Tag Archives: Feminism

March for the Babies and Reproductive Rights

Last Saturday I spoke at the Pro-choice rally which was gathered in opposition to the March for the Babies (an anti-choice rally organised by Bernie Finn) outside the Victorian Parliament. It was a very surreal day, I really felt I had travelled to a parallel universe. Sadly, the anti-choicers severely out-numbers the pro-choicers, though they had bussed people from all over the place (including Albury, in NSW…) to attend. It was a call back to the 70s, it felt like (though I wasn’t around for such protests back then, so I don’t know).

This is the text of the speech I gave:

I am here today as a woman, and as a student. Let me start by emphasising that education is centrally important to achieving equality, addressing poverty, preventing unemployment, homelessness and a host of other issues which impact individuals and the whole of society. Access to education is therefore pivotal. In my primary and high school days, I sat in classrooms with boys, being told that I was the same as them, being told that I could do anything. That as a girl and as a woman, there was nothing that was impossible. As I grew older, what a surprise it was to find that equality is still being fought for. How amazed I was that it wasn’t until 2008 that Victoria removed abortion from it’s criminal statutes – after I had graduated from high school and had begun my tertiary education. All this while some women of my generation question the need for feminism and believe that full equality was achieved some time ago.

Reproductive rights are about more than just abortion. They include access to all forms of contraception, adoption, IVF, excellent pre- and post-natal care for those who give birth, as well as sterilisation. Abortion is part of reproductive rights as a whole and I would like to emphasise that each of these are important for men, women and trans identified people – all people should have access to reproductive justice. Later this afternoon, the March for the Babies protesters will try to separate abortion from all of these things. Abortion must stay within a reproductive rights context and every element of reproductive justice is as important as the next. Last year at this protest I was shocked to hear one anti-choice protester say that she would rather be raped than have an abortion. A strong feeling that I personally disagree with, however she illustrates my point perfectly – this is about choice and personal freedom – if you do not want an abortion, then please, do not have one.

Speaking of personal freedoms, I would also like to talk about sexual freedom. It all sounds very 1970s and free-love, but sexual freedoms are the ones which governments target first. They are hard to defend because the moralising parts of our society attack them as being debaucherous, immoral or unwanted in the first place. They have been described as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ or the barometer which tells us when freedoms in our society are beginning to be eroded. Reproductive rights are inherently linked to sexual freedom, as we cannot achieve sexual freedom without proper access to reproductive rights.

This brings me to my next point. We must trust women, trust them to make decisions which are best and right for them. Women must be able to decide when, if and how they have children. Women, including women students, are more than incubators and we must treat them as such. Women deserve equality before the law and the respect which comes with trusting women to make reproductive decisions. We must say to women ‘you are responsible and have your own moral integrity’ and allow women to exercise that responsibility and integrity. In Victoria, we are lucky that the law largely allows women to do that. In other states, we must fight so that women are afforded the rights they are entitled to. The prosecution of a young woman and her partner in Cairns should serve as a wake up call to all of us – this issue is centrally important and although these laws very old, they are still being enforced, and we must not assume any differently. Victoria can never go back.


The Other Side of Abortion

Pro-choice activists have long argued that abortion should be available on demand, and without apology. I am one of them, and I agree with that. But sometimes, things happen to those close to you that make you realise how complex and at times, awful, this can be when it’s translated into a specific set of circumstances in reality.

Someone close to me is currently pregnant and has found that there is likely (to be confirmed soon) complications with the brain development which mean that the baby would have very very serious disability* when born. Depending on the degree of this damage, the doctors are likely going to recommend termination. She is more than 30 weeks pregnant, and her and her partner want this baby very very much.

Of course, abortion isn’t the problem here – it didn’t create the developmental issues that are the cause of her anguish. But the fact that her and her partner have a choice to make is absolutely heartbreaking. What a choice to try to make.

