and ain't i a woman?: Kick-arse feminism?

Issue 

and ain't i a woman?: Kick-arse feminism?

On October 23, 300 people attended a public meeting at Sydney's Paddington Town Hall which revealed the varied, and often confused, nature of current feminist thinking.

The panel included four speakers: Kathy Bail, author of DIY Feminism; Democrat Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja; Virginia Trioli, author of Generation F; and Dai Le, journalist with the ABC s Foreign Correspondent.

Le spoke about the meaning of feminism for women of non-English speaking background and criticised the women's movement for not being more inclusive of Asian women. She encouraged feminists to get out to Cabramatta, and places like it, and invite their "shy" Asian and other immigrant sisters to speak about their issues.

The women's movement does need to be more inclusive and aware of the differences that exist between women. But Le's remarks pandered to the stereotype of Asian women as retiring creatures unable to speak up for themselves — a self-defeatist approach. By concentrating on difference, Le failed to acknowledge the commonalities in women's struggles, irrespective of background, age or race.

Le also described the battle for equal pay as a "western feminist issue". The implications of the current federal industrial relations bill, which attacks the most powerless in the work force — NESB migrant women — and is only the latest in a series of assaults on the wages and working conditions of women by Liberal and Labor governments, was completely overlooked.

In fact, the problem with most of the speakers at this meeting was the focus on what individual feminists had achieved or not achieved in challenging sexist stereotypes.

Stott Despoja just talked about the increasing role of women in parliament, and Bail spoke of women exploring new forms of media as a tool for redefining feminism, arguing that "there had been too much emphasis on organised feminism in the past". She said her book is an attempt to break down the idea of feminism as inflexible and instead promotes "kick-arse feminism". As an editor of Rolling Stone magazine, Bail said she came into contact with many young women musicians who were "challenging the stereotypes of women portrayed in the media" by being in rock bands and having their bodies pierced.

Trioli rightly described these as difficult times — when the likes of Pauline Hanson can make blatantly racist remarks and those who oppose them are dismissed as "politically correct". She said that this atmosphere makes it a difficult time to call oneself a feminist, adding that, while there is no lack of "fight" amongst younger feminists today, the absence of a visible women's movement was a result of a move to more feminist "quiet achievers".

There is no doubt that at the moment, with women's right under such concerted attack, it is more difficult for feminists, as individuals, to get a hearing. But what this highlights is the absolute importance of women working together, uniting even in their differences, to beat back the attacks.

The fact that many women know this, and reject the exclusivity, elitism and (for most women) hopelessness of the individualistic approach of most of the speakers at this meeting, was clear when one speaker from the audience who stressed the systemic nature of women's oppression and argued the need for a united women's movement to fight for all women got a standing ovation.

There are many hard fights facing women in the '90s and there is an urgent need for some kick-arse feminism. But, the kick delivered by a well-organised and mobilised movement of feminists is far greater and more effective than the effort of even the strongest of individual women acting alone.

By Tuntuni Bhattacharyya