Senator Penny Wong Leader of the Opposition in the Senate in Parliament House Canberra on 27 February 2014. Photo: Andrew Meares
The Oxford English Dictionary may comprise 20 volumes, yet its definition of feminism is commendably concise – advocacy of the rights of women based on the theory of equality of the sexes.
A feminist is simply someone who supports gender equality.
It’s someone like Muriel Matters a South Australian actor who went to England, joined the Women’s Freedom League and campaigned for votes for women.
Governor General Quentin Bryce. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer
In 1908, she chained herself to an iron grille in the ladies’ gallery of the House of Commons, a piece of iron work that obscured women’s view of Parliamentary debates.
She was sent to prison for a month.
Or someone like Edith Cowan, the woman whose likeness is on our $50 notes, was elected to the Western Australian Legislative Assembly in 1921, the first woman member of an Australian Parliament.
One-woman cabinet: PM Tony Abbott has announced he will take personal responsibility for women's issues. Photo: Andrew Meares
Cowan campaigned on issues ranging from cutting the price of pram tickets on suburban trains, to introducing sex education in schools, to allowing women to enter the law and other professions.
A feminist is someone like Beatrice Faust, who helped found the Women’s Electoral Lobby, or Eva Cox, or Carmen Lawrence, or Jocelynne Scutt, or Quentin Bryce.
It’s someone like Gail Kelly who says that when she became chief executive officer of Westpac she said to herself: “Right. I’m now going to tackle gender inequality head-on. I’m going to make a difference, and lead by example, and actively put in place policies and practices to support women.”
Senator Michaelia Cash minister assisting the Prime Minister for Women in Parliament House Canberra on 6 March 2014. Photo: Andrew Meares for Daily Life Photo: Andrew Meares
For all the achievements of our feminist predecessors, Australian society is still characterised by real inequality between the sexes.
There is still gender inequality when it comes to pay, there is still gender inequality when it comes to power, there is still gender inequality when it comes to attitudes and behaviours.
Over the years, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been one of the Liberal Party’s most aggressive cultural warriors, yet he is now apparently comfortable with the f-word.
Speaking at an International Women’s Day breakfast in Parliament, he acknowledged that once upon a time he would not have felt comfortable addressing such a gathering.
But, as his wife Margie had put it: “What is it that turns an un-reconstructed bloke into a feminist? Three daughters.”
I’d like to welcome Tony Abbott to the fold.
But in light of his restoration of Knights and Dames, I’m wondering whether he might be confusing the medieval code of chivalry with modern feminism?
Tony Abbott is increasing the cost of living for low and middle income families to fund benefits for the highest income earners, he is cutting the pay of women who clean his offices, he is cutting the pay of women who care for and teach our young children and he is eroding the retirement incomes of low-paid women. I really don’t think Tony has thought this feminism thing through.
The Abbott Government’s equivocation on women’s issues was highlighted when the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, rejected the term feminist.
In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, she said:
“I believe in equality, I believe in female empowerment, I believe in the implementation of policies that will further women’s economic opportunities … But certainly, labelling myself as a feminist, if that is a prerequisite now for being a Minister for Women, that’s ridiculous.”
She went on to describe feminism as “a set of ideologies from many, many decades ago now.”
Why would Australia’s Minister for Women want to portray feminism as an outdated ideology of the past?
Are we all equalists now, but not feminists?
I know that for some women, discomfort with the term “feminist” reflects the fall-out from divisions in feminism’s second wave.
There are committed women who support equality but who wish to distance themselves from some of the more strident stances taken during the 1970s and 1980s.
But I don’t think this is what is on Senator Cash’s mind.
For some on the political right, rejecting the term “feminism’ is ideological.
Some social conservatives like to portray gender equality as being at odds with family values.
But gender equality is not an exclusive preserve of the Left – and there are many right-wing feminists.
In the United Kingdom, the Home Secretary Theresa May, donned a Fawcett Society T-shirt reading: “This is what a feminist looks like.”
She is seen as a potential future leader of the Conservative Party and is the unofficial leader of a group of Tory feminists in Westminster.
In the United States, Sarah Palin startled many when she came out as a “conservative feminist.”
That prompted Naomi Wolf to argue that feminism is compatible with conservative political philosophies because at its core it is about individual freedom and choice.
Right-wing women may prefer the rugged individualism of free markets, they may advocate for a minimalist state that doesn’t intrude on individual choices, and they may have conservative social and religious values – and yet, as Wolf memorably puts it, “they crave equality as strongly as any leftist vegetarian in Birkenstocks.”
In Australia there are Liberal Party women like Pru Goward who identify as feminists.
And there are many other Liberal women who may or may not embrace the label but whose careers show that women are the equal of men.
There are many women who say “I’m not a feminist, but …” – and then go on to articulate feminist principles.
I say that if you are a supporter of gender equality you are a feminist – and that it is important to use and be proud of the term.
Rejecting the term “feminist” is a political decision.
It diminishes one of the most important social movements of the modern era, one that has transformed modern Australia for the better.
It’s a trap to think that feminists’ work is done, that the revolution for gender equality has been won, and its gains cannot be reversed.
Feminism is like a bus travelling up a steep hill – if you don’t keep pressing on the accelerator, you will start rolling backwards.