Mother to Daughter: Second- VS. Fourth-Wave Feminism.

While I’ve only begun calling myself a feminist in the past few years, I think I’ve always had feminist tendencies: I’ve always believed in reproductive rights, I’ve tried never to judge a woman based on her choices and it’s been instilled in me that, as a woman, I can do and be anything I want to.

A lot of this is thanks to my mum, who is a ’70s bra-burning hippie feminist through and through.

Though recently, as I increasingly immerse myself in current readings of feminism, I see just how far we’ve come, baby, and how the second-wave feminism of my mother’s era is worlds apart from today’s discourse on gender equality.

There have been many debates between second-, third- and fourth-wavers about who did, and is doing, more for the movement.

At a 2011 Melbourne Writers Festival presentation on why we still need feminism, Sophie Cunningham asserted that feminists under 25 can’t really grasp the concept because they’re still young and beautiful and have men falling at their feet. She also observed “a sort of ‘bottleneck’ in modern feminism”, where white, Western feminists aren’t able to incorporate intersectionality into the fold, which was a criticism of SlutWalk, one of latter-day feminism’s most high-profile conquests. Pardon me, but wasn’t it foremother Betty Friedan who was accused of being racist and homophobic with The Feminine Mystique?

Perhaps the most contentious issue is the constant bickering amongst young feminists as to what, exactly, feminism is. You’ve got women undertaking such obviously feminist tasks as Marissa Mayer overseeing Yahoo! and Beyonce nearing total world domination, yet they’re reluctant to call a spade a spade. And the non-feminist media would have you believe there’s infighting going on about who is allowed to be a feminist (definitely not Taylor Swift!).

But, I think, the feminist movement of today would like to believe it’s accessible to all kinds of women (and men): straight, gay, bi, male, female, trans, black, white, mixed-race, rich, poor, able-bodied and non-able-bodied, sex workers, etc. Can second-wave feminism of yesteryear say that?

This divide is illustrated by Germaine Greer’s infamous comments about Julia Gillard’s clothing choices and how they accentuated her apparently undesirable body shape last year on Q&A and feminists everywhere taking to their respective platforms to mostly disagree with her. One such vocal detractor was Mia Freedman, who said Greer “broke my heart a little bit” when she took herself “down in a hail of self-inflicted friendly fire while the world watche[d] in embarrassment.” When the two women appeared together on a recent episode of Q&A, Freedman was asked to clarify her response: did it mean she wasn’t a fan of the “ground-breaking, arse-kicking lightening rod for social change who ignited a feminist movement from which every woman in the western world has benefited” anymore? Was this an example of the abovementioned feminist in-fighting?

Freedman responded that while she has nothing but respect for the woman in whose water she grew up and who influenced her mother’s feminist awakening, “feminism needs to have a lot of different voices… It should be really, really broad and inclusive.” Essentially, feminism should accommodate both the foremothers and their daughters.

Freedman went on in that same episode of Q&A to—what some would describe as—shame sex workers, or “prostitutes” as she archaically called them, which ignited a backlash of her own. So much for that broad inclusion she waxed lyrical about…

While liberating housewives of Germaine and Freedman’s mother’s era from “the problem with no name” and ushering in the birth control pill are milestones women of today must be thankful for, they’re very much narrow-minded accomplishments: The Feminine Mystique appealed to white middle-class women and many women can’t afford the birth control pill, a predicament that still exists today. And second-wave feminism was very much responsible for the sexual liberation of a generation of people, but I’m not so sure that transfers to the hook up, raunch and porn culture/s of today (as Freedman’s comments about sex workers above would indicate).

For example, when I was living at home and Girls of the Playboy Mansion came on the TV, my mum would make me turn it off (keep in mind I was 22 by the time I moved out and this was not long before that). When I brought this up recently as an example of her generation’s reluctance to embrace sex positivity, she launched into a tirade that ended with her calling into question the women who pose for Playboy’s sexual promiscuity.