Disability rights activists have long argued that all the screening and tests conducted in pregnancy are reinforcing the idea of a ‘perfect’ and ‘normal’ human and I completely agree. However, the kind of disability that they are talking about would bring quality of life into question, and neither of them are financially set up to be able to adequately care for a child who requires constant attention and care. But they desperately want a child, and she is over 40 years old. She had been thinking for the whole pregnancy that she was lucky to be pregnant and that she probably wouldn’t be able to have another child.

Sitting and talking with two pro-choice women this afternoon, the sentiment was that, while we completely support everyone’s right to choose, sometimes you just don’t want to have to choose. This kind of abortion story, heartbreaking and messy, has been almost completely left out of the pro-choice movement, because it’s difficult. Because it’s borderline for many people and because at 9 weeks we can call something a collection of cells but after 26 weeks, those cells can, if things work out that way, be sustained by medial support and intervention. But a machine cannot bring up a child. I don’t want to have a debate about when life begins, because as far as I’m concerned, a baby needs more than itself to survive and women have to be able to have these choices. We have to trust women. But in marginalising women who make choices in these grey areas which are so open to attack by anti-choicers, we really are silencing women who desperately need support and to be included in the pro-choice movement. Pro-choice activists need to accept that these women and their stories are just as valid as an unplanned pregnancy terminated at 7 weeks.

Of course, I don’t know that this is the way my friend’s story will end, and I hope that something wonderful happens and the next test tells a different story. But the way she is feeling now, she could use the support and the stories from other women to feel that she is not alone.

*for the record, I absolutely hate this term/word but am yet to find one which adequately replaces it without being equally able-ist or inadequate. Suggestions welcome!

Attraction and Subjectivity

Motherhood makes women more attractive? According to this psychologist, though I’m not sure if she’s just articulating her personal opinion or if this is based on some study she’s not talking about.

This isn’t the first article to assert features/characteristics which make people more attractive without contextualising these things within their cultural context. (See this mess earlier in the year about how black women are “not as attractive” as other women.)

I am so tired of social science, psychology, biological science and journalism (by not critically interrogating claims made by the afore-mentioned ‘experts’) maintaining and reinforcing a singular definition of what everyone finds attractive. Each time people panic about children’s self-esteem and body image, we should remember articles like this, which reproduce one version of attractiveness.

Then, of course, there is the way the article argues that women are always more attractive after childbirth. Please. Shall I mention white privilege as well?

Couldn’t we just have a definition of beauty that included individual differences and subjectivity? Wouldn’t that be nice!

Motherhood, femininsm and dichotomy

Last week, I attended birth.art an exhibition of art inspired by birth and the discourse which surrounds it. The art is brilliant, I was so moved by so many of the installations. I particularly enjoyed the “Hey Hetero” collection, highlighting the heterosexist assumptions which underlie much birth discourse and indeed the health system which is supposed to support women through pregnancy and birth. I won’t detail everything I liked, as it was all fantastic, and I encourage Melbournians to get on down and check it out! There is a good discussion of the exhibition and related culture/concepts at The Age.

What struck me though, and was a little disappointing, was the speech, welcoming and introducing the exhibition. And it wasn’t even all of the speech, just two tiny turns of phrase. I arrived late and heard only the last half (or so) of the speech. I am fairly sure the woman who was speaking was Rachel Power, a writer and editor, with interests in feminism, art and motherhood – clearly a perfect choice for such a launch. And I loved almost all of what she said and how she said it.

But! Twice that I heard, the idea that women have been reduced to only porn-subjects was raised. I can see that pornography (most especially bad porn that reduces women to passive objects) can contribute to the way women currently are disconnected from the reproductive functions and processes that their body is capable of. I do not reject this idea – but when we talk about this, lets not reduce the whole argument to black and white assertions of porn = objectifying women and therefore women aren’t connected to their bodies, and it’s all the fault of porn. Lets talk about this issue in the context of women as being a multiplicity of things – mothers, sexual beings, colleagues, friends, aunties, grandmothers etc etc etc etc etc, and from this, lets talk about the complexity. There are many things which contribute to the situation we currently have, where women often experience pregnancy and birth as something that happens “to them” rather than a positive, connected, embodied experience.

