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Am I a Feminist? Are you?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

This week, I did something I rarely do. I posted a couple of book reviews on Goodreads. In them, I mentioned feminism, and today I wonder if I really am a feminist.

You see, I would describe myself as egalitarian.

I believe in the equality of all people, regardless of biological sex or gender identification. We all start this life exactly the same - dependant on other humans for the necessities of life, and seeking comfort from other humans too. We are born into a world with challenges specific to our individual existence, as well as cultural and generational challenges.

I typed "define feminist" into Google, and the result was not helpful.

I refined my search to feminism (/ˈfɛmɪnɪz(ə)m/), which is a word derived from the French féminisme, apparently from the late 19th Century; so it's been around for a while. What was going on then, to inspire this new word in France? Around the latter half of the 1800s, science was showing advances in cellular biology, radioactivity, virology, chemistry and Charles Darwin's "The Origin of the Species" was published. That book rattled many people on the grounds that randomness of selection left no space for a creation story like those in Genesis. But in France? Pierre Curie and his amazing Polish wife, Marie (nee Sklodowska), discovered radium and polonium. Why is this important? For one, practically all the other scientists of Marie's time (the 1890-1900s) were men. This woman won the Nobel Prize .... twice!! What was so special about radium? It could be used to treat cancer.

Now, I can't say that Marie Curie was the inspiration for the French word féminisme; but what I can say is that the French Revolutions of 1789 and 1848, and the Third Republic (1870-1940) probably had something to do with it. This is because these uprisings and political systems were concerned with the rights to work and vote, in France.

Was feminism born in France? It was certainly being discussed there as early as 1791: the Declaration of the rights of woman and of the female citizen was published then. It's author, playwright Olympe de Gouges, was accused, tried and convicted of treason; and beheaded for her political writings, which also included anti-slavery pamphlets and a play. The 1790s became important in the groundswell of women across the globe fighting for equality. Over two-hundred years ago ...

The now-English noun relates to "the advocacy of women's rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes". Google lists similar terms as:

  • the women's movement

  • the feminist movement

  • women's liberation

  • female emancipation

  • women's rights

  • post-feminism

  • womanism

  • women's lib

Other online sources also suggest that feminism includes advocacy on issues such as - equal rights and opportunities, reproductive and contraception rights, maternity leave, equal pay, women's suffrage; as well as freedom from - domestic and family violence, sexual harassment and violence, and psychological and financial abuse.

Now, I'm no campaigner.

I'm not the type of person to join a rally, or even to sign a petition, normally. I won't argue women's rights, or enter politics. So, am I still a feminist?

It's interesting, to me at least, that all this pondering has happened in the context of three programs on free-to-air television this week. Those programs, in no particular order, were "Further back in time for dinner" on the ABC network; "Arabia with Levison Wood" on the SBS network; and "Hillary" also on the SBS network.

The first episode of "Hillary", about Hillary Rodham Clinton, showed her as a young woman taking the test to enter law school, and being told by another candidate that if he didn't get in and he was sent to Vietnam, it was on her head. There were no women professors at her law school for her to look up to; she and her peers were the trailblazers. Here was a woman in 1974, entrusted to investigate if Richard Nixon was able to be impeached. The work that she and her other legal team-mates did on the impeachment document was cited in her husband's impeachment and the more recent calls to impeach Donald Trump.

We forget that she was possibly capable of much more than the man who later became her husband and a president.

That's something that we may never know about many women in Saudi Arabia, who have no voice and therefore no power. In Levison Wood's third episode, he travelled to Saudi Arabia and wanted to speak to women about being finally allowed to drive (in 2018). It was only through the advocacy of his state-sanctioned guide and the permission of a male travel agent, that he was allowed to briefly ask a couple of questions of the wife and daughter of that agent. The man of the family was in attendance.

While we need to respect the laws and lawmakers of the lands we visit, we also need to remember that their perspective may be very different to our own.

Then, there was "Further back in time for dinner", with Annabel Crabb. I wasn't actually watching this, but channel-surfed over at a point in which the first woman to hold the position of Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party, Ms Julie Bishop, was speaking about one of Australia's leading feminists. That powerhouse, and suffragette, was Mrs Edith Cowan.

