Reflections on my own experiences with Feminism.
I wasn’t always particularly sympathetic to feminism. People who had the misfortune of knowing me when I was at boarding school would probably remember a younger, pudgier me that was convinced feminists were sexless (or worse, lesbian), amorphic vessels of celibacy-exacerbated hatred towards men. Fifteen-year-old me was convinced the feminists were just senselessly raging against the status quo; using the excuse of historical inequality to justify the establishment of a whole new gendered inequality where a man couldn’t be a man and should apologise every day for his penis.
Little Jonno – the Piers Ackerman admiring, Pauline Hanson sympathetic…
Wait, Pauline Hanson sympathetic?
Oh, you bet. In my warped little mind, as much as I disagreed with her dumbed-down approach, I thought she spoke to issues that concerned the fabled ‘Real Australia’ – there were too many Asians, industries should be nationalised and protected, foreign investment barred and the left were just cultural Marxists using ‘progress’ to drive a return to socialism. How warped was I? I believed in cracking down on welfare and dole-bludgers despite my parents being on a Disability Support Pension. I celebrated Howard’s budget surpluses like Joey Johns had just put Darren Albert over to win the game with seven seconds to go in the 1997 Grand Final.
The lesson? Don’t let teenage boys have a Daily Telegraph subscription; it is like intellectual pornography – immediately gratifying yet eventually it cacoons the reader by creating a bubble of distorted reality that is as mentally atrophic as it is socially irresponsible.
But I digress.
In this right-wing nationalist phase of my life, I was convinced that feminism was nothing more than a religious and irrational hatred of men, seeking to engineer a dystopian society of sexless, amorphic, genderless blobs. Fuck – they would probably tell us to stop eating meat and ban beer too!
So, why am I writing this on International Women’s Day? What does a malcontent 15 year old boy whose understanding of sexuality and gender mostly came from yelling “show us your tits” from the obscurity of the school bus on the way back from rugby on a Friday night have to teach us about feminism? Welcome to the reflections on my conversion.
Much like my shift from the right to the (centre) left, my shift towards feminism was sparked by confronting incontrovertible truths that challenged my beliefs to their very core. People often speak of conversion; religious, philosophical, or otherwise, as though it is engrained with some sort of mysticism. Yet, at a personal level, every conversion is inherently rational – you change your position because you become aware of a reason, be it argument, fact or circumstance, which makes your previous position untenable.
Ironically, my conversion to feminism had its genesis in the very woman who I believed symbolised everything wrong with the Daily Telegraph’s portrayal of feminism in the first place – Germaine Greer. She was ‘the bitch’ – the deliberately provocative queen of outrage; the academic expatriate throwing insults and bile from the relative comfort of her academic life at Cambridge. People underestimate the vitriol that was directed at Germaine Greer during the mid-2000s; not only was she the leviathan of 2nd generation feminism (the importance of which depended on your perspective), she disrespected Australian institutions and popular culture, she even levelled criticism at Steve Irwin following his death. She became the figurehead of an understanding of feminism whereby our manhood and cultural practices were to be taken as reparations for a historical inequality we played no part in. Much like opposition to the Apology in 2007, most of us felt we should not have to apologise for something we had no part in. The fact that no one was actually asking us to apologise was irrelevant – this was the narrative which some of us had created and imposed upon feminism.
So, in Year 10, when given the opportunity to do a research assignment on a ‘famous Australian’ for my history class, I chose Germaine Greer. The plan was to execute a withering evisceration on the “bitch”; expose her narrowminded and spiteful ‘feminism’ for what it really was – hypocritical and inspired by a misandry which exceeded the exaggerated so-called misogyny she was railing against in the first place. I was an equalist, and we had equality – because that is how I saw it.
If only it were that simple.
To defeat an argument, you have to understand what it is you are arguing against. Think of a naval battle – you are the captain and the ship’s weapons are your arguments. It is not a battle if you don’t understand your opposition’s position sufficiently to get your ship within firing range; your arguments sail wide of the mark and never inflict any damage on the target.
One of the curious features about our generation is that we often forget the importance of actually understanding the thing you are debating against. Our convictions or beliefs are a rational product of we perceive and understand – therefore the weakness in any argument is what the person has failed to perceive and understand. The whole Sun Zhu thing of knowing your enemy pretty much encompasses it.
So I started researching Germane Greer to find the weakness in her argument; the rational defect which could be exploited to crumble the entire philosophical edifice of feminism and reveal the hideous creature behind it. Somewhat ambitious for a 15-year-old? Like I said, I was Daily Telegraph reader – to me the whole world seemed incontrovertibly simple and its problems a product of inept bureaucracy and people like feminist-do-gooders rather than anything with a depth of complexity. What followed challenged my assumptions of the world and set in process a different course of evolution for me as a person.
Intoxicated and propelled by the elixir of teenage immaturity, my first assumption was that she must hate sex. Second? That the source of this hatred was a man who had jilted her. “How could she be so angry? It must have been a man”. If you want to see how the patriarchy socially influences how we think, look no further than a fifteen-year-old boy believing that an Cambridge-educated woman found feminism through her personal antipathy towards a particular (mystery) man. In essence, that Germaine Greer was mistakenly attributing the acts of one male to an entire gender.
2006 me, ladies and gentlemen – a boy on a tirade backed by nothing but assumption, gumption, and a distinct lack of knowledge about what he was arguing against.
The first problem was that it didn’t take much research to reveal that Germaine Greer and her ilk, second wave feminists, were concerned with sexual liberation as a form of overcoming the informal inequalities that women still confronted. The idea was not that women should not have sex and men should lose their penises, but rather empowering women to have sex on their terms and define their own sexuality. Feminism, in part, meant liberating women from the historical prisons of social and cultural expectation of what ‘normal’ behaviour is, because it had been constructed through the historical dominance of men.
