Archive for March, 2010

Sydney Ideas: Why Feminism Matters

March 22, 2010

Short notice, I know, but if you’re in Sydney tonight (Monday 22nd March), you might like to come along to this wonderful looking seminar at the Seymour Centre, called Why Feminism Matters.

Compared with 30 years ago women are now better represented in politics but there is still more to be done. Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard are examples of women gaining important leadership positions, but not the top job. So how far have women come in terms of political leadership and shaping the public policy agenda? Do men and women do politics differently? Do women have different interests to men and how should these be incorporated into political decision-making? How might contemporary feminism contribute to improving women’s position in politics.

This forum will include leading international political scientists along with Australian academics and researchers in a robust discussion on the state of contemporary feminism. They will debate issues of women’s representation in politics in leading Western Liberal democracies including the US, UK and Australia.

Cost: $20 Adults/$15 Concession
Free for University of Sydney staff.

See the link at the top of this post for more information, including details about the wonderful people who are presenting – such as my colleague, a social policy researcher, Sue Goodwin and Rebecca Huntley, the author of The World According to Y. And some international speakers!


Thinking gender

March 17, 2010

Over at one of my favourite blogs, Sociological Images, there’s a recent post that demonstrates the way our bodies, our anatomy become gendered. It uses an example of some anatomical drawings of male and female bodies. Have a look.

I’m currently tutoring in a course about gender, and we have been examining the way cultural understandings of “masculine” and “feminine” affect the way we think about our bodies, our biology, our anatomy. The diagrams from Sociological Images are a really good representation of the ways in which bodies and our understandings of them are influenced by the culture we live in.

To show another example – one that the lecturer in my course used – have a look at the Pioneer Plaque.

[picture source: wikipedia]

I hadn’t seen these plaques before but I find them fascinating. They are aluminium plaques that were attached to the Pioneer spacecrafts in 1972, in case they happen to come across alien life forms on their journey. The pictures on the plaque represent a human female and male standing side by side. But it’s not as simple as that.

There are a lot of things to say about this image, but what stood out for me, especially after seeing the Soc Images picture is the way that the man and woman are positioned.

Look at the way they are standing! The male body (like the one in the anatomical drawings) is standing front on with weight distributed relatively evenly across both feet. The female body, on the other hand, is balanced mostly on one foot and she is not looking directly ahead. In both images, the female body appears more passive and somewhat sexualised – particularly in the anatomical drawing where her hip is thrust out. (There’s quite a long thread of discussion and disagreement about these images at the Sociological Images site.)

There has also, obviously, been a lot written about the way bodies are depicted in art and the media before. For example, Mulvey’s influential argument about the “male gaze”, discusses the way women are very often depicted from a male heterosexual point of view. I think it’s interesting to think of these ideas in relation to other representations too.

Apart from her somewhat passive stance, the female human on the Pioneer plaque is also not participating in the male’s apparent “greeting” to the lucky aliens who might stumble across this strange piece of metal in outerspace. I also love how there are various scientific symbols and concepts depicted on the plaque. Hi aliens, here is a representation of the “hyperfine transition of hydrogen”! Most humans wouldn’t be able to decipher this thing – how are aliens going to make sense of it?

Perhaps the following will require a separate blog entry for context, but I’d like to finish with a short quote from the fantastic feminist philosopher, Moira Gatens. It’s from a chapter where she’s critiquing the sex/gender distinction that a lot of feminist theory uses (yep, separate post needed) but I think it’s helpful to relate her work to the above images.

“Masculinity and femininity as forms of sex-appropriate behaviours are manifestations of a historically based, culturally shared phantasy about male and female biologies, and as such, sex and gender are not arbitrarily connected” (1996: 13).

Gatens, Moira, 1996, Imaginary Bodies, London: Routledge

more Germaine links

March 8, 2010

Some more linky links. Lots of feminist bloggers and writers have also defended Greer in wake of Nowra’s irritating piece in The Monthly.

* Helen Razer sums up our anger perfectly, I think: Louis Nowra needs a good vajazzling.

* Maggie Alderson writes about how important The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer was to her.

* Felix of the amazing adventures of felix and limpy writes: That time of the month?

* Caroline Overington in The Australian writes, Loved or hated, but still Germaine

* And Germaine Greer herself writes in The Age: Change is a feminist issue.

Every new generation of women struggles to define itself. Very few young women want to turn into their mother, and even fewer want to be their grandmother. There is no need for today’s women to march to a 40-year-old feminist drum.

Amid the seeming chaos of intergenerational conflict new lifestyles and family forms are coalescing. The feminist revolution has not failed. It has yet to begin. Its ground troops are fast developing the skills and muscle that will be necessary if we are to vanquish corporate power and rescue our small planet for humanity.

