I grew up on a farm one of three girls, a strong mother imbued with a good dose of feminist values and a father whose response to a friend in the local pub one night when we were having a knock off drink – beer for him, and raspberry lemonade for me, aged seven – was as follows:
Dad’s Friend: “You’ve got three lovely girls, mate, but who’s going to take over the farm? You need to have a boy.”
Dad: “Why would I need a boy? I’ve got three girls.”
Stony, awkward silence followed.
Round it off with a childhood on a farm doing a “man’s work”, with both parents as farmers and partners, and growing up with Enid Blyton’s “Magic Faraway Tree” and “Famous Five” books being read to me in which the boys always sat down and cried when the adventures became too perilous and the girls were the strong ones (years later, it all came out their gender roles had been swapped over by mother dearest reading aloud. Ah well). Nancy Wake, and crazy Joan of Arc were my idols. All in all, it made for a Matilda who assumed girls and boys were just as awesome as each other, equality was the name of the game, and probably everyone knew about it.
Ironically, it wasn’t growing up near Colbinabbin (Home of the Golden Grain, population 111, awesome, lovely community) that really exposed me to sexism for the first time. Experiences, both overseas and at university, taught me that the world was a bit skewed, in favour of boys, and that some people think that because you’re a young girl and they’re male, suddenly it’s ok to speak or act in a way towards you they never would if it were their mother, boss, friend or sister.
My experience of sexism in Australia as a young woman has taught me that sexism is not just out there, easy to see, but is often covert; sly, underhand, so subtle as to be almost imperceptible. It can be a comment, a gesture, a brush of a man’s hand somewhere near you that really-was-probably-just-an-accident-but-actually-that’s-happened-a-few-times-and-makes-me-feel-really-uncomfortable-and-he’s-my-boss-so-yeah-must’ve-been-an-accident-and-I’m-just-over-sensitive. We talk about sex and the funny little differences between men and women in TV, radio, newspapers, Facebook memes, social issues – all the time. But we never touch sexuality, and the implicit controls placed on women’s sexuality all the time.
It must come around on a cycle, the issue of an MP/mother breast feeding somewhere in public and the outrage that ensues, what- every five years? What is going to happen – is it feared that men will lose control of themselves and pounce on the unsuspecting bosoms in a fit of uncontrollable lust? Tangent aside, we never really address those fundamental underlying inequalities, the ones that kind of make you squirm, and question the order of things, and would probably put a lot of people’s noses out of joint if you questioned the status quo. This is what being a feminist means to me. Questioning the uncomfortable stuff, drawing attention to the unpopular things, bringing out the conversation killers and to make people think, at least for a second, about whether the world is really that equal, between men and women.
It’s not. Especially outside of Western contexts, where gender inequalities are usually bigger, more obvious, and more discriminatory for women. This is why I work in women’s rights, in the field of international development. Not a field without its own mountain of issues (rest assured I’ve thought about donor dependency, being the white middle-class do-gooder, white women saving brown women from brown men, colonial guilt, why work overseas when you’ve got problems in your own backyard, etc., to death, and after a lot of thinking, it’s still the right choice for me). I love the work. I use my own privileged accident of birth and all the opportunities that came with it, to help women build their own capacities to help themselves and their communities.
I strongly hold to oft-used words of wisdom, “To educate a girl is to educate a whole village”, that by creating young women leaders and strong feminist movements driven by their own context, that gender equality is most likely to succeed. “Softer” ways used in development, such as using sexual and reproductive health issues as inlets to discuss deeper rooted causal factors of gender inequality I think are less effective in terms of bringing about long-term social change and uprooting entrenched patriarchal structures in a society. As I said, I like talking about the uncomfortable stuff. Advocacy all the way, baby (as long as it’s always driven by local women and not by do-gooders like me – I just help a bit).
I live my feminism via universals I hold dear. No one should have to fear for their own safety, as women human rights defenders often do. A brother and sister deserve the same education, opportunities and future as the other. Women should have a choice if, who and when to marry and have children. No woman should die in childbirth from reasons that are preventable in the West. Men and women both need to be sitting at the table as active participants in any discussion which aims to address gender roles and norms, to bring about gender equality.
Feminism to me is ensuring that a girl, regardless of culture, has the choice and knowledge that she can be any one and do anything she chooses.
Matilda loves all things women’s rights, horses, fishing, beautiful food and stalking beach destinations on Google Earth. She’s worked in a bunch of interesting countries in gender and international development, most recently with a feminist NGO in Nepal. Check out her other blogs at http://www.gender-focus.com/tag/matilda-branson/