When you think about it, it really isn’t that threatening of an idea in 2017 – women should be more than just vassels for reproduction and male gratification. Astoundingly, sex is often significantly better if your partner is actually enjoying herself. The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer’s opus magnus (and satanic bible equivalent for anti-feminists, whether they call themselves that or ‘equalists’), was concerned with exactly that – empowering women to take charge of their sexual destiny and emancipate themselves from the historical shackles which had essentially turned them into eunuchs whose only sexual identity was that defined and determined by their male partners.
As you can imagine, this was a profound realisation for a teenage male. Suddenly the feminist issue became significantly more clouded, and my self-assumed victimhood of reverse discrimination was much less certain. It didn’t change my view of feminism overnight, but it dimmed the lights sufficiently for me to see the shades of grey.
If Germaine Greer was the crack in the dam wall of my beliefs, John Stuart Mill’s On the Subjection of Women and feminist legal writers like Catherine MacKinnon and Ann Scales provided the historical and philosophical water pressure which tore it down. Mill argued that the biological capacity of men to physically dominate and overpower women inherently created a submissive history between man and woman. A perverse symbiotic relationship developed whereby women could be protected from other men, whilst tending to the male domestically and reproducing. Wrong or right, what this created is certain socialised expectations about what behaviours and roles each gender were to play. This relationship, and the behavioural norms which evolved from it, are what feminists call ‘the patriarchy’.
Ann Scales developed this point further by tracing the cultural lineage of patriarchal thought in western society and the influence this biological dominance has had on our underlying philosophical beliefs. What you begin to see, Scales would argue, is a recurring pattern of devaluing the role and equality of women and the favouring of males and their interests. If the Athenian Golden Age gave us the foundation of modern Western thought and inspired the development of reason and liberty, then the very fact that Plato and Aristotle valued women as only ‘partial men’ is indicative of the unequal role women have been given in determining our culture and beliefs.
How is this relevant to today, though? Aristotle was dead two and a half millenniums ago.
Whilst Scales wrote about how male biological dominance has influenced and directed our philosophical development and beliefs, Catherine Mackinnon was more concerned with the consequence of this – namely, the fact that what is ‘objective’ is not what it seems. Rather, in this context, it has been distorted by a history of male dominance so that we are now judging what is equality by an entirely masculine set of values.
So feminists are trying to destroy our value systems?
No – the point is that what we perceive to be equal is really halfway on a tilted board because males and females have not had an equal say on how our values and beliefs should be defined. When you say that you don’t see why women need a day or that women aren’t disadvantaged, quite often that is a product of the fact that the standards by which you are making that observation are not reflective of reality. When so many women are saying ‘hey, this is bullshit’, we need to start listening to why, because our understanding of what is fair and equal is distorted by a history where women have been treated like cattle, albeit with the caveat of providing a vassal for our own gratification.
Women have the right to vote and to work – why haven’t the underlying values changed?
This is an interesting question, the resolution of which owes a lot to Foucault and his detailed portrayal of how power operates to control the behaviour of individuals in society. Whereas people like Machiavelli were concerned with how power enables a person to control the actions of another (‘don’t do this, do that, pay me tax’), Foucault argued that power could also be far more nuanced and subconscious. In essence, our historically inherited value systems and beliefs engrain themselves in social institutions to create ‘norms’ of behaviour. Individuals by and large adhere to these norms because they are subconsciously aware that departing from these would expose them to being ostracised. What does this mean? It means that there is a subconscious undercurrent of beliefs which permeate society which influences how we think, act and react.
The consequence of this for women, and the concern of feminism, is that women are socialised to adhere to outdated norms which perpetuate inequality. The classic example is the social pressure women still feel to get married and have children – they could be a cardiovascular surgeon and successful athlete who has made the conscious decision to not have children, yet there will often remain a subconscious feeling that this amounts to a failure. It is a small example of a much wider problem, but typical of the ones I see a number of my female friends struggle with every day.
Similarly, the concept of the ‘glass ceiling’. For all the formal protections against discrimination which have been enacted, women are stilling woefully underrepresented in the top echelons of politics and business. Now, there is an argument to be made that women choose to value certain things over career progression, and this results in the distorted representation of women in these positions. The question remains, however, knowing what we do about how our history has influenced and constructed what we consider to be equality, whether or not entrenched values remain the problem.
A number of feminists have gone as far to argue that women who have ‘broken through’ the glass ceiling have done so by adopting more masculine values, and mimicking men rather than by being accepted for their own identity. This in itself creates a difficult question about the appropriateness of women criticising how other women empower themselves. Nevertheless, the fact remains that women remain underrepresented at the top of almost everything, and it is certainly appropriate that we question why.
Ultimately, the problem is that once you understand the history of male dominance, then you are left with the necessary conclusion that there is no arbitrary line where women became actually equal to men. If this is the case and you still believe that equality has been attained, then when are you confident that events gave rise to this? Equality as a concept is more than just giving voting rights, or allowing women to be doctors – these are steps to equality. The bigger point modern feminism is concerned with is overcoming how the lingering subconscious social norms can be overcome so as to liberate women and define a new equality which is based on masculine and feminine values.
To the women, I say enjoy your day and keep fighting the fight – there are solid philosophical and historical reasons to justify your outrage. I hope my own story helps in some way.
To the men who might be somewhat sceptical of this whole inequality thing – well done for getting this far, even if you don’t agree with me, getting four pages through something you don’t like suggests that there is hope for all of us. What I do hope is that the process of my conversion provides some stimulus for you to at least engage with, and remove the stigma that comes attached to feminism.