Thank you, Germaine! 🙂

Pondering Germaine Greer

March 7, 2010

This year marks 40 years since The Female Eunuch was published. Its author, Germaine Greer, is easily Australia’s most famous feminist. Whatever your opinion of Greer, there’s no denying the power of this book.

But I have a confession to make. I haven’t read The Female Eunuch. Not all the way through, anyway. I have a browning paperback copy that I picked up at a second-hand bookshop once. It sits on my bookshelf alongside my copies of The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique in the “Classic Feminist Texts I Should Have Read By Now” section.

I hope I don’t have to surrender my PhD after making such an admission.

While I’ve not read these books cover-to-cover, I’ve dipped into them and I think I’m still alllowed to write about the importance of Greer’s work. Especially since men like Louis Nowra are allowed to write annoying pieces in The Monthly criticising Greer for not knowing what make women tick. Apparently Greer got it all wrong.

Nowra reckons Greer was wrong in the way she criticised the trappings of femininity and consumerism. Wow, she really didn’t know what she was talking about – Look! – “young women today love shopping more than ever”, he says. And they get Brazilian waxes and “Botox injections are virtually a woman’s rite of passage”. Yes, he actually wrote that! Gee, Germaine, you really messed up. How silly of you to claim that these things might be oppressive, when actually, it’s what women really want! Lucky we have Nowra to tell us how things are.

In the same piece he has the gall to say “she looks like a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminds him of his “demented grandmother”. There was no way I could take his article seriously after that.

Germaine Greer was a member of the Sydney Push, a group of left-leaning anarchists and libertarians that used to hang around in Sydney pubs and talk about intellectual stuff. Quite a few other prominent Australians were also associated with the Push. It sounds like a pretty fascinating period in our history.

The Female Eunuch was published in 1970 and it really did have a big impact. There are stories of wives leaving their husbands after reading it, and women hiding the book from their husbands. The things she argued were that radical. But mostly you hear stories about how women’s eyes were opened and how they became drawn to feminism, after reading Greer’s work.

A combination of erudition and swagger made The Female Eunuch stand out from other feminist texts. Littered with literary, sociological and anthropological references, its central themes are that women are taught rules which disempower them and that the nuclear family perpetuates female subjugation and is a pernicious environment for the raising of children.

source: “Germaine Greer: Mother of all feminists”, Scotland on Sunday

While I don’t agree with everything Greer has to say, there’s a power and a passion to her words that I admire. As Gabriella Coslovich writes in “Clarion call to a new generation”:

The work is a rousing, flamboyant and flawed polemic, which remains as seditious and confronting as ever. Greer wrote the book in the hope that “women will discover that they have a will”. She incited a generation of women to ponder the significance of their lives and some literally went wandering after reading it, leaving stifling marriages to forge a life beyond domestic servitude.

She encouraged women to think beyond their social conditioning. She challenged the concepts of marriage, the nuclear family and the obligation to breed. She pointed the finger at the prevailing culture of sexual harassment and wrote about the well-known television producer who “sneaked in a wet kiss and a clutch at my breasts as an exercise of his power”.

Greer also urged women to study, to become doctors, pilots and even fashion designers, holding up the likes of Mary Quant as proof that women could succeed in business and that being successful was not incompatible with “femininity”.

[image source: silversalty’s flickr.]

Greer has always been controversial. She’s loud, audacious and she has the abiilty to polarise people. Even people with little knowledge of feminism will have heard of Greer. She is often considered synonymous with feminism, even though, of course, she never claimed to represent feminism as a whole. The women’s movement is much too diverse and complex to have a “leader”. It’s just that she was one of the most outspoken and feisty. And she pissed people off. The world needs people like Greer. Without people like her saying unpopular and controversial things – challenging the establishment – nothing would ever change.

The media love Germaine. She is probably more well known than lots of other feminists who were doing important and good things in the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s – eg. women like Eva Cox and Anne Summers and others who were on the ground making practical changes at the policy level (remember the term ‘femocrats’?). There was lots of stuff happening for women then and the popularity of Greer’s book is just one example. Anne Summers has written about Germaine Greer and the influence of The Female Eunuch here: Liberty Belle. (Read this instead of Nowra’s piece, would be my recommendation!)

As Summers points out:

Whether you admire Greer or find her infuriating or, like many people including myself, you have both reactions, often simultaneously, there is no getting around the fact that she was and remains a brave and passionate advocate for liberty, especially for women.

