Every now and again we need to remember what feminism’s already achieved, as well as a wake-up call regarding how much work there’s still to do.
We also need reminding that progress on gender equality can quickly go backwards.
Senator Penny Wong managed to do all three on Friday.
Speaking at the 14th Annual Jessie Street Luncheon at Parliament House in Sydney, she said that while the lives of women today have been immeasurably improved, it’s too early to close the shop on feminism.
Indeed, she believes future generations of women are depending on our relationship with the word.
And yet many women – and still too many men – still struggle with it. Wong noted that some see feminism as “extreme”, but really it’s a mainstream movement that has transformed our society and culture for the better.
Taking a swipe at the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash – who recently refused to label herself a “feminist”, saying it’s a word for a “set of ideologies from many, many decades ago” – Wong outlined why walking away from the term belittles the achievements of the past, and accepts inequalities that still occur today.
Noting the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘feminism’ is actually pretty concise, Wong said there’s little complexity to the fundamental definition of what a feminist is – it’s someone who supports gender equality.
At its core it’s not that difficult to explain. And with a definition that simple, one wonders how some women could not call themselves a feminist.
Still, we see plenty of examples of people who’ve benefitted from the core principles of feminism attempting to distance themselves from the word, or to believe it’s a ‘thing’ that’s been done and should be relegated to the history books. There are some who believe being labelled a ‘feminist’ will cast them as extreme, as senator Cash appears to have demonstrated, and as plenty of others do continually by qualifying statements of their own experiences of inequality with lines like, “I’m not a feminist but…”
This is despite the fact there are plenty of stats to outline the work that remains to be done on gender equality and why feminism is still necessary today.
In her speech, Wong pointed to the gender pay gap that still sees women working full-time earning an average 17.1% less than men working full-time, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
She then moved on to company directors, noting that just 18% of directors on the ASX 200 are female and 40 ASX 200 companies still do have a single woman on their boards.
And she lamented the fact women still only account for a third of federal, state and territory MPs, even though it’s been 92 years since Edith Cowan entered the WA Parliament. Since the election of the Abbott government, the proportion of women’s representation at the senior end of politics has actually gone backwards – with six women in Abbott’s 42-member Ministry and one woman in Cabinet, compared to the Rudd government’s 13 women in the Ministry and six in Cabinet.
Some of the leading feminists of the past would surely be shocked to learn Australia has less women represented in its federal cabinet than countries like Afghanistan and Zimbabwe. And they’d certainly be disappointed to hear that on some measures of female representation in power we’ve actually gone backwards.
If we believe feminism is done and dusted then we open future generations of women to the possibility of living in an even less equal society than the one we’re living in today. And if we fear being branded as ‘extreme’ due to a belief in gender equality, then we essentially accept assumptions made about what women can and should do, as well as the lopsided power structures of our institutions, the prevalence of violence and discrimination against women, and continued economic disadvantage for one half of the population.
There are no guarantees when it comes to gender equality. We are far from reaching a tipping point where women hold enough positions of power and sway in order to ensure any progress made continues into the future.
It’s the individuals who don’t believe in feminism at its core — that both genders are equal — who should be branded as ‘extreme’. They’re fighting to retain something that really should exist only in the history books.