call the fourth wave if we want to or just say now. But particularly the concept of intersectionality that started to actually be defined by academics. I think Kimberle Crenshaw, the African American legal scholar and academic was the first person to kind of really lay that idea out and it had some uptake at the time but certainly I think you’d agree now it’s sort of come central to the feminist conversation.
P: Yeah, absolutely and in fact on intersectionality I did want to ask you, it must be difficult to write a kind of intersectional account of feminist history in Australia when a lot of what’s been recorded and what’s been kept has been really centred around white women and the women who had the means and had the kind of access to be able to have their stories recorded take up more of those leadership positions within the movement. How did you kind of approach that and was that difficult for you at all to try and dig I guess a little bit deeper than what might just come up to the surface when you start looking at our feminist history?
E: Yeah, I think one of the things for anyone working within history and looking at published accounts is first of all exactly what you say. If you’re only going off the things that are already published that has already been influenced by all these historical forces including racism or other kinds of structural issues, that the stories that are getting through, if we just keep repeating those stories then nothing ever changes. But of course there’s difficulty in where else are we going to find these stories? There’s certainly stories of indigenous women’s activism that aren’t mine to tell. In particular there’s a strong, strong, strong history of Aboriginal women’s activism in this country that is being told and being told very well.
Something that it was really important to me to note in this book was where the gains for feminism, important huge gains that I do and think we should celebrate have at times been unequal or uneven in their effects with different women and sometimes even damaging. So when I first started working on this book I thought well let’s look at the big moments like getting the vote and then of course you look at that and it wasn’t one big moment, it was a lot of work over a long time and in different states and then the federal vote. Then realising that the vote that I had sort of thought well okay, all women have the vote now in 1902, actually the same piece of legislation that gave women the vote actually only gave white women the vote in 1902 and that piece of legislation explicitly excluded women and men who were from Aboriginal, Pacific Islander, Asian and African descent. It’s that same piece of legislation that we celebrate.
Other gains, contraception was a similar thing. I mean I certainly applaud weekly breakthroughs in accessible contraception, it’s been absolutely world-transforming for women to be able to control their fertility more easily but there are also accounts, and many of these are anecdotal and you do have to dig a bit deeper ‘cause it wasn’t recorded, but there is very, very credible accounts of the same contraceptive technologies being used to forcibly contracept but also in extreme cases sterilise Aboriginal women, migrant women, disabled women.
So it’s not about not celebrating those wins but it’s about recognising that they weren’t evenly distributed in terms of the benefits. I think going forward like this is the really, really important thing to learn from the history, to actually not for anyone, whatever your position in life is, as an activist or as someone wanting to be part of the movement, to assume that if something isn’t hurting you or affecting you then it’s not a women’s issue, to assume that if something is benefitting you then it is going to be of equal benefit to all women, and to actually have that awareness and ask those questions before that kind of damage is done.
So it’d be really great if we could get to a point where feminist gains could be celebrated by all women whenever they happened.
P: Yeah, absolutely, I think you put that so well and one of the strengths of the book is definitely the nuance that you bring to I think what can often be a discussion that is framed in really binary ways when we know that actually intersectionality means that there is no such thing as a binary – things become a lot more murky which makes it a lot harder to write a history of Australian feminism at all, I guess. Some things do feel a bit more clear-cut, though, including the political leadership of women and I think we’re in a kind of weird stage right now where if we look at western democracies at least we have more white men with silly blond hair cuts in power than we do women.
So why do you think it’s just not happening? You look at the treatment of women who have achieved some level of political success, if we look at Hilary Clinton, Theresa May, whatever you think of their individual politics we can probably agree that the things that they aren’t allowed to get away with and the things that they are criticised for – I mean Julia Gillard definitely fits under this category too – are really different from the way that their male peers are treated who at this point in time have done a lot worse in terms of both I guess a lack of decorum but also significant bad things and don’t seem to be held to the same standard. In your investigating did you happen to find a nugget of wisdom on this that I think we’re all looking for because it certainly boggles my mind?
E: I mean the only clear-cut answer is the patriarchy which is my answer to nearly everything -
P: And privilege.
E: Look, no, it’s very confounding and upsetting. I mean one of the kind of statistics or numbers that just shocked me when I saw it in black and white and I had to check and double-check is that in all of Australia’s history up to today we have had 12 female heads of government. That’s all the states, all the territories, federal, 12 in total ever. It’s just absolutely astounding to me. Our representation or our parliaments overall has never really got past around 30%, that’s about the peak which is nowhere near representative of the population.