It is time that feminists, including the fabulous feminist mid-wives I have the pleasure of knowing, acknowledged that that pornography is not a black and white world of good and evil, and that contributing the whole of a problem to porn is not a helpful strategy. Lets talk about reembodiment of women, what that means across a spectrum of issues, and how that might look.

**Disclaimer: I’m sure not all midwives are anti-porn, or that all midwives don’t know there are many things that lead to women being disembodied. I’ve had many discussions with midwives about how there are many other factors, like the body-mind dichotomy which contribute to this. What I’m talking about here is lumping all pornography together and blaming all of a problem on that.

Economics and Feminism: an existential crisis?

Recently, through my pondering of my future directions and the impending grown-up-ness of turning a milestone age next year, I’ve been considering studying some form of economics as a postgrad. Economics? 18 year old me would be having a fit about now. Where did the social-progressive, pro-welfare safety net, social justice crusader go, and where the hell did this lady come from? 20-something me has realised that they are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps my social justice crusading could be best advanced by the ‘credibility’ and analysis that some economic knowledge would provide. Reading books such as Economics 2.0 and engaging with Game Theory and new ways of economic modelling which move beyond ‘Rational Economic Man‘ have of course helped my fondness for and understanding of economics as a powerful tool.

More than that though, is the realisation recently that half of what I am passionate about and half of what I spend my time thinking about is economic policy, or social policy which is fundamentally impacted on or achieved by economics. So much social justice can be understood in economic terms. Further, making strong economic arguments in favour of socially progressive policy seems to be the best and most effective way to show the social conservatives that social justice is good for their economic bottom line. Policies such as paid parental leave, including more women in business and on boards, ending discrimination on the basis of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability and many other factors, supporting diversity through encouraging free movement of labour are all things which have been variously shown to have positive impacts on economic bottom lines, depending on execution.

More than this though, economics is a field which is still, from the outside at least, dominated by the status quo – middle aged white males. Diversifying the voices within fields like this means that we can challenge traditional assumptions. Until very recently, traditional notions, such as Rational Economic Man had gone almost unchallenged in economics. Modelling all economic assumptions from the understanding that humans are dispassionately rational can create all kinds of flawed market based systems. Events as big as the GFC, or as small as shopping at a supermarket can show that humans are rarely engaged with the economy in a purely rational fashion, and that there are complex emotional investment and impulsive risky decision-making process which have little if anything to do with calm rationalism. Of course, this assumes a dichotomy between the rational and the emotional, which is also something I have previously written about (unpublished, should fix that!) The short story is that the reason/emotion dichotomy is used to oppress in all kinds of ways (see for example Prokhovnik)

Development economics and the inclusion of women in development agendas has taught us much about global economic systems, even for supposedly developed countries. If focusing our energy and attention on including and empowering women in poor countries is so overwhelmingly successful, then one would think that engaging women globally in financial empowerment will have far-reaching impacts for good. Social enterprises (SE) like Girl Effect have focused such approaches on girls in the developing world (seriously, check out the website, I dare you to find someone who doesn’t cry while they do!) while a relatively new SE in Australia, 10thousandgirl is aiming to empower women locally to take control of their finances so the next generation of both retired women, as well as working women, grow older with financial stability and security, whether or not they are partnered.

Hopefully movements such as these which encourage education and financial independence can be inclusive of the GLBTIQ communities locally and globally, as women without men for financial partners often suffer when society is built around the male breadwinner and the female homemaker. As much as our world is changing and moving away from this model, we know that pay equality is still a long way off, even in OECD countries like Australia. Of course, these figures are worse in the developing world. Australia is celebrating after a victory for the female dominated community welfare sector workers won an equal pay claim at the Fair Work Commission last week, however since then the celebration has degenerated into a fight about who will pay and how such fairness will be paid for.