Her mother died when Edith was seven; and then she was orphaned at 15, after her father was found guilty of murdering her step-mother. This alone, warrants a pause; her life was troubled from early on, and instead of letting it be a burden, she made it her vocational inspiration. She was a co-founder of the first women's social reform organisation, the Karrakatta Club; and together with other suffragettes, worked toward the right to vote being granted to Western Australian women in 1899 (four years after South Australian women, and three years before the new Commonwealth provided conditional suffrage; Victoria was the last to grant, in 1908).

To say that Edith Cowan worked tirelessly for women's and children's rights, is such an understatement. Remember, as the only woman in a male-dominated world, she would have been up against serious vilification and bullying. Edith Cowan's image appears on the Australian $50 bank note; and now when I see her face, I'll be thanking her for such a selfless life of service.

So, I have a feeling that I might not be able to claim the title of "feminist", because I don't rally and advocate, and debate in parliament. Granted, I do get frustrated with some of the male-positive things that happen in life. For example, I know two people who applied to get into a prestigious Masters course; one male and the other female. They were of a similar age and both had the prerequisite education and experience. The male applicant was offered the position, and I have often wondered if it was because he was a husband and father, who was well-known to the board who offered him the position. I know and like both; and it would have been a harder decision if both applicants were friends of the board. We often say, "It's not what you know; it's who you know". The guy knew everyone on the board, while his competition didn't.

Men have the "boys' club" where they get to talk about themselves and boost each other up. Additionally, dads often have a better chance of getting jobs and other opportunities because (a) they "have mouths to feed", (b) they have a "wife at home" who can take care of the kids, so they won't take time off, and (c) it would be terrible if they "couldn't provide for their family".

Sadly, women are still plagued by these assumptions, and often the sexism is from other women (not just men)! Additionally, women have a worse chance of getting a job or other opportunities, because employers (male and female) assume that the female applicant will take time off to have and care for children, making her "unreliable". Women have to work so much harder to get the opportunity in the first place, and then to keep it long-term. Age doesn't help; middle-aged women still don't get a fair deal once they've hit menopause.

Sexism is entrenched in our psyches.

So, while I might not be on the bleachers, chanting about women's rights; or advocating in politics ... I suppose I am still a feminist at heart. I need to remind myself that the only way sexism will be overturned is to constantly be aware of it in everything - in advertising, television, radio, social media ....

But also, I need to be constantly aware of the counter-effects of people who make a difference. Those people are men and women, and often they are children too.

Maybe, we need to move away from the language of "feminism" to a new lexicon of egalitarianism. After all, we are in this together.

It frustrates me that so many words in the English language make those of us, who identify with a circle and a cross, as an adjunct to the male - female, woman, human .... I struggle to embrace this vocabulary as anything other than sexist.

How can I look at it in another way? Biology? I used to say that the female of our species has two X-chromosomes, and the male has one X, and one Y-chromosome; and I used to joke (very sorry guys), that the Y-chromosome was originally an X-chromosome, but some information got lost, producing the Y-chromosome.

Weirdly, science (kind of) backed me up!

Now, I truly do apologise for my potentially-sexist suggestion there. But it makes the female of any mammalian species the originator, and the male as the one who came afterwards. This contradicts that bit in the bible, in Genesis 2: 7-25, where woman was formed from man's rib, making her dependant on him and his "helpmate". Maybe, man is woman's helpmate!! I don't know about that, but I do know that I appreciate the beautiful men in my own life - the men who have seen me as a capable and valuable human being. Not all were, but I do acknowledge how lucky/blessed I am.

So, where to from here? I do think we need to start from a balanced viewpoint and an even playing field.

We need to acknowledge that there are men throughout history (and in the present, thankfully) who have been (and are) feminists and egalitarians in their own way. Remember, Pierre worked with Marie Curie. Recall also, that Thomas Draper, the then Attorney-General, was responsible for the legislation that enabled Edith Cowan to stand for Legislative Assembly (and to win her seat against him).

Maybe, we need to rewrite history to show a more balanced view of the contributions of women and men to the world.

Or, maybe, we need to start at the source - our own minds, words, and deeds.

If you're interested in the evolution of the mammalian sex chromosomes, here's the abstract of the scholarly article that suggests that the X-chromosome came before the Y-chromosome.

If you're interested in genetic micro-deletions and male infertility in particular, here's a scholarly article.

If you're interested in the evolution of the mammalian Y-chromosome, here's a scholarly review article.

If you're interested in Australia's female political leaders, there's a great snapshot provided by the Parliament of Australia. It shows that Shirley McKerrow, in 1975, was the first female state president of an Australian parliamentary party (the Nationals).

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