How Michelle Payne's Melbourne Cup win highlights the difference between 'liberation' and 'equality'

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Ruby Hamad

In a world that consistently fails to recognise female achievement, should we celebrate every victory by a woman as a win for women?

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'Get stuffed!' Melbourne Cup winning jockey makes history

First, Michelle Payne made history by becoming the first woman to ride a Melbourne Cup winner. Then she let everyone know what she was thinking.

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The first time I encountered the notion that equality may not be the ideal end goal of feminism was at the inaugural All About Women festival, when Germaine Greer told a packed audience that equality was, "Something (she'd) never advocated for."

Well, colour me confused. Isn't proving our equality -both in terms of value and ability- to men precisely why feminism exists? But two years later and these particular words of Greer's have never made more sense. Now, I too wonder what equality  should look like in a system that is as toxic and corrupt as our own.

A woman may have just beaten her male competitors at their own game, but it is still a game of cruelty and domination. 

"Equality is a fundamentally conservative aim," she said. Rather, it is liberation from a system that idolises money and power and demands women "act like men" to get ahead, that we should set our sights on.

Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Michelle Payne.

Melbourne Cup-winning jockey Michelle Payne.

It is this equality/liberation dichotomy that immediately sprang to mind when I heard about Michelle Payne's victory at yesterday's Melbourne Cup. A woman succeeding in this particular pursuit may indeed prove she is equal to the pinnacle of her male competitors, but it does very little to further the concept of liberation.

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Now, Payne may or may not consider herself a feminist. She may have never given liberation a passing thought, although her exuberant victory speech, where she took aim at the rampant chauvinism in her industry and told her sexist detractors to "get stuffed" certainly indicates belief in equality.

But, unlike those heralding the "significance" of her win, I cannot muster any excitement for either her victory or her speech because I just cannot reconcile the inherent cruelty in horse racing with feminism. I get that a woman succeeding in a traditionally male dominated arena is a Big Deal. But please, let's not forget that this particular arena works animals literally to death.

Michelle Payne riding Prince Of Penzance returns to scale after winning the Melbourne Cup.

Michelle Payne riding Prince Of Penzance returns to scale after winning the Melbourne Cup. Photo: Michael Dodge

I have made no secret of the fact that my feminism is inextricably tied to my passion for animal rights. Animals have done nothing to deserve our wrath other than have the misfortune to share a planet with us, and yet we insist on relentlessly exploiting them.

Horse-racing is a fundamentally violent activity. Whipping animals into submission, dominating them, forcing them to bend to your will, ignoring their own interests in favour of your own; the so-called sport of kings involves all this and worse.

That these are the very violent qualities, traditionally associated with masculinity, that we and the generations that came before us have worked so hard to neutralise and relegate to the dustbin of history, highlights a tough choice women have to make: in a world that consistently fails to recognise let alone reward us,  should  we celebrate every victory by a woman as a win for women?

Prince Of Penzance jockey Michelle Payne, right, with trainer Darren Weir, left, hold the winning trophies after the ...

Prince Of Penzance jockey Michelle Payne, right, with trainer Darren Weir, left, hold the winning trophies after the Melbourne Cup at Flemington on Tuesday. Photo: AP

A woman may have just beaten a bunch of men at their own game, but it is still a game of cruelty and domination. With every passing year, as the true extent of the abuse inflicted on race horses becomes known, the tide of public opinion has begun to noticeably turn against the Melbourne Cup.

Now, even the mere possibility that my fellow feminists may –however unwittingly – help to turn the tide back is unbearable. Do not for a second think that the racing industry will not exploit this victory in an attempt to repair its rapidly deteriorating image.

Some women are saying their feelings are conflicted, that they want to celebrate Payne's achievement while simultaneously disavowing the race itself.

I don't see the conflict. If we celebrate every victory by a woman in every male dominated field then all we will end up with is a world exactly as cruel and unjust as this one, but with the violence and oppression enacted equally by men and women.

I have little interest in mending this broken system, of merely making it more "equal." I want to shake it up, bring it down, and build a better one in its place. One in which we reject violence in all its forms, where we don't dominate and exploit just because we can.

I want liberation.

Yes, there is something deliciously thrilling about a woman taking advantage of the spotlight to tell men off and proclaim that, "Women can do anything and we can beat the world."

But there is the contradiction. Perpetuating and celebrating violent spectacles like the Melbourne Cup isn't beating the world; it's joining it.

And that is the difference between equality and liberation.