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Why it's been a great year for women

Clementine Ford
Published: December 10, 2012 - 11:58PM

Like many young woman, I finished the 20th century wrapped up in the silver-tongued lies of what Susan Faludi called the "backlash" – a sustained and insidious attack on the women's liberation movement.

Despite mounting evidence that women were still languishing behind men economically, socially and politically, the party line still held that feminism was over. Any efforts to revive it were being driven by radical fringe crazies who weren't interested in equality but dominance. They wanted to castrate men and turn them into slaves. It was obvious. And I bought it, just like countless other people afraid of being isolated by a society that still demanded compliance from women, answering questions about feminism as if they were invitations to explore coprophilia. Me? A feminist? Heavens, no!

Of course, it didn't take long for me to come to my senses. By the time the millennium had rolled around, backlash still firmly in place, I was proud enough of my feminism to have enrolled in all the gender studies classes I could take. Together, my friends and I would sit around in circles to explore the ideas we'd been learning about, while dropping phrases like "structural inequality", "symbolic violence" and "patriarchal hegemony" into the conversation with more confidence than we perhaps felt. The fervour of those early days was thrilling – the sense that the curtains had been thrust open in my mind to illuminate all the things I'd previously been unable to see. It has given way now to a less volatile and (I hope) more focused approach to feminist activism. But golly, when I see women – and men – around me undergoing the same process, I get a little taste once again of how those early days felt.

And if the past year alone is anything to go by, more and more people are beginning to open their eyes. Perhaps it's the accumulated effect of seeing one too many privileged white men whose sexism is so integral to their belief system that they have no trouble trotting it out professionally – the US Republican Party candidates and their talk of "legitimate rape", "forcible rape", and how those things have a way of "shutting that whole thing down" when it comes to pregnancy; the shock jocks both here and abroad who use their highly paid radio platforms to channel hypocritical rage against women by calling them "sluts" and "fat slags" who are "destroying the joint"; the intensely patriarchal religious structures that have this year alone been responsible for the incarceration of feminist punk group Pussy Riot in the Russian penal system, the completely avoidable death of Savita Halappananvar because of Ireland's misogynist abortion laws, and the revelation that the Vatican had conducted a secret two-year surveillance of a representative group of American nuns because they were focused too much on "serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church considered great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage."

These are just a handful of examples that have, in their utter blatancy, helped to reinvigorate a much-needed interest in feminism not just in Australia but across the world. We have been steeped in conservative social governance for so long that its hubris has finally grown too large to ignore. While I doubt very much that Prime Minister Gillard's evisceration of Tony Abbott in Parliament was the instigator of so much feminist feeling, it certainly seems to have been the spark that sent the cinder keg sky high.

Something in the Prime Minister's steely determination spoke to women that day. From my own professional engagement online with young feminists, I can attest to the fact that they are rising up in huge numbers again. They're sick of being called sluts and whores, sick of being undermined by the media and sick of being shown that the world they're emerging into isn't anywhere near as equal as they've always been told. One of the most satisfying things about my job has been reading the letters I receive from young women – one after the other, they're sending me emails and Facebook messages, Tumblr posts and all the other hallmarks of the digital age, to tell me that something's been awoken within them. That the rumblings and suspicions they've had for some time but didn't trust are now being given voice around them, and in this process they're gaining the tools and language to articulate their own anger and frustration with the continued misogyny shown towards women in society.

Every age needs its own feminist voice, and more and more people are beginning to realise this. But it seems that there's perhaps never been a better time to be socially welcomed as a feminist than now. And I say that because of the simple, cynical fact that the word "feminist" is now being claimed by the kinds of people who see it as politically expedient. One of the reasons why Tony Abbott's mad-rush to lay claim to feminism rings so hollow is that it reeks of opportunism. Once upon a time – and not even all that long ago – it would have been political suicide for a politician (and a conservative Liberal at that) to align themselves with such a movement. Now, you can practically hear the chanting from Canberra. TODAY, WE ARE ALL FEMINISTS.

And this is a remarkable achievement. Because what it means is that feminism – to be a feminist and to be aligned with feminist practice – suddenly has social bankability. And that means that the people for whom feminism is central to their ideology and work have increased their social capital in ways that would have been unthought-of even a year ago. The old systems of governance, be they political or merely cultural, are making way for a new kind of power. Alan Jones, exercising his right to be a complete dildo on the radio, makes a comment about women destroying the joint and his detractors aren't laughed out of town or told to get over it – instead, they form an online group with more than 20,000 members and the sole purpose of doing exactly that: destroying the joint.

I'll be honest, as a feminist who felt I had to justify my beliefs at every turn throughout the past decade, all of this is a welcome relief. At many points, it felt like I was pushing a giant rock uphill, with only the assistance of a small group of women to help while villagers stood around throwing rotten tomatoes at us. But now, it feels like there are a lot more hands on that rock, those obstacles have flattened somewhat, and the top of the mountain has moved just a bit closer in sight. I believe that a reality in which the principles of feminism are embraced and nurtured is just around the corner. I believe that we have achieved significant things in the past year alone, and the time is ripe to have a resurgence of that faith and activity. And I think that, more than anything, people - not just feminists, but people, are just now coming round to the realisation that feminism is necessary, that women and men will both benefit from being liberated by it – and they want it to succeed.

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