In Australia we’re 50th in the world for female representation now and this is a country that was one of the first to allow women, or white women anyway, to actually stand for Parliament so we have really slipped a long way backwards but you’re right that it’s not really that different most places. So this is a much bigger problem and a remaining gender divide.
Look, there are certain things we can point to, many women in politics have talked about the difficulty of having a family when they’re in politics. I think Annabel Crabb is talking about that with her new work now too in terms of all these men have families or most of them do and it doesn’t seem to create the same issue and it’s because we do still as a society and therefore most individuals, the burden falls on women to do most of the childrearing and if you have family it does at some point – I think when Kate Ellis resigned she sort of said actually it wasn’t too hard – well it’s hard but she could handle it when the baby was a baby but once you’ve got to have a school-aged kid and living near the school and different demands of family. Yet our Prime Minister and I think our Treasurer and several other really, really senior men in our government have school-aged children. They seem able to do their jobs because they have a wife to do that for them.
P: But also if you don’t have children like Julia Gillard then that of course casts -
E: Yes, deliberately barren.
P: - whole - the fruit bowl, I mean we -
E: Yeah, the fruit bowl.
P: - empty fruit bowl and suddenly that casts an aspersion on her ability to make sound decisions for the -
E: To understand families, all of that stuff comes in and what was really interesting in some of the historical stuff – so it took us 41 years to get from when women could run for office to when we actually had women in the federal Parliament which is not a win we want to have as the record in the world, I think. But when we finally had women in federal Parliament two came in at once, Dorothy Tugney in the Senate and Enid Lyons in the House of Representatives. She was the widow of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons. She had 12 children. She had lived a long time in the political climate and probably knew better than anyone what a job she had in front of her being one of the very first women to do this.
She spoke openly about that after the time and said – oh I’ll probably slightly misquote her but basically said to have been even slightly unfeminine would have been fatal. So in those times she really leant in to the gender stereotypes. In her maiden speech she talked about a lot of maternal terms and housekeeping type of terms and just really, really kind of leant in to that to give her a legitimacy. This was a good 50 years since the suffragists were sort of talking about women should be allowed to have the vote because it will civilise the Parliament and have high morals and be motherly and things just had not changed to that degree to allow women to not take on that role.
If you actually look at the women who have managed to get to Cabinet roles, for example, most of the Ministries have been what are considered kind of softer, more nurturing or feminine ones so community services and education and healthcare which we all know are incredibly vital like keep us running and society moving. But they are seen as sort of softer and more feminine ones and I just don’t think we’ve come nearly far enough as most of us would like or think in terms of how people see a woman’s role in the house.
P: I mean Julia Gillard did also try with that Women’s Weekly spread, I don’t know if anyone remembers that with the knitting. She genuinely enjoys knitting according to all accounts but even that couldn’t really save her damaged reputation after the fruit bowl so there’s definitely a lesson there and unfortunately -
E: Well I think the lesson is you can’t win.
P: Yeah and unfortunately the lesson is there’s nothing we can do about it until the patriarchy changes. I guess that leads onto one of the other kind of core issues when we think about the modern Australian woman if we’re talking about mostly middle class educated women in white collar roles which is the gender pay gap. So of course that’s been kind of doing a bit of a widening and then closing and then widening game for a few years now and we’re still at a point where I think I read recently that on average according to this year’s pay gap women take home about $15,000 less than men in the same occupations annually.
Why do you think the gender pay gap still exists and do you think that when we talk about women accessing work - one of the things that I’ve often thought about, being somebody who’s very interested in feminism generally, is the way that when women started accessing economic participation and the workforce we just kind of shoehorned women into a system that had been created for men. Do you think that’s part of the issue?
E: It’s absolutely part of the issue because of the reality that most people will have children and raise families but we still talk about that as a women’s issue and maternity leave and all those kind of arrangements seem to be something that a lot of people still talk about as if they’re there for the convenience of women, as if our whole society wouldn’t stop and break down if people stopped having children, if women stopped having children and someone has to raise them. Yet it is often talked about as a women’s issue and as if women are somehow slacking off in the workplace or something if they’ve got to leave to pick up kids or take maternity leave.
