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Bobbing for feminists

03 April 2012

What does it mean to be a feminist? The question’s bobbed into view for me a great deal lately. No doubt partly due to the fact that our celebration of International Women’s Day, which we’ve always taken a keen interest in, has gone from strength to strength occupying us for the whole of March and not just that one special day. I’m also interested in the answer because many of the young women I come into contact with say they hate the very idea of being called ‘a feminist’ and that upsets me. Feminism to me is about being treated as an equal and with the respect any human being deserves. I can’t see what there is to hate about that?

And then I was reading a recent article in The Weekend Australian Magazine, which is about the only paper I read now, by a Canadian-born author Rachel Cusk around divorce and separation and the devastating effect it can have on your life. In it, Rachel also took a close look at the compatibility of such notions as feminism and motherhood, and whether equality is even achievable? 

Rachel was the worker in her family and looked after the children while her husband gave up his law job to stay at home and “help” look after the kids:

“It was his phrase, and still is: he helped me. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn’t want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me.

“Why couldn’t we be the same? Why couldn’t he be compartmentalised too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat?...

“We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband – meaning well – only did one. Once, a female friend confessed to me that she admired our life but couldn’t have lived it herself. She admitted the reason – that she would no longer respect her husband if he became a wife.”

It’s so odd that as women we often find ourselves using who we are in a disparaging, insulting way – and often from a young age. I remember the worst insult you could throw at someone in the playground, especially a boy, was to call him a girl and we all did it no matter what our gender. 

I suppose it’s how certain people (a lot of them it has to be said have been men – but certainly not all of them) have hijacked the term feminism and made it a dirty word. And yet where would we all be if those early feminists, women like Mary Reibey and many of the women we showcase in our Power of 100 book, hadn’t worked to be heard, to be successful, to be treated as equals in the eye of the law, at work and in society and, when it came to exercising our own right over our own bodies, standing up for women’s rights. 

The death of Margaret Whitlam in March again brought feminism into tight focus for me. One of my friends tells the story of Margaret and Gough at the airport a few years after Gough’s sacking as Prime Minister by the Governor-General. People, she says, treated them almost like royalty, standing back and giving way, congratulating them and asking for autographs, shaking their hands and patting them on the back. 

Margaret redefined what it was to be the wife of a head of state. My memory of her is of a commanding presence (I think she was a pretty fabulous swimmer) who added to the debate, had opinions she expressed and defined herself through her own work in the arts, education and social welfare. A feminist without always agreeing with every aspect of the movement, she, like many of us, understood that movements can head off on tangents we don’t always agree with and don’t have to join in, but that doesn’t mean we abandon the major aims that drew us to it in the first place – in this case equality and being treated with respect.

In the end it comes down to changing attitudes, something most successfully done by dispelling the myths that opponents of the idea build up to surround and confuse the big picture. 

Think about the Relationships and Finances survey we did in 2010. Our results clearly showed that it is men who are more likely to squander the household budget and women who are the financially responsible savers. We blew the myth of women as poor budgeters out of the water. Then there was our recent finding in the Generations survey around Gen Y women. They are not as some have led us to believe for their own ends, useless dreamers expecting to have it all handed to them. In fact they’re far and away the most prepared generation financially, even though they may not have put enough strategies in place to meet the realities to which they aspire.

Look out too for the research we are doing on business owners for National Business Month this May. I am expecting it will dispel all manner of myths around women in business and help us develop further opportunities for Ruby women everywhere.

Finally, and I mean this in the best of all possible ways, my term as Chair of the Global Banking Alliance is coming to an end. I’ll be handing the reigns over to Chris Sullivan of the Royal Bank of Scotland. We both believe and see the female economy as a huge opportunity and something that must be fostered if women are ever to achieve equality globally. The GBA’s been 12 years in the making, and sadly you only know you’ve made it when the men want in. Chris is the new ‘girl’ in the sand box and he loves it. Now that’s the right attitude.