She has always been a flamboyant figure, not afraid of upsetting or shocking people, willing to be assertive and argumentative and to stride in polemically where others are too timid to tread. At the same time, she has chalked up impressive scholarly achievements as both a teacher and a writer of books on literary subjects including female artists and Shakespeare’s wife.

But her greatest achievement is, of course, The Female Eunuch, published 40 years ago, still in print, translated into 12 languages and a book whose influence is impossible to exaggerate.

Sometimes a book changes everything, and this was such a book.

I suppose I better get around to reading it then! 🙂

Pondering feminist identification

March 5, 2010

[image source: lism.’s flickr]

In a recent post at Musings of an Inappropriate Woman, Rachel Hills asks why feminism still has such a bad reputation: “You say ‘feminist’ like it’s a bad thing”

Hills writes:

As an older teenager and young adult, it became interesting to me because it provided a social and cultural framework through which I could make sense of my experiences, and the experiences of the people around me. These days, feminism and other intersectionalist discussions around gender, race, sexuality, class and disability, provide the building blocks to think about what it means to lead an ethical life.

But while I’ve never been uncomfortable with identifying myself as a feminist, I have found myself growing uncomfortable with other people identifying me as such. Mostly because they so often say it like it’s a bad thing – like it makes me silly, or ideologically rigid, or batshit insane. They turn what to me says “yes, I’m interested in gender from a critical perspective” and “no, I’m not an asshole”, into an insult.

Georgina Isbister in a piece in the National Times in December last year, wrote “Feminism is not a dirty word”

Isbister writes:

The denial of feminist identification seems to be based not in resistance to feminism’s goals of gender equality, but in the replication of outdated and exaggerated feminist stereotypes. What I find when I gently scratch the surface of these stereotypical assumptions is that most of my students, both female and male, support gender equality. Actually, they demand it.

I found similar things in my interviews with young women. Often their first response to feminism was to talk about the widely perpetuated negative stereotypes about feminists, but once they got talking about issues that feminism deals with, many acknowledged that their beliefs were feminist.

As I wrote in the comments on Rachel Hills’ post:

One thing I found that makes a difference in terms of feminist identification is how someone defines feminism. If you define it as a belief system (eg. a belief in gender equality) then you are more likely to say you’re a feminist than if you define it as activism. I spoke to quite a few women who said they believed in feminist ideals but were hesitant to call themselves feminists because they weren’t actively involved in fighting for women’s rights. One participant gave a great analogy…She said she cares about the environment, but wouldn’t call herself an environmentalist because she doesn’t go out and chain herself to trees, and so on.

Interestingly, I got different responses to the questions, “what do you think of when you hear the word feminist”, compared with “how do you define feminism?”. The former elicited many more of the negative stereotypes about feminism (man-hating, hairy armpits/legs, angry, humourless – which interestingly most recognised as media stereotypes), whereas the latter allowed the women to describe what they thought feminism means. Once they got talking about it, many were more likely to switch from ambivalnece to saying “Actually, I suppose I am a feminist really”.

Only a couple of my participants were openly hostile to feminism (it’s likely that my recruitment posters which mentioned ‘feminism’ attracted participants who were symathetic towards feminism) and this was because they blamed feminism for women having to do everything – have a full time job and then come home and still do all the childcare and housework.

I’ve written lots about this topic. Not surprising since I wrote my thesis on it! I’ll leave it there for now, but I’ll share more of my thesis findings soon, especially since I have a journal article in the works based on this aspect of my research.

What about you? Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Linkages: There’s something about Germaine

March 4, 2010

There’s something about Germaine Greer that stirs people’s emotions. People love her or hate her. Everyone has an opinion about her.

In the March issue of The Monthly, Louis Nowra has an essay about Greer and her influential book The Female Eunuch which was first published in 1970.

I have a subscription to The Monthly this year but this edition hasn’t arrived so I am yet to read Nowra’s piece. I think it’s going to make me cross. Judging from some responses in the feminist blogosphere, the article dismisses Greer’s work and even criticises her appearance! Why they got a man to write such a scathing and negative piece about Greer is beyond me. Sales presumably. Greer sells. And Greer-bashing sells more, I suppose.

* Kathy Marks in The Independent, criticises Nowra’s piece: ‘Germaine Greer? She has no idea what makes women tick,’ says Nowra

* Hoyden About Town: “Louis Nowra? He has no idea what makes sexists tick”

* Larvatus Prodeo has also weighed into the debate: “Germaine Greer trashed in The Monthly”, attracting lots of comments.

* Even Quadrant online has jumped to Greer’s defence: “Offending Nowra, defending Greer”

I’m now inspired to write this week’s ‘Feminist of the Week’ about our Germaine. Stay tuned.