Since the 1990s, women in the West have been told we are emancipated. But the “feminism” which claims this is really only concerned about the empowerment of some women and only in the context of capitalism.
Liberal feminism’s focus is on an individual’s success within class society and its institutions and less on the fight against systemic oppression and economic inequality. By its very nature, it excludes women of colour, Black women, First Nations women, disabled women, queer women, trans people, poor women and other marginalised groups.
Its idealised version of womanhood — a supposedly “empowered” modern woman who is smiling, confident, gracious, (usually) white and cis-gendered — is disseminated across social media, advertising and the mainstream media.
This is the context in which we can begin to understand the furious response to last year's Australian of the Year Grace Tame’s decision to not smile when standing next to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on January 25.
How dare she signal that women are not happy with the system?
Tame provoked outrage because she did not behave in a way she was expected to, particularly for a successful woman in the media spotlight. By not smiling, Tame did not take up her prescribed role; she was defiant, not submissive.
Her silent, yet powerful, protest tipped conservative commentator Peter van Onselen to rant that she “was ungracious, rude and childish”, even claiming she was not being a “decent human being”.
Van Onselen is not only a vocal supporter of alleged rapist Christian Porter, he is also pursuing a defamation case, along with Porter and Andrew Lamming, against author and abuse survivor academic Gemma Carey, for a supposedly offensive tweet.
Conservative commentator Miranda Devine labelled Tame a “graceless sourpuss”. Parnell Palme McGuinness described Tame’s action as “childish disobedience”, accusing her of “squandering” the year on “political sniping”. “Personal antipathy is hardly a revolution,” she sniped in her January 25 column for Fairfax.
Pru Goward, a bastion of bourgeois feminism, jumped at the opportunity to attack Tame for supposedly not passing on the feminism baton. She also defended Morrison who, she claims, is a “well-meaning and blindsided prime minister”.
Why should a survivor of rape, whose advocacy has drawn attention to the systemic, pervasive and institutional nature of sexual abuse, smile when standing next to a PM who has paid lip-service to supporting women and survivors of sexual assault but taken no real action?
It was Morrison’s decision to not adopt all the recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s report into sexual harassment in the workplace. Morrison continued to support Porter in the role as attorney-general, until he became a political liability having refused to disclose who was funding his court case. Morrison would have had a hand in the decision that an independent body, set up to investigate sexual assault in parliament, would not look into Bittany Higgins’ rape complaint.
These are all good reasons for Tame to not smile while standing next to the PM. But there are plenty more, including that his government abolished the Family Court (merging it with the Federal Circuit Court) and that he thinks it is a “triumph of democracy” that the tens of thousands of women who joined the March4Justice protests last March were not “met with bullets”.
Tame has, of course, also received masses of support for her silent protest. There is a greater understanding that structural change is needed to tackle misogyny and sexism.
The fuss made by conservatives about Tame not smiling was aimed at undercutting her advocacy for survivors and undermining her eloquent critiques of the PM’s failure to address violence against women.
Tame tweeted on February 2 that: “The survival of abuse culture is dependent on submissive smiles and self-defeating surrenders. It is dependent on hypocrisy. My past is only relevant to the extent that I have seen — in fact I have worn — the consequences of civility for the sake of civility.”
Civility for the sake of civility is what keeps up the façade. But cracks are starting to appear, including from The Project’s presenters who challenged van Onselen, their own network’s smug political editor, over his attack on Tame.
Daily, the news reports sexual assaults on women and, of course, so many go unreported. Rio Tinto is the latest corporation to admit harassment and racism is rife across its operations, following an external review.
If the furore around Tame’s protest is anything to go by, women and our allies have a lot of work to do. March4Justice has called another national mobilisation for February 27. We need this to be massive, and one that wipes the smirk off Morrison’s face.
[Markela Panegyres is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]