Thoughts of an ambivalent feminist



I don't think my mum identifies as feminist; certainly she never used the F-word at home. But here are some things she made a point of telling me well into adulthood: stay independent, earn your own money, build your career.

Have the confidence of a mediocre white manThis seems to come from some sort of anxiety, though I have never interrogated it. She practised what she preached and retired on a career-high, as city administrator for private schools in Cagayan de Oro.

Imagine her consternation when I told her a few years ago that I had left a permanent teaching position in suburban Melbourne, in order to write freelance (which, let's admit, is a fancy way of saying 'perpetually skint'). My security became almost entirely bound with my husband's capacity to earn enough for both of us. It was a leap made hand in hand; we're okay.

But does this mean I have let down my mum — and all those women who made it possible for me take my seat in the office?

At a recent Melbourne Writers Festival session, Anne Summers reportedly suggested that educated women are wasted on baking and sewing. It is a sentiment also expressed in her book The Misogyny Factor. In it, she says:

'How could it have come to this — and so quickly? Not even a generation after the women's movement fought for the right for married women to keep their jobs, to have equal access to promotion, and to be paid the same as men, scores of women are walking away and saying, "We'd rather be Mummies".'

Indeed how could it have come to this? Having embedded the concept of choice in feminist consciousness, prominent feminists would now insist that the higher choice is to participate in a neoliberal paradigm where work is only 'real' if it is predicated on material gain and vertical mobility. In this paradigm the inescapable biological realities of mothering are a , which is why recent governments have recalibrated maternity leave, childcare subsidy and single-parent assistance to nudge women into the formal labour force.

The premise of this paradigm is also that individual ambition can overcome the inequities that compound gendered disadvantage such as class, race, and migration status.


"Where do underpaid, undereducated cleaning women lean in? Where do Aboriginal mothers of dead children lean in? Do Somali women in immigration detention lean in before or after they have asked male guards for sanitary products and tried to shower in private?"


Lean in, women are told — the catchcry since Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg wrote the book. It has a persistent echo, with columnist Julia Baird recently urging women to have the confidence of a mediocre white man, because that is apparently a worthwhile model to hold up for women. It is a model that is mute on women's experiences outside the corporate world.

Where do underpaid, undereducated cleaning women lean in? Where do Aboriginal mothers of dead children lean in? Do Somali women in immigration detention lean in before or after they have asked male guards for sanitary products and tried to shower in private? Where do newly arrived women from non-English speaking backgrounds lean in regional/rural areas? Shall Muslim women wait to lean until their white feminist allies rescue them from their patriarchal religion? Is it enough for homeless young women to lean into the warm safety of an alcove? Are trans-women even allowed to lean in?

In other words, unless feminism abandons the individualistic, secular and western framing of freedom, it cannot presume to liberate all women. Some of its recent concerns give away limitations: whether this politician or that celebrity identifies as feminist, whether child-raising is self-sabotage, whether women abandon autonomy when they take their husband's name. Me, I wonder sometimes whether it is ever possible to talk about sexual exploitation of women in Asia without getting entangled in (usually white) sex positivity and legal sex work. My views on abortion are complicated.

I still don't know whether to call myself feminist, and the ambivalence makes me feel like a traitor. That is perhaps the effect of being a woman who does not comprehend the priorities of prominent women who are seen to speak for all women.

For my mum's generation, having a career was the pinnacle of feminine achievement, and I admire her for working and raising us in the absence of a seafaring husband. But as a migrant mother who has chosen insecure work, in a country with a white supremacist bent, it is effort enough to just be myself.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister . She is a featured guest at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, feminism



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Existing comments

Fatima, you have made the choice to be a writer. And you're a good one, so it was a brilliant choice. Feminism's pioneers were angry and articulate, no-holds-barred writers. And they gained a lot for lots of women. Many women, and men, continue to live in poverty and despair but now more women can help due to more choices being available to well-educated women. The pinnacle of feminine achievement: free to give your life to something beyond yourself.

Pam | 01 September 2016  

The only two labels I've seen for women evangelising their own emancipation are 'suffragette' and 'feminist'. 'Suffragette', whatever else may make the word inappropriate, also suffers from the 'ette' diminutive. 'Feminist' doesn't sound bad. Why shouldn't any woman who thinks it reasonable that a man should give credence to her desire to accommodate within her life a Nobel Prize in Physics and three children not be a 'feminist'? It should be a label that is unremarkable and uncontroversial. Now, about that other label 'white supremacist bent' .... Is that like saying that the arc of the Australian universe is long but it bends towards white supremacy?

Roy Chen Yee | 03 September 2016  

"unless feminism abandons the individualistic, secular and western framing of freedom" which is the prevailing view of the mainstream, enthusiastically endorsed by the advertising industries, the corporations and the rich. As I read your piece, Fatima, with appreciation, I remembered that women's speakout I attended in 1974 in a suburban hall where some raised the need for a refuge for women who were being bashed in their homes. They reminded us that women and children were sleeping in the toilets at Central Railway Station. When authorities were asked to provide accommodation for women they replied they did not need to do so, because, "a woman can always find a bed with a man." It was radical feminists to set up that first refuge, squatting in an empty house in inner Sydney. Those early feminists were all for solidarity and political action. The message has been watered down, with a lot of help from the mainstream media!

Janet | 05 September 2016  

I am an ambivalent masculinist. Strictly speaking since feminist is derived from the Latin root 'femina' I should be a virist from the Latin root 'virus' = man. But I'm assuming virist and virism never really caught on because of their association with 'virus'. I am not a doctrinaire masculinist. I am by nature (biologically) a male. I am by nurture (family and social conditioning) manly. From an early age I learned (almost by cultural osmosis) that there were certain things boys did and certain things girls did. As a big brother to several sisters I learned that I as a boy had to respect them and be prepared to protect them. I shouldn't speak for my sisters but I will. They admired me and were confident in me as a strong protector. Little did they know that I was NOT the strongest boy in our mixed-sex primary school. They pursued higher education, obtained professional qualifications, married strong supportive men, had children, and returned to the workforce in their mid-thirties. I like to think that my inculcated masculine traits helped prepare my sisters for the happy productive married lives they have enjoyed for 35/40 years - free from feminist ideology..

Uncle Pat | 05 September 2016  

Fatima, one cant shoulder the burdens of the world by oneself. Resolve to be happy. Remember Lincoln’s saying that “folks are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Yes, highlight the injustices, ask the questions. But agonising over questions you dont have the answers to seems pointless. If you think Australia is a white supremacist nation have a good hard look at the Constitutional Monarchy. "The present monarch is Elizabeth II, styled Queen of Australia, who has reigned since 6 February 1952. She is represented in Australia by the governor-general, in accordance with the Australian constitution and Letters Patent from the Queen.[1][2][3] In each of the states, the monarch is represented by a governor, appointed directly by the Queen on the advice of each of her respective state governments." wikipedia. Its only 20 months since Prince Philip was awarded Knight of the Order of Australia by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Unfortunately we live in and have inherited a class oriented society.

francis Armstrong | 05 September 2016  

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