`Nice girl’ syndrome

Karen Kissane reports on two new books concerned with the current state of Australian feminism.

`HOW CAN a nice girl ever become a great woman?” asks the latest `Ms’ magazine. The answer, of course, is that she cannot.

Nice girls are demure, obedient, eager to please. They make no waves, risk no hostility, and think of others before they think of themselves. Sometimes they even have trouble thinking for themselves.

This is no recipe for greatness, and for many it is no recipe for happiness, either. But for centuries it has been central to the notion of “femininity” – the qualities the culture has deemed necessary to be considered truly womanly. This century, more women than ever are trying to disentangle their true selves from the images imposed on them from outside. Two new books on Australian feminism help clarify those boundaries.

The latest offering from the lawyer Jocelynne Scutt, `The Sexual Gerrymander’ (Spinifex, $26.95), is a collection of her speeches and essays spanning almost 20 years of sharp, funny, uncompromising analysis of the place of women in the scheme of things. It is a call to the battlefield and an exhilarating ride through many fields of scholarship.

Scutt is known for her energy and voracious reading, and her work is peppered with references to other books and authors, creating a digest of feminist reading for those who have not done their own. She uses the term gerrymander – “to manipulate in order to gain an unfair advantage” – to describe the unequal distribution of power between women and men in public and private life.

`Contemporary Australian Feminism’ (Longman Cheshire, $25), edited by Kate Pritchard Hughes, is a feminist primer. It is one-stop shopping on most of the main “women’s issues” of the day: the family, reproductive technology, the workplace, the beauty myth, femininity and culture, gender roles and ethnicity. It also has a history of the Women’s Electoral Lobby and the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia.

Hughes teaches women’s studies at Victoria University of Technology in Melbourne’s western suburbs. She brought together 10 writers and academics for the book, including Lyn Richards, known for her work on families and suburbia, and Renate Klein, crusader against IVF and related practices. The book is designed for first-year women’s studies students, particularly those from migrant backgrounds. Hughes says most of the teaching material available until now has been British or American and self-centredly Anglo. “What there was didn’t talk about the sort of lives these young women lead,” she says.

Her mature-age students call themselves feminist, but her undergraduates don’t. “I don’t know why this is,” Hughes says. They do women’s studies not because they are politicised, but because they are trying to sort out what being female means to them.

What do they learn from a book like this? To question that which has been taken for granted until now, and to recognise the influence in their lives of prevailing “ideologies” (“sets of ideas that hang together and hang around, influencing behavior” is Lyn Richards’ user-friendly definition).

One chapter, `The Body Politic’, for example, asks to what degree engaging in beauty practices is a free choice for women and girls – what would the likely repercussions be, in terms of life chances, for a woman who does not engage in any beauty practices at all? What does it tell us that critics of `The Beauty Myth’ by Naomi Wolf, wondered why a beautiful woman would choose to challenge the importance of beauty? I wonder, too, what 18-year-olds will make of the assertion in the chapter `Femininity and Culture’ that “femininity rests on a suppression of desire in the interests of being desired”? Nice girls might instinctively know this, but perhaps do not know they know.

Scutt has never been a passive girl. She remembers doing a feminist analysis of the Jack and Jill rhyme at the age of four, becoming cross that Jack’s head was wrapped in vinegar and brown paper while Jill’s hurts remained untended. A central theme of her book is that women have never been passive, that there have always been activist women fighting to improve their sisters’ lot. The notion of “waves of feminism”, she says, is fraudulent, and is a failure to recognise the work of those from earlier generations. Most of her essays are based on the premise that women must relearn their history if they are to change the future.

All her essays are imbued with the notion of patriarchy, with its hierarchies and the root of most evil being its insistence on aggression and domination as central characteristics of masculinity.

But she acknowledges that there have always been men who have recognised the injustice of the gerrymander and worked to change it.

She criticises the archetype of the “typical Australian” as the bushman and ocker, not only because it excludes women – except as encumbrances – but because it excludes gentle men as well.

Along the way she talks about how women’s laughter is missing from history, and tackles the idea that feminists have no sense of humor: “No doubt this misunderstanding arises from the different perspective which may be brought to humorous (or otherwise) situations … Only humorless feminists suggest that popular strip cartoons like Andy Capp, in which Andy regularly punches his wife, are not all that funny.”
These two books make clear that feminism has not merely moved women out of the home and into the workforce, but changed or challenged the thinking in every major discipline.

Renate Klein describes the radicals’ argument with IVF technologies, saying that when nine out of 10 women leave programs without a baby, it is only the male science establishment that has benefited from the encounters. Scutt discusses the definition of productivity in traditional economics: the woman who cooks and cleans and raises children at home is “unproductive” because she earns no wage, but the man sitting in a bunker waiting for an order to fire a nuclear missile is “productive” because he is paid.

One of Scutt’s essays, originally presented as a Maurice Blackburn Memorial Lecture, is `In Praise of Dissent’. “The notion of dissent,” says Scutt, “is one directly associated with the capacity to think for oneself.” It is not the quality of a nice girl, but it is the only one that can lead to change.

First published in The Age.