Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Feminist 'us first, you later' mentality doesn't work



International Women's Day was founded in women's rights movements across Europe, demanding better labour conditions as well as calls for suffrage. So though it is primarily about celebrating the achievements of women, it is rooted in feminist protest and activism.

Second wave feminist protestIn the spirit of the 2017 theme #BeBoldForChange, I think we should change it up a little. While it is important to look back on the achievements of feminism, we should also look back to learn how to be better for the future.

The IWD colours of purple, white and green reference the colours of the suffragettes. While the women's suffrage date usually quoted for Australia is 1902, that excludes Aboriginal women, who did not have complete suffrage until 1962.

Previously, in most states, Aboriginal men had the vote (and in South Australia, Aboriginal women did too), but this was only because it hadn't been explicitly denied to them. So while the Commonwealth Franchise Act 1902 granted white women the vote, it also targeted Aboriginal and other people of colour not already on the electoral roll.

Effectively, through the advocacy of white feminism, there was a gain for white women, while the rights of women of colour were left behind.

Later, in 1975, as International Women's Day was recognised by the UN, mainstream second wave feminism tried to distance itself from the LGBTI community. In a NOW meeting in 1969, Betty Friedan had coined the term 'the lavender menace' to describe how lesbians were distracting from the feminist cause, lavender being a colour associated with the LGBTI rights movement.

Two of the big names of second wave feminism, Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem, focused on cisgender women's rights at the expense of trans women, with Steinem warning that 'feminists are right to feel uncomfortable about the need for and uses of transsexualism'.

At its foundation, feminism was for the rights of straight white women. And this still effects mainstream feminism today. Domestic and family violence is a prominent cultural and feminist issue which is statistically more likely to effect Indigenous than white women. Yet in these conversations Indigenous women's voices are frequently unrepresented.


"The fight for women's rights in the past has highlighted the achievements of middle class white women, while also erasing the contributions of minority women."


Similarly, in Australia, the gender pay gap is still a significant issue and receives quite a bit of media coverage. But unlike America, there has never been much focus in Australian feminist media about how the intersection of race and gender impacts upon wages.

Even when there are deliberate attempts to be inclusive in principle, like in the Women's Marches in America, feminists can misstep. Pink knitted hats were made to protest Donald Trump's infamous statement about sexual assault, but these protesters were accused by trans activists for equating womanhood to having a vagina. And while Steinem has apologised for her earlier transphobic views, Greer is on the record as recently as 2015 saying that transgender women aren't 'real' women. She later apologised for saying that on the ABC, but then followed up by repeating the exact same sentiment.

We need to acknowledge how the past shapes our activism, unless we want to keep making the same mistakes. People versed in feminist theory know that the 'us first, you later' mentality doesn't work. Feminism works best when it forefronts the voices that need to be heard, is inclusive, and works from the ground up. Often we need to acknowledge that our viewpoint isn't always going to be needed in every feminist conversation. Women should try to be our own fiercest advocates, but at the same time, we must be critical of our feminism and ourselves. No feminist or feminism is perfect. I know personally that even when I try, I still get it wrong. But we still need to try.

International Women's Day should acknowledge the achievements of feminism that have passed, but also its shortcomings. The fact is that the fight for women's rights in the past has highlighted the achievements of middle class white women, while also erasing the contributions of minority women. So this IWD, let's celebrate the feminists who should have more spotlight and listen to a diverse range of voices. Let's be bold and commit to a feminism that is intersectional, even when it's hard and messy.


Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Wednesday 8 March is International Women's Day.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, International Women's Day, feminism



submit a comment

Existing comments

Neve, thank you for this article on International Women's Day. From what you say, I can see that when the hierarchical tendency in us ranks the concerns of others as less authentic than ours, it holds us back from receiving the gift of solidarity from others.

Alex Nelson | 08 March 2017  

Neve is correct that often IWD has been used to celebrate the achievements of middle class women without much reference to other women. A study of the history of IWD shows that the day was founded by ordinary working class women on the political left The earliest IWD occurred on February 28, 1909, in New York. It was organized by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of a1908 strike of garment workers for improved working conditions. In August 1910, at an International Women's Conference before the meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, it was agreed to establish an annual International Woman's Day to promote equal rights including suffrage for women. On March 19 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In 1917, a strike of garment workers and demonstrations marking IWD in St Petersburg on the last Thursday in February ( which is March 8 on the Gregorian calendar) helped to initiate the February Revolution. Under the slogan "Bread and Peace", their demands were the end of World War I, an end to food shortages, and the end of tsarism. Four days later, the Tsar abdicated and the provisional government gave women the vote! This had more ramifications for women than allowing a woman to be secretary of the local golf club!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 08 March 2017  

Some earlier women feminists - a few before the word was invented - Elizabeth Fry the prison reformer; Florence Nightingale; Emily Pankhurst and Gloria Steinem are the giants whose shoulders the later feminists stand on. It is easy to retrospectively criticise them; harder to be a genuine original like them. Group-think is the enemy of real reform: it holds people back celebrating victories of long ago where the task is to move sensibly forward. I am not surprised transsexuality is so hard for many to get their heads around , because, in traditional Anglophone culture, there has never been a real place for them as there has been in traditional Polynesian and some other cultures where they inhabit a special space.

Edward Fido | 09 March 2017  

I disagree with the premise of this article. That those who identify as transgender may need a voice is one question; whether it should be tied into the voice for the liberation of women is another. I support Germaine Greer’s view. There are two sexes, there are men and women. There are of course men who think or assert that they are women, but in doing so they undermine or subvert the cause of women. Misogyny targets women, not men who think they are women. People should revisit the struggles of real women, even in such a thing we take for granted (but should not) which is the vote and political franchise of women, gained by people like Henrietta Dugdale, Louise Lawson and Vida Goldstein, and get things into perspective.

smk | 09 March 2017  

Thank you for this insightful article. The fact that the feminist movement did not represent ALL women was something I did not realize. I am now more enlightened, thanks to you. Cheers!

Amy Daniel | 10 March 2017  

Similar Articles

Building cultures of equality in our workplaces

  • Jennie Hickey
  • 07 March 2017

The theme for this year's International Women's Day is 'Be Bold For Change'. This involves an aspiration for action, assertiveness urgency. Because the changes required are considerable, in number and in scope. Statistics still reflect a 16 per cent gender pay gap. While there has been some movement of gender diversity on boards (25.3 per cent as at 31 January 2017), only 17 per cent of CEOs in Australian companies were women. The attitudes that underpin such dire statistics run deep.


All minorities are not equal in the fight for justice

  • Moreblessing Maturure
  • 07 March 2017

In the current climate, minorities and oppressed communities are branded as 'divisive' when attention is drawn to the void which exists between those with power and those without. This allegation stands firmly on the understanding that our 'unified strength' against a common enemy will bring about the change we so passionately fight for. But often the assumption is that all parties are to unify with the majority, that those of lesser power should fight for equality in a way that those in power see fit.