and ain't i a woman?: It's not a joke

May 7, 1997

and ain't i a woman?

It's not a joke

It's not a joke

The other night at dinner my mother was telling us about when she first came to Australia from India in the early '70s. She used to wear an ankle-length sari to her job in a doctor's surgery every day. One day she decided to enter a walkathon and she went around her office getting people to sponsor her.

The doctor teasingly said, "Well, I haven't seen your legs yet. I'll have to see your legs before I can sponsor you." When my mother told us this story, I made some comment about what a lecher the doctor was. My cousin, who was also listening to the story, said, "God, you can't even enjoy a joke any more. Sometimes I think that feminism has completely taken away our sense of humour."

This type of argument — that feminists are so politically correct that they can't enjoy a joke and that they want to wipe out all eroticism between men and women as sexual harassment — was bandied around by the media during the Helen Garner debate last year.

The media can always be counted on to find new ways of regurgitating this backlash against women's rights. In last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald, Bettina Arndt wrote a full page article about the Canberra doctor charged for molestation — how he has suffered enough by losing his practice and by his wife's ill health, and should not be pursued any further.

The major point of the article was the same as Helen Garner's: with all their man-hating rhetoric, feminists won't allow playful sexual banter between men and women, and they can't find it in their hearts to forgive a poor doctor who feels very sorry for what he has done.

These backlash arguments do find resonance in a sentiment among some progressive people that radical feminism of the Andrea Dworkin/Catherine Mackinnon breed, which argues that all heterosexual intercourse is rape, has gone a bit far. But by projecting this particular feminism as feminism in general, the media attempt to discredit those of us in the majority, who argue that rape is rape, sexual harassment is sexual harassment and erotica or enjoyable sex is something totally different.

What Garner's arguments ignored and what Arndt also omits is that sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum: there are power relationships between the people involved. My mother was not being teased by a friend about her legs; she was being harassed by her employer, who holds a very specific power relation over her as the person who pays her salary. Similarly the patients in Bettina Arndt's case are in a very vulnerable position before this doctor.

It is hardly the case that due women now have the upper hand and are falsely accusing helpless doctors and bosses. There are still large number of rapes that go unreported, still widespread harassment of women in the workplace and by people in positions of power. Articles like Arndt's can only convince women that they should be silent about sexual harassment. It's the role of the women's movement to fight against this backlash.

By Sujatha Fernandes

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