Thoughts of a twenty-something feminist


Talking Up: Young Women's Take On Feminism
Edited by Rosamund Else-Mitchell
and Naomi Flutter
Spinifex Press
1998, 239 pp.

By Zanny Begg

Talking up: Young Women's Take on Feminism is a collection of essays by young Australian feminists. It was produced to answer Anne Summers' now infamous 1995 challenge to young feminists to seize control of the feminist debate and "tweak the noses" of the "old guard".

It was also written in the aftermath of the controversy unleashed by Helen Garner's book The First Stone, during which she claimed that young feminists were "punitive cold-faced girls", with a "mingy, whining, cringing terror of sex".

Talking Up promises to reveal what "drives young women mad". It crosses the so-called generation gap in feminism by giving voice to 20 feminists (ranging from 17 to 33 years old) who explain their take on "living feminism" in the late '90s.

Summers responded to the book by declaring that feminism is now "safely in the custody of the next generation and it is in good hands too". But is praise from Summers something for a feminist to brag about?

Summers distinguished herself, while head of the Office for the Status of Women, as a femocrat extraordinaire. She put the gloss on the ALP electoral campaigns during the early 1990s. The 1993 pre-election polls revealed that Labor leader Paul Keating's support amongst women lagged the Liberals' John Hewson by 6%. Summers jumped in with a carefully targeted set of low cost, high profile policies aimed at buying female voters. The result was that Labor won, for the first time with more than 50% of women's vote.

Summers, who had broken through the glass ceiling and established herself as a successful, well-paid feminist, turned on the younger generation of feminists left standing among the shards of glass below and declared they were "strangely inarticulate". Talking Up aims to give them a chance to respond, but the result is a missed opportunity.

With only a few exceptions, the book presents a feminism that is about individual women empowering themselves, without a collective struggle against the sexist system. Summers would applaud the contribution by Senator Kate Lundy, who discovered feminism at an ALP branch meeting and exclaims, "[The] ALP seems to satisfy everything I was looking for in political representation".

The conservatism of these feminists is a little deflating. Louisa Smith trots out the old cliché that she shied "away from the word feminism, in fear of being labelled lesbian, aggressive or outdated".

Anita Harris proposes that women reclaim "women-made virginity" as a path to equality. This virginity is defined not by women whose "vagina was untouched by any penis" but by women who are sexually their "own person". Individual women are encouraged to overturn society's sexism by being "really there" when they have sex with men.

Misha Schubert, Suzette Mitchell and others speak from the establishment's feminist organisations, the Women's Electoral Lobby, Young Women's Christian Association and the Australian Council for Women.

There are moments when Talking Up manages to be funny. Emily Ballou explains rather mysteriously that she was 23 when she "first masturbated and realised what the word Communism really meant" (lending new meaning, perhaps, to the phrase the coming revolution). But overall, the feminists represented in Talking Up do not so much answer as echo the feminism of Summers and her ilk.

Although these twenty-something women come from a different generation, they fundamentally share Summers' politics — which is probably why she said feminism was in "good hands". What Talking Up reveals is that the feminist "generation gap" is a myth. The dispute is less to do with age than with politics.

There is no doubt that there has been a concerted backlash against the women's liberation movement in the establishment media. But there has also been a backlash from within feminist circles against the militant traditions of the women's liberation movement. This has taken many forms — postmodernism, do-it-yourself feminism, post-feminism — but their common thread is a retreat from mass struggle against the system.

What feminists like Summers have in common with "generation f" feminists is the notion that women can individually overcome sexism.

They both fail to grapple with the question of class. Whilst a few privileged women may be able to "make it", the vast bulk of women, locked into low-paying jobs, struggling on the sole parent's pension, working a double shift at work and home, cannot. And while sexism is used to hold down the majority of women, it rebounds on all women (even those at the top suffer from sexual harassment, violence, rape, anti-abortion laws and so on), so none of us can claim to be liberated.

It is dangerously defeatist (for the majority) and elitist (for a few) to think that individuals can just skip over the crushing weight of society's sexism on their own path to liberation. Women still do 67.2% of all work in the world but earn only 9.4% of the income, one in four women in Australia will be sexually assaulted by the time they are 18, 79% of marital homicide victims are women, and 70% of lesbians have been verbally abused, threatened or bashed in public.

Changing this will require a collective struggle against the root cause of sexism — the capitalist system, which is built on women's unpaid labour in the home.

As a twenty-something feminist, the women I know who are organising rallies and actions, at the pickets, strikes and walkouts, and are still angry and fighting for liberation were largely absent from this book's version of feminism. Luckily for the struggle for women's rights, these feminists are at the heart of the fight against the system.