That is not going to change ‘til more men step up and take that leave and demand it in their workplaces. I mean again it’s something I heard Annabel Crabb talking about the other day, the way that even in companies and workplaces where men can receive the same benefits they often don’t because the social kind of pressure to not do that is so huge. That is a change that just has to happen or women won’t advance any further.
P: Yeah, it’s interesting, though, because it seems quite cyclical because on one hand you have this gender pay gap which means that men are earning more so if one person’s going to continue earning and in you’re in a heterosexual relationship it kind of makes sense for the man – I say this as someone who is – I turn 30 this year and my partner and I talk about this regularly. You guys are a Canberra audience so you’ll understand when I say to him we can have a child when he makes CL1 because otherwise I don’t see how we could afford it which is public service gag. But I do think that’s when your feminist kind of principles and the methods that you live your life by and the goals that we set for ourselves as young women being I’ll never do that, I’ll continue to accelerate my career, my money is just as good as my partner’s money and we’ll be a really equal household. It all starts to crumble when you’re faced with the systemic inequality. I don’t know why I’m looking to you like you’ll have some kind of a rapid answer. This isn’t just about life advice but -
E: I do know the solutions, I’m just withholding. No, I know and that’s exactly the problem as you put it, that we have these systemic issues but when it comes down to it people have to make the best choices for themselves and their families and it’s easier to make those choices than to actually try and change a whole system before you have kids and raise your family and pay your rent or your mortgage. That’s why people do keep making these same choices because they make sense because the system is stuffed and our societal expectations are twisted and it’s so slow to change these things, it just is so slow.
It is better in terms of men’s role in parenting and family like generationally the men – my brothers and husband and the men of our generation have a really different relationship to their kids and family than our fathers did and they a really different one than their fathers. So that is changing but in terms of the workplace it’s really slow, it’s too slow.
Just the other thing on the gender pay gap too that I think is really important to talk about is the way in which we’re talking of average figures and a big thing that comes into that is the professions, which professions tend to be female-dominated are all the lower paid professions and that’s why when we get a national average of wages out there, that’s something that really does, looking at the history, really illuminate it for me because it really does date back to – again I thought oh right about when equal pay got granted. That’s not one decision, its lots of different decisions and it’s had to be interpreted, reinterpreted.
One of the big gaps has been not valuing female or traditionally female work the same as traditionally male work so things like teaching and nursing and childcare and elder care have been historically really massively undervalued and because they are professions in which women still dominate when we do have an overall balance. Whereas the much more highly paid professions and trades for example in construction work and mining and engineering are still incredibly male-dominated so we do still have a real, real divide in terms of professions.
P: It’s actually really interesting ‘cause I always say that childcare is one of the biggest feminist issues in a kind of first world country like Australia because it hits on so many different aspects of gender and equality. On one hand access to affordable childcare is one of the fundamental ways that women can access work if that’s what they want to do but then we also know that childcare educators are historically underpaid and that all the evidence shows that the first five years of a child’s education are the most important in terms of setting a foundation. So if there’s one feminist action we all take away from today it’s to send a letter to the Minister for Education demanding better pay for childcare workers -
P: - and maybe some better subsidies for childcare as well. Just my little plug for childcare – I used to work for a feminist organisation that ran a lot of childcare so it’s always in my head. But when you were talking about the cultural backlash against men taking on more caring responsibilities it’s kind of ironic because you also talk about another kind of cultural backlash in the book which is when you are a feminist and you do things that some other feminists might consider to be less feminist, ie, you talk about getting married and the reaction of one of your colleagues at the time who was an older woman who seemed kind of nonplussed by it. Can you tell us about that story?
E: Yeah so I got married when I was a baby is what I say now ‘cause that’s what it feels like. I got married very, very young and I was working in a retail job at the time and one of my older colleagues – I think she was in her 50s, she was appalled that I was getting married. She loved me, we were really close, she loved my husband-to-be. She didn’t know him all that well but she liked him, thought he was a great guy, it was nothing personal but she just said to me, Emily, like why would you tie yourself up like this when you don’t have to? She said her generation, they didn’t realise they had options, how she was raised you just got married, it’s just what you did and it had taken her a lot to get out of a relationship that was really bad and that was true for a lot of women she knew and she just couldn’t understand why I would be choosing something that seemed so oppressive.