We must acknowledge that media like Playboy is an inherently patriarchal construct, but I think making the assumption that any woman who uses her sexuality as a commodity is a slave to said patriarchy is buying into the notion that feminism works against: women have no autonomy. Much like the debate over women in Islam (and don’t even get me started on the fight I had with my mum about asylum seekers that, similar to the Playboy exchange, ended with her defensively inquiring about the legality of people seeking asylum via boat), certain kinds of feminism need to broaden their scope to take into account the lives of all women, whether we agree with their choices or not.

This close-mindedness comes from a lack of access to new information and technologies and willingness to learn from and hand the reigns over to the feminists of today, I think. While many feminists of all ages count the works of Greer, Friedan and Naomi Wolf amongst their collection of feminist tomes, how many second-wavers can say the same about the musings of Jessica Valenti, Clementine Ford, Rachel Hills and the myriad feminist bloggers? That face of feminism has certainly changed to make it much more accessible. What once was narrowly accessible at rallies, underground meetings and in academic journals is now available wherever you look: Gillard speaking up against sexism in parliament, movements like SlutWalk and Destroy the Joint and all across the interwebs.

So on this Mother’s Day eve, it’s important to acknowledge the gender equality path paved for me by my feminist foremothers, including my actual mother, but also to recognise that we have, indeed, come a long way, baby. Maybe that’s something that second-wavers need to consider, too.

Related: Why Young Feminists Still Have “A Long, Long Way to Go” In the Eyes of Second-Wave Feminists.

Taylor Swift: The Perfect Victim.

Elsewhere: [The Atlantic] 4 Big Problems with The Feminine Mystique. 

[The Guardian] The Tragic Irony of Feminists Trashing Each Other.

[MamaMia] Germaine Greer: You’ve Lost Me.

[MamaMia] No, I Won’t Apologise for My Sex Worker Comments.

[Daily Life] Stoned for Having Short Hair.

Event: Melbourne Writers Festival—Notes on Women in Culture.

The panel was chaired by the director of feminist publishing house, Spinifex Press, Susan Hawthorne, and the speakers were Tamil writer CS Lakshmi, and feminist fiction and non-fiction writers Emily Maguire and Sophie Cunningham.

I saw Cunningham speak at last year’s festival, and some of her comments on third and/or fourth wave feminism really rubbed me the wrong way. This year she spoke again about the discrepancies between the pay rates of men and women and where that money goes. While only $0.40 for every dollar earned of men’s income goes to the family, $0.90 of women’s money goes to the family. Therefore, “women need to work or our culture falls apart.”

Cunningham also spoke about her pet project, women in literature. As the chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council and of the Stella Prize, she knows her stuff. Apparently when the representation of women in literature hits 30%, people think it’s about half. (I believe she mentioned it’s at about that percentage currently, in terms of how many books by women are reviewed and how many books are reviewed by women in major publications.) This reminds me of the 33%–66% division of labour rule in male–female households: that women will do up to 66% of housework before they start to think they’re doing too much, while men will do 33% before they start to think they’re doing too much.

I think both of the following quotes came from a piece Lakshmi read to the audience. They’re poignant no matter who wrote them and where they appeared:

“Women pretend to conform whilst they’re breaking the rules.”

“Sit still otherwise you’ll rock the boat.”

That last quote reminds me of 50 Shades of Grey, in which Christian makes Anastasia “sit still” and not move when he’s performing sexual acts on her. I don’t know many men who prefer a woman to be physically non-responsive to their touch, but there are a lot of things about the book I don’t understand.

Speaking of 50 Shades (at this point in time, when it’s the highest selling book ever, who isn’t?!), in another panel I attended on Saturday about writing about sex (featuring Susan Johnson, Chris Flynn and another appearance by Maguire) it was brought up. Nothing of note was added to the discussion really (sex and gender roles are conservative, defined; the sex is clinical, etc.), but Johnson did, it’s worth noting, spoil the ending for me! Not that I was planning on reading the next two installments (one’s enough!), but there were a few audible groans from the audience when she revealed that *spoiler alert* Christian married Anastasia in the end.

