Different voices – different lives – the changing face of feminism

IN AN old tale of Camelot, Gawaine, one of Arthur’s knights, is rescued from death by an old hag on condition that he marries her. On their wedding night he kisses her, and she changes into a beautiful woman. Her ogre of a brother had put her under an enchantment for being disobedient. But Gawaine must decide: does he want her young in daylight, when all the world might see her, or would he rather her transformed at night, alone together? “Let it be as you choose,” Gawaine says. “It is your life.” She falls into his arms, laughing and crying with joy; he has now broken the spell completely. The ogre had said she would be free only when she could find a man willing to grant her sovereignty over herself.

THE FEMINIST Camelot has always been a world where women have sovereignty over their lives, but over the centuries they have differed about how it should be achieved. The tradition has been for older women to be shocked by their radical daughters. It seems the reverse today. Older feminists are concerned that the next generation is giving up the fight, that they don’t realise what has been won and what could still be lost.

For women in most generations, coming to feminism has been akin to religious conversion. There has been a sudden awareness of forces hitherto unseen; a road-to-Damascus realisation of how one’s life has been shaped by influences unacknowledged until now. Many of the older women in this story pinpointed that moment to their reading of a particular book: Germaine Greer’s `The Female Eunuch’, Simone de Beauvoir’s `The Second Sex’, Betty Friedan’s `The Feminine Mystique’.

The same titles came up again and again, as did women’s memories of relief at what they had discovered. They were normal, they still say with delight; it was not strange to long for study or careers, it was not unnatural to feel frustrated by unadulterated domesticity.

Suddenly there were names, like sexual harassment, glass ceiling, battering, date rape, for what had previously just been “life”.

These women would never discard a feminist banner that had so transformed their vision of what their lives could be.

But for many young feminists it is different. They know they are “normal”. They have grown up with feminism and take many of its hard-won triumphs as a baby takes its mother’s milk _ hungrily, with self-absorption, and utterly for granted. They are more likely to see feminism as a personal stance, a view of the world and their place in it, than as a political force to which they owe support. Sisterhood may not be dead but it’s walking with a limp. Perhaps it’s backlash; perhaps it’s the recession; perhaps it’s because they are less likely to have gone through the rites of passage that raise a woman’s consciousness about barriers _ getting a job, and becoming a mother.

Or perhaps it is, as Gloria Steinem claims, that feminism is the only ideology whose adherents grow more radical as they get older.

Whatever the cause, the result is that the challenge for feminism in the ’90s is to move women out of apathy and back into activism. The gains that have been made are still costing too much. Women’s freedom to leave unhappy marriages, because it has not come with equity in the workforce, has contributed to the feminisation of poverty. Women’s sexual freedom exists on the physical level only while the double standard still rules. Mothers pay for working outside the home while raising children with chronic exhaustion.

Barbara Wawn, 70, calls a spade a bloody shovel. Her life has been a struggle with the ugliness that can lie behind the middle-class phrases “reproductive freedom” and “economic equity”. Barbara Wawn lived in a storeroom after the war with her husband and two babies.

She washed clothes in kerosene tins and hosed her husband down with cold water when he returned, exhausted and filthy, from midnight shifts on the wharves. No matter what contraception she used, she says, she kept getting pregnant; she had seven backyard abortions.

“One was dreadful; I hung on to a wardrobe after and yelled and screamed.” She remembers how neighbors would help each other if one self-aborted. Many would wrap the fetus in newspaper and bring it to her grandmother, a former midwife. They would spread the package on the kitchen floor and go through it, asking “Has it all come away? Is it safe?” Barbara Wawn says, “This is what we grew up with. This is what you did. They were desperate, they were poor, and they didn’t want any more children.”
As a factory worker, Barbara Wawn got the sack whenever she stayed home to look after sick children; there was no child care, and no time off. “The men in charge couldn’t see the sense of that; they still can’t,” she says. On the production line, women taught male bosses how to do the work and were leered at in return, and had their already unequal pay docked for trivial reasons.

For years Barbara Wawn was the only woman on the federal council of the Miscellaneous Workers Union. She fought for change on the production line and in the wider world, through the Labor Party. She is impatient with younger women: “They take it for granted. They don’t know the fights we went through, and if they’re not careful, they’ll lose it. They’re not streetwise, a lot of them.”
Poppy King, 21, knows her life has been sheltered. She emphasises that she works in an industry in which men, not women, are at a disadvantage, and that her views might be different if she had to struggle in a career such as banking. Her Poppy brand of matte lipsticks has rocketed to success within a year of its launch. She’s ditched coy product names in favor of words she feels represent today’s woman: Courage, Ambition, Inspiration and Integrity.