I just didn’t get it at the time, I was in love and romantic and what I realise now is it’s exactly the struggles that she was talking about that allowed me to be so glib about it because I didn’t feel I was walking into any kind of trap because it was a choice because I could easily get divorced, because I could easily control my fertility. I was marrying someone who had been raised by one of those women who was a single mother and he did and does cook and clean much more and better than me. The structural stuff had changed so fundamentally that my marriage was never going to be what hers was, which is not to say there aren’t still marriages that do turn out to be traps, again to return to the issue of family violence but it’s not the same structural issues.
I mean I go into the book about the changes that happened with the Family Law Act and the introduction of the Family Court in the ‘70s which is again in the news, that particular institution. But just the fundamental change that happened when we had no fault divorce introduced, for example, and along with that the change that we had with easily accessible contraception, that those are the kind of feminist wins that when we talk about taking things for granted like as a 20-year-old I just could not imagine marriage being something that was not just a fun, romantic thing you did ‘cause you’re really into someone.
P: It’s a really good way of framing it, actually, is these are the stepping stones that have gradually led to the point at which women in our generation are just choosing to get married but also there’s I think a general kind of wave within young women now toward some of those traditional institutions which I do find really interesting. I mean I grew up in a culture where marriage was arranged so I’ve always had a natural distaste for marriage as an institution but I do think a lot of my friends are getting married now and having really traditional white weddings and taking on their partners’ surnames and things like that which there was a period in the ‘90s especially as a result of kind of second wave feminism where that would have been seen as just such a faux pas. Now it’s kind of going the other way. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s just you start forgetting about the history of these institutions the longer that they haven’t been I guess a system of control?
E: Yes, absolutely it’s that and I think there is often an element of generational need to do differently to your parents’ generation, I think that happens, we do see these cycles throughout history of sort of the conservatism, the rebellion, the conservatism, the rebellion so there’s that. I do worry with things like taking a husband’s name and putting all the finances in one account under his name which I heard of some young women doing, that really is an ignorance about what those restraints can actually mean. No-one wants to think of someone that they’re marrying and in love with that like it’s romantic to think well yes, he could use this as a tool of control but of course he wouldn’t and so that feels like a really romantic thing if you don’t have an actual lived experience or memory of that kind of control as a societal thing.
I think that is the danger in forgetting history or in not learning history, that these decisions don’t have context and we can get into a situation where we – I mean this is what we’ve seen with the great Trumpian disaster in a lot of ways, is this ridiculous idea that America or Australia or marriage or whatever it is was once great and better and nicer without actually looking at the history and thinking who the hell was it better for? Because it was a very small number of people it was great for back in those days but when you haven’t lived through that and you don’t know the history it can be really easy to romanticise that and look at the outfits on Mad Men or whatever and think oh that looks nice.
P: Yeah, it’s classic rose-tinted glasses, isn’t it? I have to say when I’m watching Mad Men I’m always imagining myself as Don Draper, not as his wife.
E: Right ‘cause you don’t want to be bored.
P: Totally, totally, I'm like that seems fun, I should totally go become a marketing executive, not thinking of being the housewife. It’s interesting that you say that ‘cause I recently wrote a piece for SBS on why combining finances with my partner actually makes me feel really anxious and uncomfortable because – which he’s very tolerant of all the stuff I put out into the public sphere, by the way. I said to him by the way I’m writing a public article about how I don’t want to share a bank account with you. You’re cool with that? He’s like sure and I was like I invented a line that you say at the end to make it sound more interesting than what you actually said in that one conversation.
E: This is the life of people marrying a writer or [unclear] 37:21 with a writer yeah, it’s harsh, it’s tough.
P: But I do think we have a tendency like you said to romanticise the past and kind of not give credit to the progress that we have made and even in this discussion so far if you like we’ve really dwelled or I’ve really forced you to dwell on the really negative parts of the progress that hasn’t been made thus far with gender equality. There are some really good things happening, though, and just recently last week – this is relevant to us as writers – the Stella count released their count for this year and for those who don’t know the Stella Prize does a count every year of the representation of female authors in credible reviews in major publications amongst other things within the count. This is really great progress this year with almost parity between female and male authors being reviewed in major publications which is really exciting. Is there anything that’s exciting you about the progress in gender equality?