Johnson has a piece on the trend of the trilogy in this weekend’s Q Weekend magazine, for which she is the senior features writer. She mentioned how she finds the book like a sexed up version of Beauty & the Beast, which made my heart yearn for a simpler time, when feminism and Stockholm syndrome and abusive relationships were not at the forefront of my mind when examining my favourite Disney movie. Sigh… I’ll never be able to enjoy it like I once did thinking about the Beast forcing Belle to eat and suspending her from the ceiling of his Red Room of Pain if she doesn’t do as she’s told!

But back to the panel at hand.

The notion of positive female representation in science fiction and fantasy came up, an issue about which I’m quite passionate, but which I’d like to know more about, too. Maguire says it’s easier to write a “strong female character” in sci-fi because you “don’t have to have the rules of this world” posed onto the character. I think it was Cunningham who then mentioned that that’s why a lot of sci-fi is set in post-apocalyptic worlds where the restraints of our current notions of society and culture are abolished so writers can explore different aspects of the characters that they might not have should they exist in this world.

Author John Banville was brought up, who has said he’s “never understood women… Don’t want to… I’m in love with all of them, always have been fascinated by them… They always do the unexpected—at least I don’t expect what they do. They say: ‘We’re ordinary, we’re just like you.’ I say: ‘You’re not. You’re magical creatures.’”

While that’s a lovely gesture on the surface, do we really want to be seen as otherworldly? At the end of the day, everyone’s just a person. And, at the end of the panel, Lakshmi told a story with the theme that gender has “no specific qualities”. So how can one be “ordinary” and one be “magical”? Reverse sexism on Banville’s part, perhaps?!

Related: Melbourne Writers Festival 2011: A Long, Long Way to Go—Why We Still Need Feminism.

Bendigo Writers Festival.

Sexism in Fantasy.

Image via TheVine.

Book Review: The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold—I’m Still in Love with Judas, Baby.


In Jesus’ time, nothing much was recorded about the women. So, for all we know, Jesus could have had many sisters, in addition to his brothers.

Leslie Cannold has imagined the lives of his sisters in The Book of Rachael. Shona is in love with one man but is raped by another and forced to become his wife and move far away from her family and sister Rachael, who is the rebellious one in the family. She’s inquisitive and passionate, and teaches herself to read when women weren’t allowed to. When she meets her brother’s (called Joshua in the book) friend, Judah, she falls head over heels in love with him, but the feelings aren’t reciprocated until some time after. They become married, but Rachael isn’t ready to become just a mother to Judah’s offspring, and consistently aborts his children using herbal remedies, which causes a rift in their marriage.

As a noted Aussie feminist, you’d have to expect some feminist sentiments thrown into the mix from Cannold. For example, the notorious mansplaining is invoked:

“‘Why is it,’ I asked, cutting across Judah’s lovesick cant, ‘that a female infant renders the mother more unclean than a male?… Forty days confinement if the child is a boy, twice this time for a girl,” I said, rattling off the well-known rule.

“‘The cause for difference,” Judah ventured hesitantly, ‘could be the labours. The distinct way that women labour when bearing a boy as against a girl. And the difference in the burden of guilt they acquire.’

“‘What?’ Distinct labours? Different guilt? Since my own flowering I had attended dozens of births. My preparation for initiation had required I listen to Bindy describe hundreds more. Not once had I even heard it suggested that an infant’s sex determined the severity of the trial faced by the mother. ‘Whatever are you talking about, Judah?’