Equal pay has long been the fight of feminism. After much scepticism about ruining a poignant moment in history, I watched the film Made in Dagenham with amazement last year as the Ford women joined and led a movement for equal pay for equal work. It was such a strong reminder that this was a radical notion not very long ago. When you think about how long and hard women across more than 3 generations have worked for it, the fact that the notion of equal pay is still met with cries of economic armageddon is quite outrageous. It’s taken for granted in many developed countries. I grew up with the knowledge that that fight had been “won”. Studying social work at university and realising the salaries of those in the community sector fixed that egalitarian view of society pretty quickly of course. But it’s also an example of why we need women in all areas of work, and thought. And not only women, but people of all kinds of diverse backgrounds so that discrimination and bias against many minority groups can be challenged, and assumptions which may be more true for one group of people can be called out as not very true for many other groups of people.

This extends to more than just equal pay of course, though this is the most glaring example of economics and feminist inter-relation. Economics is one powerful school of thought which is used time and time again to justify the status quo, and to reinforce and defend kyriarchical systems and structures within society. Perhaps one of the most effective ways to challenge this uncritical application of bad assumptions is to have champions within the economic schools of thought in order to call research and argument out when such assumptions are used.

Stigma and speaking out

I have posted my personal unplanned pregnancy story on abortiongang.org. Since I had an abortion last year I have been working hard to contribute to the erosion of stigma around abortion so that it can be discussed and so that women who are faced with unplanned pregnancy don’t feel more overwhelmed than the situation causes in itself.

Abortion is a last resort decision and I am a loud advocate of contraception and comprehensive age-appropriate sex and relationship education. But if women are faced with a situation where abortion is the best choice out of all the hard options, then they should not feel that they have a dirty, horrible secret they need to carry for the rest of their lives. Of course, if women don’t want to talk about it, that is their personal decision, however women should not be made to feel that they can’t talk about it if they want to.

Abortion stigma marginalises people’s experiences – 1 in 3 pregnancies will end in abortion – this is a large number, however often when women are experiencing abortion and the decision-making process they feel alone and as though no-one else makes the decision to abort a pregnancy. My experiences of working with people actively trying to advance the cause of women’s rights is that even their actions can cause the perpetuation of stigma surrounding abortion. It is so ingrained and difficult to breakdown. The continuation of the polarisation of discourse around abortion – either pro-choice and denying the difficulty that can come with decision-making, or anti-choice and painting the decision as always difficult and damaging for the woman – is not helping to allow women the space in the middle to speak about their lived experiences.

I am happy I can speak about mine, however I know some pro-choice activists may not like the admission that the decision to terminate a pregnancy can be an emotionally difficult time. But it is so necessary and important that we have these hard discussions that give life to the real story of abortion. It makes the pro-choice movement truly feminist – naming that which we live as women, breaking the silence, and allowing all experiences to be validated and included in feminism. This is how feminism has tried to include women of colour, queer women, women with disabilities and so many other identities which were once marginalised from the second wave of feminism. It is the driving force behind the movement to include trans* identities in feminism. There is still a long way to go, however moving to include difficult abortion stories is part of the expansion of feminism to be a more inclusive project.

Country Australia, Feminism and Reflections

I’m currently on holiday, an extended easter break, meandering through country Victoria and South Australia. Being originally from a country area in Victoria myself, this is a bit like getting back to my roots, although we’ve gone in a completely different direction from the place I grew up in.

It’s made me think about my up-bringing, and the paradoxical lack-of and abundance-of powerful female role models in country areas. Sure, there is often a lack of flexibility of gender roles in country towns, and often women are left carrying large burdens of full-time work and the bulk of the house work and parenting. I don’t want to romanticise this, and it’s a huge reason why I’m relieved to be living in a city where it’s not unusual for gender roles to be questioned and transcended (although this is still painful in cities as well). But it’s unhelpful and incorrect to generalise Australian country towns as old-fashioned places where feminism doesn’t exist.

Some of the strongest women role models I’ve known have been from country Australia, defying all of the entrenched crap that comes along with a more conservative community that you often find in country areas. Whilst they weren’t ever business leaders, or successful CEO’s, they were amazingly talented at their job, and had often got to the level they were at in defiance/in spite of the boys club that comes with most professions in these areas. I don’t mean that these professions don’t have boys clubs in the cities, or that everyone in country areas is a social conservative, but the general picture is often this way.