E: That did excite me ‘cause I’ve been following the Stella count since it started and it’s depressed me every year and this year it didn’t. The other thing that just happened which makes one tiny line in the book out of date already and I’m thrilled about it is that abortion was decriminalised in New South Wales which could still be challenged, I know that but at the time of going to press New South Wales was the last state to still have abortion on the criminal code. I’ve been watching it and watching it and actually hoping for the book to be out of date by the time it was printed and that did just happen. I mean it’s hard to count that as a win when it’s been so ugly and hard fought and took so long but I think there’s wonderful things happening all the time.
I know you spend time talking to young people in schools and universities and I do a lot of that too. The level of conversations I have with teenagers about gender and all manner of social justice issues is so much more sophisticated and nuanced and humane and compassionate than I or anyone I knew would have been capable of at their age. This is across a wide range of schools like some very, very privileged ones and some more socially disadvantaged schools as well. The conversation is different, the ideas about gender and the roles that they’re expected to fulfil. It just gives me a lot of hope and I am wary of putting everything on the next generation, the hope as Greta Thunberg has reminded us all of, that that’s just such a copout, to be an adult and say well the next generation’ll fix it. But it is definitely a sign that I mean there’s exciting things to look forward to with leadership from younger people.
P: I think it’s hard not to feel somewhat hopeful that this generation that is coming up behind us because they are genuinely so much more in tune and aware of inequality and disadvantage that even my generation and I always think to myself when I started writing for [LIP] 40:30 magazine which is a feminist publication that started here in Canberra. I was 15 and I still remember saying to people on the school playground that I was a feminist and everyone being horrified by this and my friends saying to me oh like why would you hate men? I would never be a feminist, etc. Of course they’re all feminists now. I did it first but they’re all feminists now. But I love that because I look at that and that was not that long ago and now there’s a feminist collective at that school and it’s so lovely to see that kind of change and that progress so I do think we have something to be optimistic about even if that means that sometimes we are on the side of putting all of the pressure on these young people.
I’m curious as to how that transition happened, though. Part of me wonders if it’s the internet but then the internet is also this kind of cesspit of doom and despair so I feel like it can’t be that but I’m not really sure how this kind of progress has happened so rapidly within the space of a decade where we’re seeing just a better understanding of all of those issues that we really did kind of skate over I feel even in my generation.
E: Yeah, I think it is largely the internet and sometimes the cesspit nature of it actually contributes. You can have a negative backlash and you can have a positive one and we know that women became really activated in the United States politically after Trump’s election. Sometimes people will get a scare up them about how bad things have gone and that can really reactivate feminist conversations. But I think the wonderful thing about the feminist internet is how diverse it is, that there are feminist communities online to sort of suit everyone and not just in terms of different interactions but there’s feminist knitting and sewing collectives if that’s what you’re into and there’s feminist Star Trek forums. There’s sort of ways to bring a feminist analysis to all these different things that can really allow – I think certainly when I was growing up, which says as much about I guess my own area I grew up in, all that kind of stuff as much as anything else but I thought feminism was something purely historical.
I didn’t feel negative towards it, I thought it was great but I thought it was done, I didn’t have any kind of conversations around me to make me feel that it was something that had anything to do with me in the present tense. If it had I think as someone who was a high school dropout and all that kind of stuff I would have just felt way too intimidated because when I did start reading about feminism in my local library it was quite academic and I love academic feminism now and read it all the time but at the time it did just seem very far away from me. I think this accessibility and all these different feminist communities and ways of talking about these issues that is such a big part of just ordinary kids and young people everywhere finding a way to engage with the issues they care about.
P: Yeah, the progress has been constant and consistent in a way that definitely feels like it isn’t ebbing and it’ll continue to flow on and I think the awareness of intersectionality is a big part of that. Instead of the way that I think young women - when I was growing up young women tended to look at their own lives and say well I’ve never experienced any inequality so therefore this can’t possibly be relevant. People are now saying well people over there are still experiencing inequality so maybe we should be worried about that.
E: Yes and making those connections. Just the other thing I wanted to say on that too is I think the nature of the internet as well means that there’s not the dependency on leaders. There are still great feminist leaders in terms of activism and sort of being at the forefront of various struggles but everyone has a voice and of course certain forums do prioritise different voices over others and there can still be problems with that but it’s much, much easier for people who for whatever reason may have been shut out of that conversation to have an equal voice and have their own experiences be heard. I think that’s been a really powerful thing.