“But Judah mistook my confusion for a confession of ignorance and a request for enlightenment. Relieved to have been restored to his accustomed role of authority, he set forth confidently to explain. ‘Everyone knows, Rachael, that in her hour of suffering, the mother is desperate and swears she will not live in intimacy with her husband again. If a boy is born, she repents this vow sooner because he occasions such rejoicing. But with a girl, all is gloom. Many women feel their failure keenly, so the mother’s return to her husband’s arms is delayed.’

“It was the silliest thing I had ever heard. And from a man! A man who knew nothing of monthly cycles and giving birth, yet had no hesitation in describing—explaining!—the features of that experience as if they were his own. A man, like the Great God Almighty, who had no right to say!” (p. 123–125).

Furthermore, when Rachael seeks to liberate the women tasked with midwifery duties from doing so until they “are free to serve and worship the Queen”, Bindy, her crone employer, warns, “What of the women who will be trampled in the stampede for freedom?” (p. 201). Do I detect a hint of second-wave vs. third/fourth-wave feminism?

Obviously, the unknown story of women in that time drew a feminist to them, and the characters’ plights to be seen as more than just baby- and bread-making machines are inherently feminist. Hell, to be forced to marry your rapist to restore pride to your family, and to claim that your out-of-wedlock pregnancy is the result of the consort of God, harkens back to a grim time for women, indeed. Cannold does a lovely job of trying to bring those women and their struggles to life.

Related: Surfing the Third Wave: Second Wave VS. Third Wave Feminism on Gossip Girl.

Elsewhere: [Tiger Beatdown] Chronicles of Mansplaining: Professor Feminism & the Deleted Comments of Doom.

Image via Verity La.

Event: Melbourne Writers’ Festival—A Long Long Way to Go: Why We Still Need Feminism.

We’re in a post-feminist era. Feminism is dead. Has feminism failed?

From the arguments presented by Sophie Cunningham in her Melbourne Writers’ Festival address, titled after the line in Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” (and the title of a book I thought Cunningham mentioned she’d had/is having published, but upon further inspection, this doesn’t seem to be the case), these post-feminism assertions are null and void.

While Cunningham stated at the beginning, after her introduction by Monica Dux, that she’d be focusing purely on feminism as it relates to Western women, but to keep the big picture in mind, I was disappointed that she kept her key points to the lack of women (or recognition of women) in writing, music, film and the arts in general.

Having said that, though, she made some pertinent points: that in 2009 and 2011, the Miles Franklin Award shortlists were all male; that for a woman in Australia to be paid the same as a man in the same job, she would have to have a PhD to his Bachelor degree; that a 25-year-old woman will earn $1.5 million over the next 40 years, whereas a male will earn $2.4 million (to which Dr. Anne Summers responded, “There’s a $1 million penalty for being a woman in Australia today.”); it’s safer to be a soldier in one of the most dangerous countries in the world, the Democratic Republic of Congo, than to be a woman; women do two thirds of the world’s work for 10% of the pay; that when literary submissions are read blind, the inclusion/choosing of women increases sevenfold. (This is epitomised in The Big Issue’s latest fiction edition, in which six competition pieces were read without names attached, and five [possibly six; it isn’t clear if Nic Low, whose piece Slick appears in the anthology, is male or female] are from women writers.)

To really illustrate the “invisible woman” syndrome in the “writing culture crisis”, and amongst many other industries, Cunningham used an anecdote about a female reporter who attended a Liberal rally organised by Tony Abbott and was taunted by the crowd for daring to question Malcolm Turnbull (I think; don’t quote me on this)*. To escape the abuse that threatened to get physical, she disappeared into the crowd, becoming “invisible”. If only Lara Logan, whom Cunningham spoke about, was able to do this in Tahrir Square.

Cunningham brought up the notion that in terms of women’s equality and feminism, our society is regressing somewhat. This is a contention I agree with. Therefore the “invisibility” of women has become “normalised”.

Aimless Panther writes on Feminaust:

“Yay, Aussie women now make up 12% of board members! Wait… seriously, is 12% something to CELEBRATE?!?!”

My sentiments exactly.