Originally, Poppy King was happy to be called a feminist. Later, she modified it to “equalist”: “It’s very positive that women are continuing to fight for equal opportunity, but we have to be careful we don’t go the other way.” Eventually, she decided she was an “individualist”: “I’m not asking to be given a go on the basis of being part of a group, just on the basis of who I am and what I do.”
Poppy King sees no reason why she should not succeed on her merits.

It’s the sort of line that makes Rita Packer, 65, shake her head.

“Young women,” she says. “So did their grandmothers have brains and work hard, but they didn’t get on. I know of one woman who won the Supreme Court prize in law in the ’40s, topped the law school at Melbourne. No city law firm would employ her.”
Rita Packer is a Greek-Australian welfare worker who spent much of her life helping migrant women in factories. They are the sort of women law student Helen Freyne, 21, sees as facing most of the problems today. She does not believe that she would face blatant discrimination herself and sees it as her own responsibility to challenge any that does occur. “Individuals must make sure they speak up for themselves in any situation where they are intimidated or put down,” she says.

“There’s a view that women should all work together and band together, but they are people, in the end, and can be as competitive as any man. They have their own agenda and their own motives.”
But if Helen Freyne’s view of how to play gender politics differs from older women, her analysis of personal relationships is as critical as any placard-waving feminist of the ’70s. “My friends and I … see relationships that are just shocking. A lot of women just don’t stand up for themselves at all. I’m not angry; I like men as much as the next person, but that doesn’t mean I have to be subservient to them.”
For many young feminists, the personal is no longer political. There is little realisation that day-to-day difficulties women face are caused by assumptions by the wider culture about how women should be, by what company director Eve Mahlab only half-laughingly calls “the ravages of patriarchy”. Are they unaware, or reluctant to engage in battle on a wider front? Gloria Steinem has argued in `Ms’ magazine that to say, “I’m for equal rights for me,” is a reform; to say, “I’m a feminist, I’m for equal power for all women,” is a revolution. Fellow American feminist Bell Hooks says that many who support equal rights are frightened of opposing patriarchy, which would mean challenging the whole culture. Says Hooks, “If you go house to house and ask people, `Do you think women should be beaten by men?’, most will say no. But when you say to them, `In order to change that, we have to challenge patriarchy and male domination,’ then the resistance comes in. Because there’s a tremendous gap between the values people hold around gender, and the actual struggle that people have to go through in order to make those values a part of daily life.”
Young women are struggling with a dramatically different world. Their mothers and grandmothers tasted the heady years of the second coming of the women’s movement, that moment in history when changing the world seemed possible. Ordinary women flexed their muscles; when Deborah Wardley was refused pilot training by Ansett, bemused executives found themselves in unfamiliar airport lounges as their secretaries took care that they boycotted the offending airline.

Young women have known no such exhilaration. Most of those old enough to be juggling work and families are too tired for political activism; younger ones facing an economy in recession “are just realistic”, says Eve Mahlab. “They still have to get jobs, they still have to get the approval of
men, and so they can’t be as confrontational (as earlier feminists)”.

Women in each generation have reinvented feminism because somehow the torch has not been passed on; Eve Mahlab says that if this is not to happen again, young women must learn their history. “It’s a heritage.

To know it makes you understand what has been done, and what still needs to be done.”
But others see it as a victory that young women take their rights for granted. Patricia Edgar, 56, director of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, says her adult daughters would never see rights whittled away from them. “They would never allow people to put them down … I believe that growing up like that makes you stronger.” It is what current affairs anchor Mary Delahunty sees as the aim for her daughter: “I hope she will take advantage of all the opportunities that come her way, that she doesn’t even have to stop and evaluate them, that she takes them for granted. That both my children say, `The world is my oyster, and nothing is holding me back but myself’.”
But there was consensus across the generations about feminism’s important goals now. They include winning more support for women in their role as carers, defending women’s gains in the face of government cutbacks, reaching out to men and getting more women into positions of power. The feminist Camelot needs women at the round table.

Dame Beryl says women should join the political party of their choice.

Medical student Kate Taylor, 22, says things will not change for women doctors until they are in decision-making jobs: “They’re deciding about women’s jobs and money spent on women, with no input from women.