P: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting though when you say that because I think one of the most common criticisms of feminism as a movement is that it’s so fractured and there’s so much infighting and no-one really agrees on what the definition of feminism is. I was interested in what you have been researching and looking at in terms of the history of feminism. Do you think that we have become more individualised as the movement has kind of continued and do you think that there’s a need for a more collective approach to some of these issues or is that already happening and it just doesn’t look like that sometimes?
E: Yeah. One of the really important things I realised was that there’s always been division within feminism and there’s always been people who don’t necessarily use the word that everyone else is using for what they’re doing. You can really dig into some of the women from the 1890s and the arguments that were going on amongst them about what’s the best tactics and what’s the best approach and what should our priorities be? That’s always been an element of it. I think it’s a great thing, I think a movement is stronger when people are able to actually fight over the ideas and it’s really actually very sexist often the commentary around it as if women are having spirited disagreement about something that it’s put down to bitchiness or infighting or something when really every movement has had strong thinkers who disagree on important things even though their general goal or values are the same thing.
I think that it is a strength that feminism is so diverse in all of these different ways. Nobody can be the authority, the expert or the key activist on every issue, there is so much work to be done. I think it’s really great that there are people who their priority and their form of feminism is focusing on reproductive rights and then there are others who are focusing on sex workers’ rights and then there are others who are focusing on getting more women preselected for political office. None of those people can be or should be trying to lead all of those issues all at once and all the many, many others. It goes back to the idea of labelling things, I think when we talk about recognising that sexism and misogyny are still issues that lead to injustice and inequality and that presents in all these different ways across society. So what we actually need are people working against that sexism and misogyny therefore working against that oppression and injustice.
We need them, us all throughout society and no-one has to be the person doing all of that and being across all of that. It’s another great lesson that I got from looking at the history, that there are these great leaders and I wish people knew their names but also none of these achievements would have happened if it hadn’t been for the masses and masses of support that they had. It has never been a fringe movement although critics have always said it has been and there have always been great masses of people signing petitions, walking around collecting signatures on petitions, writing letters to the newspaper and to politicians and lobbying and volunteering and holding consciousness-raising and education sessions in their houses, in their workplaces.
Just doing all of this work and all of this support and voting, talking to their friends, changing hearts and minds, all of that has happened in the thousands, tens of thousands, millions over decades. If we talk about feminism as something that we need some feminist Pope who’s going to tell everyone what to do and then everyone else sits and just follows the leader. It’s so much more empowering to think that everyone exactly where they are right now can look at their circle of influence and make a change fighting against sexism and misogyny. Call it what you want, have a leader or don’t have a leader but that’s actually how change happens.
P: That’s a very impassioned call to arms and actually very like a positive way of summarising where we’re at at the moment. I feel like I’m getting given a signal about time, very subtle walking towards us. Are we completely out of time or do we have time for some questions?
Z: Definitely time for some questions. Can you please join me in thanking Emily and Zoya for that insightful talk.
Z: So now we would like to open up the conversation for some questions. We’re livestreaming this event on our Facebook page and recording it so if you could wait until the microphone comes to ask your question. Anyone?
A: Thank you, that was just fantastic. Women have always been on the front line when it comes to issues of survival, whether it was in the French revolution marching for bread, in the 1980s these were women’s movements fighting for peace and those movements were big and they were international, they were global and it was a big issue. Now I don’t know if people saw the Four Corners program about the climate kids yesterday? I couldn’t help but notice, and this is an issue of survival, it’s the biggest issue of survival right now and I couldn’t help but notice that those crowds of climate kids were absolutely swamped with young women. Do you have a comment on that?
E: I mean I think you said it all, that young women and women have always led these movements and it’s incredibly exciting to see – and again there’s this thing of I don’t want to pass over and say let the young people do the work but it is incredibly exciting. But also recognising that young women have always led these movements, not only young women but if we’re talking about that and teenage girls. I remember being a teenager and having all this energy for change and activism and nowhere to put it which just turned me into a brat and a really petty rebel because I didn’t know what to do with this rage and this feeling and when I see it so well directed and I remember that energy I had and it is really inspiring. I don’t know. Zoya started a feminist publication yourself when you were really young?
P: No, that’s like this common error -
E: Tell us about that.
P: - writing for a feminist publication when I was 15, I became editor of that one when I was 20.
E: Became editor of it.
