I got my period early but with feminism I was a late bloomer.
Let me make the case for the slow dawning, the experiential, incremental creep towards the bright, blinding realisation that there is no other way to be.
I grew up in a family of strong, outspoken, smart women. My aunts to uncles ratio was 7:1. In my primary school the girls outshone the boys academically. In my secondary school year level, the brilliant minds were all girls. My mother worked full time in hospital administration; my father was a primary school teacher; they both worked a 1000 acres of farmland. I thought that you couldn’t get more normal. I look back though, and I can’t recall seeing my father work in the domestic sphere. And I remember suspecting that his flying lessons were an indulgence we couldn’t really afford.
My teenage years are fairly blurred by time. I had a voice and I felt listened to. But I do remember an occasion when I was about 14 sitting in our parked car and my old Grade 4 teacher, Mr E leaned in the window to chat to my dad. I remember that he made some comment to him about how I’d grown up and how he’d surely be fending off the boys with a shotgun. I remember the ickiness of his comment and how I squirmed under his gaze. I knew about feminism but in the conservative Western District of Victoria where I grew up, most -isms were regarded anywhere from deep suspicion to outright hostility (not a huge spectrum, it must be said). I rejected the term ‘feminist’ – associating it with the cartoon depictions from a copy we had of The Bumper Book of The Two Ronnies featuring big-breasted women with stars for nipples who were sexily burning bras and saying stupid things. Straight outta 1978.
With hindsight, my feminist awakening really should have happened at university.
I lived on campus in a residential college in 1996 and 1997: Queen’s College at the University of Melbourne. I arrived with my belongings packed in a suitcase rather than a red and white spotted handkerchief on a stick, but really I was only a whisker short of being Country Mouse in the Big Town. Except I was at College. And I was a Fresher.During O-week, our mornings would begin at 6am with The Offspring’s ‘Come Out and Play’ reverberating around the college quadrangle and seniors banging on our doors, using their master keys to barge in and drag people out of their beds to participate in the day’s activities. Activities like running around the other colleges, banging tin saucepans (they were on our ‘College Equipment’ list) and chanting homophobic abuse (“Trini-fags” as we ran through our rival Trinity College, for example); like when they got the boys lining up on the beach and the girls ‘racing’, crawling on our hands and knees across the sand to choose a partner whom we were then assigned to feed lunch to (we were their hands*).
College culture meant ‘naked quaddies’ where the football team would run marauding through the college, drunk beyond drunk, banging on doors, shouting obscenities. This was a place where other people could decide your name for you in those early O Week days and it would follow you for the rest of your time at college: ‘Tickets’ (as in ‘he has tickets on himself’), ‘Easy’, ‘Gruesome’ and ‘The Gimp’ for the boys and for the girls: ‘Mad Cans’, ‘Jungle Jane’ and ‘Bush Pig’ . This was a place where a ‘Talent Night’ act was two boys, each naked but for a strategically placed sock, standing before a black bin ‘shotgunning’ cans of beer until one of them vomited. This was a place where you got drunk at every opportunity and down at the pub you might see people ‘getting their cans out’ – dancing topless on the tables – or ‘arc-ing up’ – where boys would set their pubes on fire (a trend set by the ominously named ‘Brown Dog’). But it was not without quirkiness and whimsy. This was also a place where the quaintly named Bentley Stills VII – a venerable white goat – would graze in the quadrangle while we were at uni or in the pub, but his rank was a chilling reminder of past Bentley Stills who had met their untimely ends at the hands of our rival college pranksters.I look back now in wide-eyed wonder at my wide-eyed, dazedandconfused 17-year old self. Did I look upon these things with horror or disgust or dismay? I must confess, I don’t think so. Did I speak up publicly and question their value? Definitely not. I certainly had a deep sense of unease but the thoughts and feelings were ill-formed – a haze in the newness, the unexpectedness of it all. I might have kept these ideas to myself because, quite frankly, when you’re trying to fit in with a bunch of strangers in socially high stakes activities, it’s a risk to trust anyone with your true thoughts and feelings. The pressure to accept and be accepted was immense; I stuck with the herd in the early days at least. I couldn’t initially tell who my people were because at that stage we were all about blending in with the crowd. I remember feeling utterly disoriented during O Week.
So even after my college days, the idea of feminism was not much more to me than a way of viewing literature or history (I completed a Bachelor of Arts, after all). I rejected the label of feminist, back in the 90’s. I just wasn’t into labels, ok? It hadn’t dawned on me, yet, that feminism was a way of not just seeing the world but of being in the world.
Fast forward through my 20’s (good times living in London, believe me). The narrative of my professional career does not involve any complaints of overt discrimination or sexism despite working in male dominated environments – all boys schools. In fact, it does not involve any real complaints at all, save for the moaning my British school teacher friends did (they embraced this national pastime with good humour). The narrative of my personal life included dancing, house parties, pubs and clubs, travelling through Europe and staying up talking until the wee small hours. Sure, my friends and I were all groped from time to time when we went out, fended off drunk and inappropriate men from time to time. It seemed to be part and parcel of the deal when you Go Out. Eventually I returned to Melbourne, having convinced a lovely (and not at all moany) Englishman to join me. We bought a house together and we had a daughter.
Stop right there.
And suddenly I am catapulted into a super important role of helping a little human grow up in the world and suddenly I see issues everywhere. I have to ask myself the question: what kind of world do I want for my daughter? What kind of world is she observing? And as she grows up that another question: how do I explain this [insert various inequalities and injustices] to my daughter?
Suddenly all that was hazy or unclear about the difficulties growing up to be a woman in a world that is still organised around male-dominated systems of power, all this is shown to me in sharp relief. Without consciously counting, it is as if I have tallied up all those little life experiences and observations of men and despite all the wonderful good stuff there is still: the lewd behaviour, the unwanted advances, the unsolicited attention, voices getting shouted down or dismissed, the differences in expectations, treatment, financial remuneration, division of labour and so on. And then there’s the way society helps us to consciously or otherwise construct ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’ as binaries. My daughter will get the focus and feedback on her appearance: weight, beauty, fashion. All those pink things. Pretty things. This is a world which cannot guarantee my daughter will be free of discrimination and harassment, where her path in life is not so much the road less taken, but the road that is poorly made, full of potholes and danger, and it doesn’t go as far but it will still make all the difference. I fear that a man might harm her (such a terrible gender bias to have to have – and I only know good men). I think that opportunities for her will be limited on account of her gender. And I wonder if my daughter will inherit habits and ways of thinking that limit rather than enable her potential.
I came late to feminism. In some ways that makes me complicit in the sluggishness of our progress. I am now seeing the world and its inequalities as it unfolds to my two daughters. Now I have clarity. I can only say that everything matters. I will sweat the small stuff. I will sweat the big stuff too. My daughters might have an easier time of it if I do.