friday feminaust: Gina Robinson

I’ve been thinking about what ‘my feminism’ is… and in the process of writing this, I realised that I was looking for something else to measure my feminism by, a standard, a norm of feminism that I could compare myself to, that I could agree with or argue with. It took a while to work out that such a comparison would kind of defeat the purpose of having to say what my feminism was. Sure, an idea of what others thought their feminism was could help me to see a path to articulating my own, by going through other people’s feminism and picking and choosing ideas and examples, so I could be ‘a feminist like X’, or ‘not that kind of a feminist’. Such things would only give reflections of other people’s ideas. So instead I tried to think of my ‘lightbulb moment’, the time when I realised that feminist was a part of my identity. This would probably be illuminating, except that I cannot think of a time when there was anything that boys could do that girls couldn’t (except reproductive functions—although I maintain that anyone can be a parent, I defy people to create a child without an egg from a female and a sperm from a male). I always assumed that whatever my brother could do, I could do as well—I may not have been allowed or encouraged to, but nothing could affect by basic belief that I could perform the act, although it may not make earn me applause (it’s on this basis that I learnt to pee standing up). But in searching for that lightbulb moment and not finding it, I was able to at least sketch the outline of what my feminism is: except for reproductive functions, there is nothing that males as a sex can do that females cannot. Individuals may have physical, cultural or social limits that prevent them from doing things, but if you isolate a potential particular action and are prepared to search if you find one individual of a biological sex doing it, you will be able to find a similarly acting individual of the other sex.

In thinking and talking about these things it’s always important to make clear that there is a difference between gender and sex. Gender is a social or cultural product, an identity that is performed (and recognised by others) according to a series of signals established by culture of the community in which the performance is taking place, and because of this there is a multitude of possible gender identities for people to perform in a multitude of contexts. Sex is usually more rigid, but depending on the criteria used to measure it, the possible categories of biological sex can range from three based on chromosomes (male, female, hermaphrodite) to more based on criteria like ability to reproduce.

The reason I mention the distinction between gender and sex in writing about my feminism, is because my feminism is for the sexes being equal; and against the idea of confusing sex and gender, so that gender roles become a tool for limiting the range of possible actions available to others on an abstract level. I guess this adds another layer to my feminism: individuals should be allowed to choose the gender they want to identify with and be identified by other as.  In performing this identity, they should have the freedom to combine signals available to them that they recognise as representing the identity they’ve chosen. When I talk about ‘signals’ the things that you do, it could be something like the way that you dress, talk, or move; it would be the things you talk about or the spaces that you move through; it could be the work that you do or the people that you know and how you interact with them. I imagine that the kinds of signals available are determined by the community you live in—the way you perform the identity that you choose will be based on the things you have access to and the meaning you recognise in them, and the way that you use or perform them should enable the people who see the performance to understand at least in part the gender identity that you have chosen, whether you’re using or performing things in the way that everyone else does or not.

All this sounds incredibly abstract, and less like my own personal understanding of what feminism is, and more like a one of those days where you google something and then keep on clicking through all the various links, until you end up a (kind of related) world away from what you were hoping to find out about. So: I wrote that my feminism is that both sexes have equal potential to act in all contexts, but that gender roles often limit what the individual can do.

The question then becomes how does my gender role limit my ability to do things? And how am I so sure that it’s my gender doing the limiting? I suppose it mayn’t be my gender that’s limiting my actions, it could be my class, or my ethnicity, or my race; it might just be something connected to the situation I am in at that time—the place I’m in, the people I’m with or the resources at my disposal. I see my gender role as being quite complex; I would say that on a superficial level I have chosen to represent myself as a nice, suburban Australian woman (sometimes girl, it depends on my audience) who stops being so generic and predictable when I start talking. My voice forces people to realise that I am all those things (a reasonably privileged position in society) but I’m also angry (at injustice that exists in the dominant group’s limitations, whether obvious or otherwise, on others who in some way don’t conform to whatever their ideal or expected behaviour is). What really gets me angry is that I can’t believe that any one person can possibly actually fulfil any dominant ideal (of genre or archetype), but those who come close or believe they come close will seek to maintain it by restricting others (often by means that are punitive) and ignore the possibility that such maintenance restricts them as well.

So those people who say ‘I’m not a feminist, but…’ are another potential source of anger, because the ‘but’ is always signalling a contention or a change which applies to them as an individual, and if it applied to all women would be, as Gloria Steinam says ‘revolution’.[1] I think that my gender identity probably gives me a voice, because I look like I’m not going to demand the ‘revolution’, the dominant group is often happy to give me a voice, and a voice once given if difficult to silence again, even if dissenting, in fact especially if dissenting, because to then silence that voice would damage any claim to being just or reasonable or tolerant of dissent. This brings up other problems of being seen as speaking for others—it’s not, I want everyone to find their passion or their anger and voice it, so that the things that make us angry can start being addressed

It was my intention to conclude this with the idea that my feminism wasn’t revolutionary. But given what I’ve just written, it obviously is. It leads to ideas like affirmative action being a choice of a particular candidate because they represent an under-represented minority feature in a situation where, all other things being equal the minority identity feature is the only difference between candidates. This is what it means sometimes in law, but not always in the way the practice is commonly understood. And if talking about it, and encouraging others to talk about it changes this, then the good work has begun. My actual conclusion becomes this: the sexes are equal, if you have to find a way to limit others and yourself, you’ll be doing it through gender roles because sex roles are reproductive only, just remember that the role that you recognise may not be what other people are representing, and may not be an absolute indication of their abilities or potential abilities.

[1] Gloria Steinam, ‘Why Young Women Are More Conservative’ Outrageous Acts of Everyday Rebellion, London: Flamingo (1984) 2nd edition 1985, 211: 215

Gina Robinson is a Melbourne University law graduate living in Melbourne. Before studying law Gina gained a Bachelor of Arts (Hons) majoring in Cultural Studies at the University of Melbourne. Her honours thesis was on representations of Australian identity. 

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