P: I launched Feminartsy when I was 24 but there’s like this rumour on the internet that I was 15 ‘cause they’ve gotten the dates mixed up -
E: Oh I meant really young was 24.
P: Oh thank you.
E: To start a publication.
P: As I inch towards 30 this year 24 does feel really young but I feel like I get extra cred. I do think that I was a better person when I was younger like I read journals from when I was a teenager and I was filled with this real – everything that I worried about interestingly was not boys, there was a lot about Harry Potter but the rest of it was social change and desperately wanting to be able to impact some kind of social change. I was that kid who stood out the front of school with the petition papers and I was really big on animal rights and gender equality. I actually feel like part of what changes as you get older and what makes it harder and harder is you’re forced into the system more and more because when you are young you’re existing largely on the fringes of the system that makes everything run, you’re not forced to have economic responsibilities, you don’t have accountability to your own actions in the same way.
You have this great buffer and the older we get the more that we suddenly have to think about where the food come from and how we’re paying rent and how we fit into the fabric of society. Are we a leader yet? Are we a manager? Suddenly your goals become so framed by capitalism and it’s harder and harder to actually step outside of that. I wonder if the reason why young women are leading this climate movement is because they can see so clearly from not being within the system that the systems aren’t working whereas when we’re in the system, when we’re looking at it, it seems absolutely impossible to dismantle an economy that’s entirely built around coal and oil, it just seems impossible that we could do something about it. Whereas it is inspiring to look at the Canberra protest.
I don’t know if people went to the climate strike in Canberra but young women were absolutely the people on stage speaking and that was very galvanising. But I was really aware that in all of the climate striking the most important movement was the kids and the school strike and the young people because the rest of us all went back to our fulltime jobs and we like put some photos on social media and that was it. Like there has been no further action taken by most of the people that I know who went to the climate strike but the young people are continuing so that is – again I don’t want to lay all the hope at their feet but I would happily take some direction from some young people on what we could be doing better.
A: Thanks for the conversation, it’s had me retrace my membership and I’ve learnt tonight of the second wave. One of the significant things that I think happened through that time was the reduction almost to nil of women’s bodies being used to sell beds and lounges and cars. It’s come back, women’s bodies are being used to sell everything and that’s disappointing but it seemed at the time like it was at least connected to a structural change because not every ad maker back then was a woman. But I’m also aware of the time for me when a man opened the door and I didn’t say it’s okay, you can go in, I can manage the door. I thought I can’t be bothered.
Have you thoughts about how personal energy and structural change can somehow be supported ‘cause I think they tie together and that the cyclical stuff is often around the group losing energy having fought for years and years and years? I know that happened for me and I'm not suggesting that that’s general but do you have thoughts about how we can actually keep an energy in a very public way going to keep hitting against the structural stuff that is so hard to shift?
E: Yeah, it’s a really good point because it is exhausting to continue fighting. I mean certainly generational renewal is a wonderful thing as we’ve been talking about again and again and something that I do say in the book is even though it can be so disheartening to realise that today’s feminists are in a lot of ways fighting many of the same issues as previous generations the upside of that is that younger feminists can look to the older generations to learn how they did it and what worked and really learn from that.
Older feminists can actually take that energy and the renewal that’s coming through from younger people. But I also think we do need to look at larger social structures, at capitalism, at classism, at racism, at all these other things that divide us within our own movement and that exhaust us, that the work [cycles] 56:53 people have to do, the struggling with childcare, all of those things, they are exhausting, they do make it really, really hard.
I mean I wouldn’t say it’s an actual plan of the people in power to make everyone so tired running circles around ourselves to pay our mortgages but it’s certainly not something that they’re bothered by, to keep us all quite exhausted and distracted. It’s something we see with the kind of populism commentary, whether we’re blaming immigrants or blaming this group or blaming that group to actually not look up. If people are worried about someone’s getting $5 extra a week than they’re apparently entitled to on their Centrelink payments instead of looking at the people up the top who are paying no tax at all or having massive benefits and we’re all sort of infighting in here and being exhausted by our lives. We don’t have the energy.
