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On toffee and feminism

'Feminism' by Chris JohnstonIt's a bitterly cold Sunday evening. The foyer of the Capitol Theatre swarms with women. We all clutch at our tickets, printed with 'From Freidan to Feministas', with gloved hands. In the toilets, we jiggle up and down, waiting patiently for all the other feminists to finish peeing.

Once in the theatre, awe-struck under Walter Burley Griffin's honeycomb ceiling, my friend, my mother and I sit and suck toffees, waiting for the panel to start.

I look at all the other women filing in, taking their seats. Everyone seems to be wearing dark colours, the aisles awash with charcoal grey and navy blue, various shades of black, with here and there a dash of red lipstick.

The panel goes for an hour and a half. Monica Dux speaks first, about how feminism is in trouble, about her view of what she calls the great feminist denial.

Then Catharine Lumby gets up and disagrees, sort of, with everyone and everything, only tries to make it look like she's not. Intimates that we, the audience, are all white middle-class women, and that the media is obsessed with the death of feminism, and that we should all get over ourselves. Can I have another toffee? I ask my friend. Not yet, she says. You just had one, if you have another one now it'll give you a stomach-ache.

Emily Maguire's next: pretty and bouncy and supposedly representing the face of young feminists everywhere. I think of the Sylvia Plath poem about mushrooms, and I can't quite make the two feelings fit together, this upbeatness on stage and the quiet march of the fungi.

Emily Maguire says that young feminists are everywhere. My g-string's giving me a wedgie, and I shift uncomfortably. Can I have another toffee, now? I ask my friend.

In the applause at the end of Emily Maguire's talk I scrabble to get the toffee's wrapper off so no one will hear the noise.

Susan Maushart leans against the podium and says that when she was in Sunday school in the States one of the nuns told her that all men were brothers, and that she'd put up her hand and asked if that meant that all women were sisters.

The nun had thought about it and had said that yes, she guessed that was what it meant, and Susan Maushart says that she was very excited by this and that she went home and called her best friend and told her that they were sisters. That we all were.

The toffees have given me a stomach-ache. In the question time, the panellists try very hard not to disagree with each other. You can see the strain of it on their faces.

At one point, they all seem to say that it doesn't matter what you call it, this feminism thing, as long as you live it. If the feminism tag alienates men, then don't use it, they say. Who cares if you pole dance, another one says. This isn't the point, they keep saying. We're missing the point.

Afterwards, when we walk out of the theatre, there is a huge line of people waiting to get into the HiFi Bar just a few doors down. Some of the girls in the line are going blue with the cold, their bare legs puckered like chicken skin, their toes white in their blue haviana thongs. Others totter on spiky heels they've never learnt to walk in.

We walk back to the car, my mother, my friend and I.

What did you think? My mother asks me.

I thought they all tried to agree with each other, I say. It was unnatural.

It's a panel, not a debate. They don't want to disagree, says my mother. That's not the point of it. If they disagreed then the press would be all over it, and it would be portrayed as just another feminist catfight.

The panel is part of a series of panels all called 'Big Ideas', I say. They shouldn't call it 'Big Ideas' if the point is just to talk about how we all agree when we don't. If that's what the panel's meant to do, then they should call it 'Narrow Interpretation of Big Ideas'.

My friend says that I'm being obnoxious.

And maybe I am. I don't know exactly what makes me uncomfortable.

Later, thinking back to that evening, all I see is a shifting mass of navy blue and charcoal under a huge honeycombed ceiling, and the puckered skin and tottering heels of the girls outside on Swanston Street.

This is the feminist paradox. We must fight for the right to choice, the right of women to have access to, and to make, choices that we don't think they should necessarily make. But at the same time, we have to maintain our own ethical integrity.

Feminism isn't about agreeing. This paradox presents us with a terrible bind. You have a right to go and pole dance, we must say. Shimmy away. And in the next breath, we have to ask why we're doing it. We have to critique the meanings and power relations behind our choices and the choices of others. We have to cut out our own legs, in their Birkenstocks or their stiletto spikes, again and again.

Just as free speech requires that we defend the rights of people to say things with which we disagree, so feminism requires that we defend the rights of women to make choices with which we disagree.

And so it is that feminism's a project that will never be finished. It will always argue, it will always fight, and so it should. If the word 'feminism' gives some people a stomach-ache, I don't particularly mind. Toffee, for example, gives me a stomach-ache sometimes, and I still like it. Paradoxes, after all, can be hard to digest. But it doesn't mean they're not good for you, and it doesn't mean they're not right.

Ruby MurrayRuby Murray has an Honours degree in political science from Melbourne University. She is co-founder of the-democracy-project.org, a research and monitoring website to be launched in late November 2008 which aims to reintegrate gendered critiques into mainstream political analysis.

Topic tags: ruby murray, feminism, freedom of choice, Catharine Lumby, Monica Dux, Emily Maguire, Susan Maushart, Sylvi



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