At the end of year 12 I remember considering the number of women in business in the town I had grown up in. I know I couldn’t think of a single woman who was in business in the town without a male business partner, and that those in any kind of business were few and far between. This is how I was encouraged to think about female role models at the time. I know now that I was often surrounded by women I respected and found inspiring, for many different reasons, because they were strong and brilliant, and were doing things they loved. Looking around these country towns I’m staying in and travelling though, I am reminded of those women, and wonder how many I am meeting and observing just like them along the way.

Beware the Feminarchy

The increasing tendency of  people who self-identify as women’s rights activists and feminists to take on a patronising, moralising and judgmental stance which denies other women choice and freedom has started to seriously destroy my pride in calling myself a feminist. This issue is one which has reared it’s ugly head in the guise of many different social issues lately. I dub these women patriarchial feminists, or patronising feminists, creating a feminarchy to replace the patriarchy they supposedly want to rid the world of. Equally though, people who don’t identify as feminists are using these arguments against women’s rights and freedoms.

The first and most obvious example of this issue is exemplified by those who argue against a woman’s right to choose when and how to be a mother, if at all. Abortion is a fundamental right and I am outraged that other women claim to speak for all women on this issue. Melinda Tankard Reist is a classic example of a woman who uses the term feminist to identify herself, however she argues against a woman’s right to choose. She claims abortions are violence against all women. As someone who has personal experience of abortion, I can say that this is patently false, and that if I had been forced to carry a baby I didn’t want to full-term, that would certainly have constituted violence against me, a woman. While I have no doubt that some women who have had an abortion experience regret, many studies have shown that mental health outcomes for women post-abortion are much more positive than those of women post-birth. The point is that women, all women, have the right to determine what is best for them, and feminists should hold women as experts of their own lives and experience. Ms Tankard Reist is violating that principle fundamentally when she argues against women’s right to choose.

Recent vocal opposition to all sex workers is another area where patronising feminists excel. The fact that some women may actually choose, of their own free-will to engage in sexual activity for money seems to be completely unfathomable for women such as Sheila Jeffreys (no website but see this). This is to say nothing of the complete absence of men who work within the sex industry from this debate. Certainly, sex trafficking is an enormous issue and one which I am passionately in favour of serious legal and socal action to stop, and prosecution of those who profit and benefit from this. However, sex work and sex trafficking are two separate things, and it is high time that they were separated from each other, both in public discourse as well as legislatively. People who are legitimately engaged in sex work deserve not to be treated as second class citizens, often as criminals. Removing prohibitive legislative requirements, and making it easier for people to obtain working visas to work within the sex industry in Australia will remove the profitability and demand for sex trafficking in Australia and go a long way to addressing the current discrimination faced by legitimate sex workers. Who do we let speak on behalf of sex workers, women who want to ‘save women’, or professional peak bodies, such as Scarlet Alliance?

The area where patronising feminists really flourish though, is the supposed sexualisation of young girls, and the link they make between this and the way women really only have access to sexual power within our society. To make it clear, I do acknowledge that there are many pressures on women of all ages to conform to an ideal appearance. I myself have and continue to experience these kinds of pressures in many different ways, and certainly since I have left school there have been many changes which have, it seems, increased these pressures and multiplied the ways in which they can be applied. I accept that this is a problem and it would be fantastic to be able to properly tackle this, along with things that are closely related to it, such as rape culture, sexual assault, and violence against women. All of these things are hugely troubling issues which I am yet to feel are taken seriously by the majority of society. However, banning certain kinds of advertising, ensuring sex shops don’t sell school uniform costumes, along with general censorship is only going to reinforce ideas about what women who may dress or act a certain way deserve when they engage in those behaviours. This is a very dangerous slippery slope which does not go anywhere near addressing the causes of these social issues, and rather just acts to cover them up. It forces things underground and ensures that people are not able to talk about rape culture, or sexual violence and what causes them. It patronises women and young people into a situation where others decide what is best for them, and denies us freedom of expression. It casts women only as victims who need protection from all kinds of ‘evil’ in society. It removes all the hard work of the second wave of feminism, which has brought us to a point where we are able to dream about what true equality might look like, might feel like. But equality is not achieved through censoring and shaming.