P: You’re so right and I think a good example that goes directly to your point of sexism in advertising is recently in Canberra we had this controversy because a big property developer, Geocon, had put up all this advertising for their apartments that had half-naked women cycling as we do through Woden or whatever. I remember being parked at an intersection on Cooyong Street where there used to be big public housing complexes that were razed to the ground and turned into apartments. There was a little mob of young people protesting against Geocon saying Geocon’s advertising is sexist, etc. I was sitting there thinking it’s great that you’re calling this out but the actual issue here if you turn around is the fact that all of these vulnerable people have been moved out of the housing that before gave them access to all of the amenities of the city.
Actually we’ve just moved them into salt and pepper housing throughout the suburbs, away from the services with no proper public transport and if you really want to attack the issue here the systemic issues that drive gender inequality and all other forms of inequality, what has happened to this building. Not what’s advertising the next building but what’s happened to the one that was there. I think part of the fatigue for me certainly comes from having kind of graduated through the levels of feminism from I’m really angry about sexism and advertising and I’m really angry about ex-celebrities saying that they’re not a feminist all the way through to actually none of that stuff can change until we change the fundamental inequality that underlies the structure of our society. Which makes me really boring at parties and I feel as if I'm always the person in the corner being like and the problem with capitalism is -
E: We would get on great at a party in the corner together -
P: So nice to hear you say things from that perspective because I do think that it’s not the easy argument to make.
Z: I think we have time for one more question.
A: Thank you. Your talk’s been really inspiring and thought-provoking and brought back my memories of the second wave of feminism too and at that time one of the things that inspired us and changed a lot of minds were works of literature and I wonder if you’ve got any contemporary works of literature that you can think of that are perhaps doing the same thing for your generations and generations that are coming after you?
E: Whenever I get asked about books I instantly forget every time what I want to say but my answer is definitely yes and while I try and think, and maybe Zoya has some that come to mind, Zoya mentioned the Stella count before which is a project of the Stella Prize which as many of you will know is a prize for women’s writing that was sort of started up partly in reaction to so many major prizes including the Miles Franklin having year after year after year almost no women on the shortlists.
So you have the prize, you have the count. The third arm, I guess, of the Stella project is Stella schools which I’ve been lucky enough to have some involvement in and part of that project is actually getting more books by Australian women writers on school reading lists because there’s very few. It varies from to state to state and also recognising how overworked teachers are, actually creating the resources to help teachers introduce those texts so they don’t have to do a whole bunch of different work to teach different texts.
But that whole project is so inspiring and exciting to me because it does recognise what you’ve said and what’s been true to me which is the power of a book or literature. I mean The Beauty Myth was an incredibly important book to me. I read it when I was at an age where I probably only understood about half of it and really got those structural issues but it’s something I’ve gone back to. But then I started to find even older texts that have mattered so much to me, not necessarily new works coming out but sort of there’s this great river of feminist texts or writing by women that I return to and dig into and that changes. Recent works -
P: I really struggle with recent works because I’m a bit like you, the books that I love the most and that had the most impact on me are still the books that I read as like a fledgling feminist so I always go back to Virginia Wolf and writers like her who really inspired me but there are incredible Australian writers who are doing really important work and I think something that I’ve been quite inspired by has been this movement in Australian memoir written by women because memoir has typically been treated as this really frivolous side genre and now it’s actually being recognised for the political tool that it can be because it’s only by sharing stories that we actually understand diverse experiences and are able to see the kind of real life impact of some of the structural inequalities that we’ve spoken about.
So a few that I’ve really enjoyed recently, I don’t know if anyone’s read Staying by Jessie Cole. It’s an incredible book, so lyrical and such immense insight into the impact of mental health on families, mental illness on families. I always go back to Maxine Beneba Clarke and Alice Pung as two women of colour who write incredible work and both of whom have written a really insightful memoir about growing up in Australia as both women and also immigrants. There’s a whole wealth of Australian women writers right now who are doing awesome work.
I’m also judging the Stella Prize for this year which means that I have like 180 books to look at which is why my Facebook’s so blank where -
P: - what’s a great book right now? I’m like I don’t know, I’m not allowed to say until February. But there’s a lot, I can assure you there is a lot of great writing coming out of Australia right now which is super-exciting.
E: Zoya’s own book of memoir writing, No Country Woman which is fantastic.
P: Thanks, Emily.
Z: Thank you. On that note the bookshop is offering guests a 10% discount tonight on This is What a Feminist Looks Like and Zoya’s No Country Woman. They will also be signing copies afterwards. Can we please thank them?
Z: Thank you all for coming and we hope to see you at the Library again soon.
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