Last Wednesday evening, I went to a debate about the state of feminism and whether it’s failed at the Melbourne Town Hall on Swanston Street.
Entitled “Feminism Has Failed”, I went into the debate with my own preconceived notions about feminism’s success and came out of it with similar feelings, as I think most of the attendees did, if the vote before and after the debate was anything to go by.
I felt that for someone like me, a young, white, middle-ish class Australian female, feminism hasn’t failed, but for most other women around the world who don’t have access to such things I’m afforded (education, employment, food, water, shelter, the ability to do/be almost anything I want), feminism has certainly failed.
And that was the basis of the first speaker for the affirmative team, Virginia Haussegger’s speech.
Instead of feminism working for women all over the globe, the rest of the world has waged a “global war against women”, or a “gendercide”, if you will. An example of this is the recent Time magazine cover in which an Afghani woman, or girl rather, was depicted with her nose and ears cut off by her husband, after trying to flee his abusive household.
To rebut this argument was Jennifer Byrne, who said she was taking a “working girl’s view” of feminism, and mentioning a phrase we’ve heard a lot of in third-wave feminism—“wonder woman”. (Funnily enough, Haussegger has published a book of the same name.) She noted that we have so much choice now that we “scarcely notice feminism” now.
Stephen Mayne, the only male on either debate team, took a business point of view, and harped on about the dismal number of women on ASX publicly traded company boards. He mentioned that his fellow team member, Gaye Alcorn, who spoke last, editor of The Sunday Age, is only given one day a week, as opposed to the six other days of the week in which a man edits the newspaper. Mayne said that feminism surely HAS failed if a phenomenon such as Britain’s Page 3 girls exist, and if “this country came this close to electing Tony Abbott.” All in all, Mayne was the best speaker of the night and really brought it home for his team, in my opinion.
Next up was Monica Dux, whom Haussegger verbally attacked during her speech as “the snooty head girl [of feminism] with the key”, who wouldn’t let her become part of the club because she has views that aren’t necessarily Dux’s own.
Dux addressed the negative connotations feminism sometimes has, asserting that feminism doesn’t have a Bible, as it’s “constantly evolving and changing”, and is “not a cult” with Germaine Greer at the helm.
Gaye Alcorn confuted Byrne’s former assertion that “we hardly notice feminism anymore” with “sexism has become so embedded in our culture that we no longer notice it”, making reference to the David Jones sexual harassment suit that Mayne also spoke about.
Alcorn also mentioned Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and the great porn debate (more on that to come this week), and that in some ways it’s harder for women—body image-wise—because the culture that young people grow up in has changed.
Controversially, Alcorn referenced the Body Image Advisory Board and it’s chairwomen, the “gorgeous” Mia Freedman, Sarah Murdoch and Kate Ellis, saying that of course they had beautiful women to front the campaign, because it wouldn’t have gotten any publicity with Plain Janes. Out of everything the affirmative team said, this was the only thing I took issue with. “Like, sorry those women happen to be genetically blessed, but they have as much right to talk about body image and beauty as a less fortunate-looking woman does. You can’t help the way you’re born,” I said to my friend, who satirically replied, “Well, it’s about beauty, hello?!” Gold.
Finally, Wendy McCarthy spoke, saying that “feminism is the most significant social movement” of the last fifty years. She mentioned that feminism has “created space for men to be better fathers” which, to me, signals that perhaps feminism has failed if that’s the main point she can come up with; that it benefits men.
The debate ended with the final vote, in which the results stayed pretty much the same. While the affirmative team definitely won the debate, in the minds of the audience members, at least, feminism has not failed, and is still alive and well in our culture.
But as the affirmative team mentioned, Western feminists need to stand up for women in less fortunate countries, and by the same token, “feminists can’t be accountable for all feminist issues at all times.”