What is my feminism?
I’ve always been an activist from leading a protest to the Headmaster’s office in grade four, to Amnesty and Clean Up Australia Day, and ten years volunteering for a queer community radio program, to being an ardent letter to the editor writer and talkback radio caller and the family member who is guaranteed to generate powerful dinner table discussion.
Looking back, I realise I have also always been a feminist but my feminism truly arrived along with the birth of my daughter and I learned a vocabulary for it when I began working at a women’s organisation.
I turned 30 two weeks after my daughter was born and it was only then that I allowed myself to graduate from being a Miss to a Ms. I think it was a combination of age and becoming a mother, and it was a most liberating feeling to have presented myself with this symbol of womanhood. Ouch, I hear you say. Does motherhood equal womanhood? Certainly not. But motherhood certainly does equal an acute understanding of inequality.
I am from the generation who was told since girlhood that we females can be and do anything. For a long time I had believed it. I had a mother who ran her own business; a sister who was planning to enter a male dominated industry without hesitation; and I had enjoyed a smooth ride through university and in to several workplaces.
Then the womb entered the picture and the childhood framing of opportunity fractured. Then I began working for a women’s organisation and I learned the language to describe the new image.
My partner and I are in a minority: we both work part time and we share the responsibilities of raising our two children. He often says we should talk in our home of being ‘humanists’, but for me I feel like I will always be a feminist.
I’m kind of a liberal, socialist, radical feminist because aspects of each appeal to my politics.
I also consider myself a ‘messenger feminist’. As a generation x woman I feel like I’m in the middle and delivering messages back and forth (and in this space I alternate between feeling stuck and feeling blessed). I ride on the tail wind of the mighty second wave, and I can feel the breeze of the fourth wave arriving.
And there are similarities that will forever keep feminism strong, but there are also differences in the sail combinations and they too are exciting and invigorating.
But there’s a constant need for navigation.
Despite the way the wind blows, there is agreement: there is much more work to be done. And it needs a collective breath to keep the wind howling.
The two strongest messages I hear from a lot of (note, not all) young women is: 1) we need humour as part of the feminist conversation; and 2) they want to work alongside men to achieve gender equality.
I’m a particularly serious person so I can’t deliver on point 1). But I can see how we can work alongside men. How many men do you know who work part time? And I don’t mean those young men studying who are working in between lectures as a means of survival. I mean men who are embedded in the workforce and possibly on a career trajectory pointing upwards.
There aren’t many of them. In fact, where I live the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life has research which shows 15% of working men work part time, while 52.7% of working women are in part time positions.
If we are serious about work life balance, dedicated to closing the gender pay gap and seeing women in leadership, and truly want to achieve gender equality in our workplaces, institutions, communities and our homes, we need more men putting their hand up and requesting part time work and we need bosses who are willing to role model flexible work practices as well as confidence to challenge the gender stereotypes which dictate that a man working part time would be less, well, manly.
Indeed, the University of South Australia’s Centre for Work + Life AWALi (Australian Work and Life index), released 3 August 2010, shows that “partnered men with children stand out as a group who are particularly likely to prefer fewer hours”.
I hate to say it, but it’s true, that until men are working part time, and our workplaces accept and adapt to a flexible regime and create job share and part time senior positions, it won’t be possible for women.
Bodies of research demonstrate that people with flexible work arrangements are more committed, more loyal, and more productive. Plenty of other research also shows us that people working part time actually work extra hours almost every week.
Our goal therefore should be to actually create part time positions; not just expect someone to squeeze a full time job in to part time hours.
It is a challenge. But when we meet this challenge we will see incredible cultural and structural change. And we will see this change at senior executive level within big business, and at the domestic level within households where women and men will more equitably share the caring and domestic roles.
So twenty years on from my own school yard protest to the Headmaster’s office, I find myself back at school now as my daughter has begun her first Term. She is the only girl in the class who has Ben 10 stickers on her lunch box and we support each other when other kids challenge her that it isn’t a ‘girl thing’.
She is as fiery and as determined as her mother, and she is the one who since the age of four has collected newspaper clippings of Julia Gillard. She was as excited as I was, and acutely aware, that she was our first woman Prime Minister.
We know that children often naturally or intentionally reject their parents’ politics, so I await to see what becomes of my daughter and son. But I am hopeful. When my daughter recently asked who I had interviewed for a position within a community organisation I volunteer for, I listed the three recognisably male names. Without taking a breath, she asked: “Where was the girl?”
Chelsea Lewis is Policy Officer at YWCA of Adelaide.
Damon Young has previously written a friday feminaust on feminist parenting. Check it out here and compare notes!