The common thread which runs though all of these arguments is that women cannot possibly know what is best for them, and that the world is inherently damaging to women. These arguments say to young women – you need protection, you are fragile, weak and should be scared of the world. It does not empower women, or anyone for that matter. It contributes to the culture of fear and reinforces the idea that the more we intervene into other’s lives, the better off everyone shall be. It contributes to the culture that says to women, you have to ask for equality, not expect it. Our women should be brought up to believe they are equal, that they should not have to beg and hope to be treated the same as they men they grew up alongside.

I challenge these women to justify their speaking for all women, their generalisations across culture, class, race and sexuality among many other factors. I challenge them to explain how they seem to be the only women, in their world  who are able to make decisions for themselves. I challenge them to justify their complete ignorance of the concept of subjectivity which the second wave feminists worked so hard to bring to the fore of the movement, in an attempt to widen the understanding of what feminists issues are. Why are they the only women who are not victims of being brainwashed by patriarchy? Why are they the only women who are allowed to know what is best for them, why are they so special compared to the rest of us, supposed faceless victims?

Working for the improvement of the conditions of all people, including women, should not be about prescribing one lifestyle, one ‘option’ for all people. Improvement should focus on removing barriers to freedom and choice, and if one identifies with the idea of radical feminism and challenging patriarchy, then this can include questioning and challenging patriarchy. It should not include challenging patriarchy and replacing it with feminarchy, akin to toppling one dictator and installing another.

Assange & WikiLeaks – a confused mess

This whole WikiLeaks/Assange outrage and adoration mess is really starting to become intolerably unclear. Firstly, I acknowledge that as Assange is the front man of the organisation, it is difficult to separate the politics of attacking him vs. attacking the organisation. This is only the start of the problem however.

On Assange’s alleged rape situation, it’s important to separate a few things out from each other. Of utmost concern to me is the fact that this whole furore is playing right into the hands of people who like to stereotype rape victims as women who make things up to exact some kind of twisted revenge on men they decided they should never have spent any time with in the first place. Rape apologists should have no place in our society and it is so damaging to have these kinds of attitudes front and centre of the current discussion surrounding this issue. A lot who are supporting Assange seem to be doing so at the expense of respect for judicial process and for the women who have accused him of rape. These are matters first for the police, and then for the Swedish judicial system to decide upon, not the media and a screaming pack of Assange fan-boys (and girls). Having said that, the Interpol response is quite amazing – I’m not aware of any previous Interpol red notices for a single rape allegation before; the world would be a very different and more respectful place if violence and abuse of women was always taken so seriously in every other instance. It does make one ask questions about the political motivations for the actions of Interpol. However, and importantly, this should be kept well separate from any discussion of Assange’s guilt or innocence, the validity of charging someone with rape when they engage in sex which was consented to with a condom without upholding that promise, and whether or not Assange should be extradited, all of which have merged into the one very messy, very one-eyed discussion. Of course, all of these things are related, but they are necessarily separate issues. Further, Assange, as any other accused in any other criminal trial, should be given a fair, unbiased hearing.

ALL of these things are also different from the issue of whether or not what WikiLeaks has done in publishing the Cable Gate documents is illegal, and whether or not this is moral. It should also be stressed that law and morality, whilst not mutually exclusive, are very different things and we should not confuse the two. While I am not a fan at all of Assange personally, I can see value of having an organisation stand up for freedom of speech and take a stand against government corruption and secrecy. It is vitally important that these two things, Assange the personality, and WikiLeaks can stand separate from each other so that we may value what WikiLeaks has given us, whilst also preserving fundamental concepts of justice and process.

I shall leave my response re: the Australian Government response to WikiLeaks for another time, it is too long-winded to include here.