But it’s a Catch-22; you need women in high positions to see that women get there.” Sue Cougan, 32, a former personnel officer now at home with three children, says: “If there were enough women up there, governments wouldn’t be cutting services to children and education, to the elderly and hospitals.”
Many saw feminism as stalled because today’s structures do not allow for women’s double yoke of work and family. It gets worse as women get older, according to Marilyn Lake, 44, reader in history and director of women’s studies at La Trobe University. “Women in their 50s are referring to themselves as the `sandwich generation’. They care for their spouses and parents, and their children and grandchildren, while trying to hold down an often senior paid job. That’s a terribly urgent problem.”
Marilyn Lake is one of those worried about the effects of economic downturn on women. Cuts to government services leave women with even more duties as unpaid carers. Enterprise bargaining threatens women, who have less power to negotiate in their jobs than men, and the deregulation of working hours often could devastate families and women’s attempts at autonomy. “Those men working 60 hours a week _ who’s going to look after their children?” Marilyn Lake demands.

“How has Japan managed to rocket to success if not on the backs of its women?” Tensions must also be resolved between feminism and the traditional mother who chooses to stay at home with children; many still see the two as mutually exclusive. Feminist texts might be reclaiming motherhood and celebrating it as one of many roads to emancipation, but feminist texts aren’t big in the suburbs. Sue Cougan is almost apologetic about her feminist credentials; she married young, took her husband’s name, and is now economically dependent on him. “I strongly support the women’s movement, even though my life hasn’t gone the way of the stereotypic feminist,” she says. “I feel it is about women having choices and opportunities. But I think feminism may have alienated mothers … There’s still a feeling that you can’t be a feminist and have those caring, nurturing qualities.”
Marilyn Lake says the women’s movement was anti-child in the ’70s: “Marriage was OK as long as it didn’t turn into domesticity, as long as you could maintain an equal social, economic and career partnership. It was sad.” But the reasons for this have largely evaporated: “Then, young women felt that it was motherhood that had enslaved women. They wanted to be like their brothers, not like their mothers.”
Now, the fear is that young women cling too hard to fantasies about marriage and motherhood. Every mother and grandmother interviewed fears that feminism has failed to prepare today’s girls for reality.

Those with more experience of life ache for those who follow, naive and trusting, in their trail.

Fay Marles, 67, Victoria’s first Equal Opportunity Commissioner, says girls still don’t understand that they will have to depend on themselves to survive. She quotes a forecast by the Australian Bureau of Statistics that, of every 12 girls now at school, three will need to work alongside their partner to keep the family going, and three will get married and divorced soon after. One will need to work because her husband is unemployed; one will never marry; one will be widowed; one will have a partner who is physically violent and/or is an alcholic who can’t hold a steady job; one will never have a child.

And one will be supported by her husband all her adult life.

`Women are going to work for up to 30 years in the workforce, but they haven’t got the attitudes of people who recognise that and plan for it,” Fay Marles says. “They still think they’re going to get the lifestyle they want by marrying Prince Charming.”
Prince Charmings might be in short supply, but there have always been Gawaines. Most of the feminists in this story are married. Now Kate Taylor’s generation is reaching out to men who are on side on principle.

She and other students at Melbourne University have founded Matrix, a group looking at issues affecting women in health. Why? “As a second- year student, I used to come home feeling so lousy about myself,” she says. “We’d have to sit through lectures where they’d flash up slides of breasts, saying `Just to keep you awake,’ or `Here’s one for the boys’. One lecturer … would show a picture of a vagina and say, `This is an old one, because it’s all saggy …’ He would joke about how you don’t use anaesthetic for episiotomy (cutting the vaginal opening during childbirth) because `It’s just a woman’.”
More shocks came as women students began studying with specialists in hospitals. Each group to hit fifth year asks, “But where are all the women consultants?” Kate Taylor finds it dispiriting that feminists are still fighting battles that should have been won 20 years ago.

But 20 years ago, feminists would have handled such problems by setting up a woman-only group. Kate Taylor’s generation has less need for a room of their own. Matrix welcomes men and women.

Maybe the next generation of women is different partly because it is dealing with a different generation of men. Male medical students were among the offensive joke-tellers who sparked the founding of Matrix, but many young men have joined it too. One who had been heavily involved was asked by an outsider why he bothered. Says Kate Taylor: “He said, `I was sitting in a consulting room with a female student, and the GP spent the entire morning talking to me. Not once did he address the female student. Quite frankly, I got sick of it’.”
Winning men over has meant different things for different generations.

Older women talk about it in the sense of working the system, of persuading men in power to do what is wanted without making them feel threatened. For Eve Mahlab, it means provoking men into realising how patriarchy limits their lives, too. Perhaps for young women, it means tapping into an emerging chivalry whose ideals are as old as Gawaine and his lady.

First published in The Age.