... and ain't i a woman?: Putting politics back into the movement

March 12, 1991

... and ain't i a woman?: Putting politics back into the movement

Laura Budd, women's officer at the University of Technology Sydney, and Eva Cox, a feminist activist for over 20 years, put their views on feminism to a well-attended Politics in the Pub discussion sponsored by the Sydney International Women's Day collective on March 1.

A strong theme in Laura's talk was how difficult it is for many young women to acknowledge themselves as feminists. While they may agree on the issues, she said, many of them switch off as soon as they hear the word.

Feminism is seen as something threatening. Because it "talks about the most negative things women experience, it can make them feel like victims". One of the challenges for the movement, she said, was to reclaim the term as something that "means strength, choice and empowerment".

A challenge for the '90s, in Laura's view, is to take feminism into the schools so that young women grow up with an understanding of the sexist nature of society.

Eva spoke of the high expectations of the '70s and the more pessimistic '90s. "Over the last 10 years", she said, "I have been winding back my expectations".

Many of the victories won over the last 20 years — gains such as anti-discrimination legislation — were easy compared with what still has to be won. While we have legal remedies for sufferers of discrimination, it is still very difficult to use them. EEO legislation is "not changing the system". Women who succeed in the system are those who don't challenge it.

It is time, she said for women to demand a say in all areas and structures of society. We need to "talk about everything from a feminist perspective".

In the '70s, there was "more sense of working together politically". It is still important to assume that problems are social and not individual — in sharp contrast to some of the ideas of the French feminists, with their emphasis on the individual and difference. Eva said she had recently shocked some women by suggesting a strong relationship between the "new French philosophy and the new right".

While flawed by an attempt to write off Marxism with a couple of flippant and out-of-date remarks about what she chose to call the "male left", Eva's presentation was a welcome challenge to repoliticise the movement.

There is no point pretending we will all agree or that we all like each other, but the women's movement has to "look for our common interests and concerns and fight around those".

"We have to stop being feminine about power and leadership. We don't have to accept male definitions of these things, but unless we start taking the lead, we will continue to be walked on."

By Sally Low

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