In film, Cunningham talked about the Bechdel test and how the feminist movie of the year, Bridesmaids, makes the cut, whereas Cowboys & Aliens doesn’t. Not to toot my own horn (okay, I’ll toot away!), but has Cunningham been reading The Scarlett Woman?!

She also mentions Pixar’s first film featuring a female protagonist, 2012’s Brave, about a strong, assertive and “brave” (duh!)—hence “ugly”—redhead. My, how far we’ve come!

Where Cunningham saw a sort of “bottleneck” in modern feminism, where white, privileged feminists like myself don’t understand the problems facing feminists of colour, feminists with sexual orientation other than straight, feminists with gender other than cis, and feminists with disabilities, she praised the “grassroots” feminism sprouting in the young feminist community, epitomised by SlutWalk. (SlutWalk has been criticised by non-white, non-middle-class feminists for excluding them. Cunningham defended the protest, but by only speaking about issues that affect the feminists SlutWalk caters to, perhaps she could be seen as contributing to this bottleneck?)

She longs for a fourth wave feminism, and finished the talk with this. Some would say we are in/entering a fourth wave, where sexual liberation and reproductive rights still reign supreme, but there is more of a focus on the needs of different types of feminists, as mentioned above, and “serious”, Third-World feminism, where some view the movement is most needed.

Those who are instigating these grassroots movements; this fourth wave; these feminist blogs; are arguably the 25-year-olds who “don’t get feminism”, as Cunningham asserted. While I don’t wish to demonise her for questioning my, and my peers’, motivations and understanding of the movement we so lovingly work towards, I was thoroughly offended by this comment. If Cunningham, and an elderly audience member who spoke up during question time by reiterating that young people don’t “get” what “real” feminism is all about, took a look around the function room at BMW Edge at Federation Square, they would have realised that the majority of people in attendance were under or around 25. Some of them were men, which signifies that yes, while we do still have “a long long way to go”, there are people on our side.

Furthermore, I remember last year there was a bit of tension in the ranks between second- and third-wave feminists, which has also contributed to the bottleneck Cunningham speaks of.

I think we, as feminists, need to be careful about who we call a “real feminist”. Is she the man-hating “HLL (Hairy Legged Lesbian)” stereotype? The woman who shuns all pain-killers to have a natural, home birth, and shames all those who don’t? The “expert”? The grassroots SlutWalk organisers? According to Cunningham, perhaps it’s not the young, beautiful women who “don’t understand” the real issues of concern for feminism because, well, they’re 25 and still have men drooling at their feet. (I’m paraphrasing here, but this is basically the gist of what I interpreted Cunningham to mean). There’ll be more on this to come throughout the week. In the meantime, what do you think?

*Updated 05/09/11: It was actually Alan Jones, at the Rally of No Confidence in Canberra, who lead the crowd in a verbal barraging of journalist Jacqueline Maley after she asked him if he had been paid to speak. I have added the link to this information below.

Related: Has Feminism Failed?

“Who the Bloody Hell Are We?”: The Sentimental Bloke at the Wheeler Centre.

Witch Trial: Burning at the Stake on Charmed.

Bridesmaids Review.

Cowboys VS. Aliens & Indians… Does it Really Matter? They’re All the Same Anyway, According to the New Movie.

Rachel Berry as Feminist.

Ain’t Nothin’ Gonna Break My Slutty Stride.

Melbourne Writers’ Festival: Never, Ever, Again—Why Australian Abortion Law Needs Reform by Caroline de Costa Book Launch.

Surfing the Third Wave: Second-Wave VS. Third-Wave Feminism on Gossip Girl.

Elsewhere: [ABC’s The Drum] A Prize of One’s Own: The Case for an Aussie Orange.

[Feminaust] Welcome to Monday August 29 2011.

[Sydney Morning Herald] The Fee, Me & Alan Jones: How Question of Money Turned Crowd Nasty.

Image via Melbourne Writers’ Festival.