I Am A Feminist

While there is a woman whose life is limited by her gender, feminism remains necessary.

By Jane Caro
Illustrations by Stellar Leuna

Feminism is a philosophy that fights for the equal rights of one half of the human race. It does not want greater rights but it will not accept lesser rights. While there is a woman whose life is limited by her gender, feminism remains necessary.

Feminism can’t fix everything, but that is no reason to reject it. I have yet to come across a philosophy or movement created by human beings that is the perfect solution to absolutely everything. Indeed, those people who feel they have found such a thing are the people who most terrify me. I remain much more comfortable with uncertainty than its inexorable opposite. Women are no more perfect than men, and their progress will not cure everything or even all that much, but that is also no reason to deny them their rights.

Because feminism fights to remove inequality between men and women its successes help to make the world in general a little bit more equal. Because women are part of every other group who are also discriminated against — the poor, the non-white, the non-straight, those with a disability and those from minority religions, for example — any increase in women’s rights also helps the other groups they belong to.

I have never been a purist. I regard the world as far too murky and complex for that. I do not anticipate a moment when the powerful and the privileged will collectively slap themselves on the forehead, realise their selfishness and begin to willingly share their advantages. However, lining the privileged up against a wall and shooting them has been tried many times before and has also never turned out well. Because I cannot have everything I want, all at once, does not mean that I will stop doing what I can to improve things. I am grateful for every small step in the right direction, wherever it happens. When equality increases life gets better. And equality, frankly, cannot grow in any meaningful way if we leave women out of it, and history and bitter personal experience shows that men — even men of goodwill — tend to leave us out unless we remind them.

In countries where there is more equality, including between men and women, and where there are more women in positions of power and influence, violence falls. Not just violence against women either, but violence in general. The American philanthropist and feminist Abigail Disney says that wherever she goes, including in the poorest and most chaotic countries in the world, when she asks women what they most need to help them improve their lot they tell her they want more women in positions of power. That is one of the things that feminism has always fought for.

Moreover, when women gain power and influence, the things women traditionally care about gain prominence too. Does anyone seriously imagine that child sex abuse would have been exposed in the way it has been without the voices of women — women who, whether they identify as feminists or not, have gained confidence in their own voice through watching and hearing other women raise theirs? Do we think the behaviour of Jimmy Saville, Robert Hughes, Rolf Harris and (allegedly) Bill Cosby would have come to light without the passing on of courage that feminism — at its best — provides? Those men never dreamt that the women and children they used as objects would one day find their voice. They were able to live comfortably because of their assumption that their celebrity, power and gender protected them. There must be a whole lot of prominent blokes lying awake at night these days in a cold sweat wondering when their victims will find the courage to speak up.

And contrary to the accusations of many, it is not just relatively privileged western women who have found their voice. The women of India have made their voices heard loud and clear over the horrendous rapes in that country. There is nothing new about the brutal rape of women, what is new is the refusal of women to stay silent about them.

It is easy to dismiss the glamorous and commercialised feminism of a Beyoncé as trivial and opportunistic. It is also easy to dismiss the (surprisingly) tentative feminism of an Emma Watson as that of a privileged white fashionista. But if feminism is to go from marginal to mainstream, it will make its presence felt in all sorts of arenas, and I refuse to get involved in judging good feminism and bad feminism. Any refusal to defer, any statement of solidarity, any voice raised in support of equality for women will be applauded by me. It matters that Taylor Swift, on Grahame Norton’s TV couch, fixed John Cleese with a flinty eye after he said, “I much prefer cats. They’re unpredictable and cussed, like women,” and then shut him down with a simple, “We don’t want to do that”. The lazy little assumptions that used to pass as ‘jokes’ but reminded women constantly not only of their lesser status but of the fact that they were not liked undermined us all on a daily basis. Frankly, it is wonderful for this old feminist to watch young women publicly refuse to take that shit.

Inequality does not exist in a vacuum. To survive it must be continually policed and re-enforced by the powerful so that they can maintain their advantage. Throughout millennia women have been held down by shame and fear. When lone women spoke up they were routinely demonized, ridiculed and sneered at. This was deliberate; it was a warning by men to women that if they tried to get above their station they would suffer for it. This still happens, as we saw with Julia Gillard, but now the men who behave in this way are in their turn ridiculed and their lazy assumptions ruthlessly revealed, as we saw with John Cleese. This has happened because feminists have doggedly kept challenging the inequalities they experienced. Sometimes their voices have been marginalized, but ever since Mary Wollstonecraft first spoke up about the rights of woman they have never entirely fallen silent. Now, thanks to the unmediated access to the public conversation that social media has given to women, their collective voices have never been louder.

Every woman and man who speaks up on behalf of women, who calls out prejudice and discrimination when they see it, whether they are in a village in Rwanda, on the streets of Calcutta, hosting the Golden Globes, in a business meeting or on social media makes a difference. Bit by bit, word by word, they reduce inequality — not just for women, but for all the marginalized, dismissed and exploited.

Jane Caro is a renowned journalist, broadcaster and author. She has appeared on ABC television’s Q&A, as a regular panelist on The Gruen Transfer, and at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. Jane has worked in the advertising industry and lectured in advertising at the School of Humanities and Communication Arts at the University of Western Sydney.

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