I’m always curious to learn how others came to describe themselves as feminist. My own answer to this question has always been typically short, “My father was a feminist and raised me to think like one.” I realise now that my feminism is more complex than that, although I will always credit my late father as having been the first and most prominent feminist influence.
I grew up in South Africa, a country full of contradictions when it comes to women’s rights. South Africa has produced the African Union’s first female leader, celebrates a National (as well as International) Women’s Day and boasts the third highest representation of women in parliament. On the other hand, it has one of the highest rape rates, women are still persecuted as witches and the levels of domestic violence are shocking. I attended an archaically-minded, colonial-based all girls’ primary school (an unpleasant experience bar the one good female friend I made there) and a liberal, modern co-ed high school, where the uniform was relaxed and I could wear a t-shirt and shorts to class (which I did routinely.) My high school experience was, in retrospect, really wonderful in that gender didn’t play into academics, girls’ sports were as celebrated as the boys and the general attitude towards women was one of respect. It was only when I entered the working world in the UK that I learned the words “chauvinist” and “misogyny”.
I will be frank and say it came as quite a shock to me that men referred to attractive women as “a bit of crumpet” and that it was considered good-natured teasing by male colleagues to nickname a recovering anorexic in the office as “fatty”. I encountered sexism of the kind I thought was extinct and received so much unwanted attention on the streets and in pubs. University was a mixed experience; I befriended and dated some hideous men but also discovered the warm, friendly LGBT community on campus. It was my third year of University, however, that really kick-started my feminist mindset into feminist activism.
My friend was leader of the women’s collective and invited me to numerous events. I never had enough time it seemed, until one day I decided to research the name of an American guest speaker, Jackson Katz, who was giving a talk at our University. My research led me to the documentary ‘Generation M’, which featured Katz, and I decided after seeing this that I had to attend his lecture. I was lucky enough to meet him in person as well and this experience inspired me to take action. After graduating Uni and moving to Australia, that’s exactly what I did.
In January this year I founded the Sydney Feminists, a not-for-profit education and activist group with a focus on informing the general public about the damaging effects of sexism in media and culture. My co-founder and I purchased several powerful documentaries (including Generation M), which we have taken to universities and venues around the city. We have also promoted various women’s events and hosted a number of feminist socials. Although the experience of founding and running a feminist group has contained some difficult and frustrating elements, on the whole it has been extremely uplifting and empowering.
The journey towards becoming an activist was, at times, a rocky one. Last year my father died unexpectedly, and without my best friend and role model, I felt very lost for a while. On top of this, I was suffering from fibromyalgia, a chronic pain and fatigue syndrome that cripples me to the extent I cannot work the usual 9 to 5 kind of job. However, through meeting some inspiring individuals here in Sydney, and with the support of my loving, feminist partner (and co-founder) I have managed to use my energy, passion and creativity to contribute something positive to the country I now call home.
Feminism is something you can think, something you can feel, something that colours your world and informs your actions. It means something different to everyone, but ultimately it benefits everybody, whether they realise it or not. Seeing the world from a feminist point of view can be infuriating at times, but it can also be enriching and exciting. While feminism has become the focus of my work and thoughts, it defines me no more than my being agnostic, a South African or a woman; it is one part of many that makes me the person I feel so fortunate to be today.
Tessa Barratt runs the Sydney Feminist Meet-up Group (http://www.meetup.com/The-Sydney-Feminists/) and website (www.sydneyfeminists.org). Apart from feminism, she loves science fiction (she runs a Transformers website) and animals (she dotes on 2 adorable pet rats). She is an aspiring writer and has contributed to a few newspapers, online magazines and environmental websites. She is an active member of the Reclaim the Night collective and is currently running for positions at the NSW Women’s Network.