Chilla Bulbeck is Emerita Professor at the University of Adelaide and Honorary Professorial Research Associate at the University of Western Australia. She has published widely on issues of gender and difference, including Sex, Love and Feminism in the Asia Pacific: A Cross-cultural Study of Young People’s Attitudes (Routledge, 2009). Her forthcoming book, with University of Adelaide Press, is based on the research reported in this article. Chilla is co-secretary of SAWA-WA (Support Association for the Women of Afghanistan in WA)
[Feminism] does have a presence, but I don’t think in the present that it’s all that well known. Like, it isn’t in every household or anything (John, high school student, regional South Australia).Tiffany: [The older generation of feminists] had bigger, I would say they had bigger issues. But now we’ve got things pretty equal, there aren’t that many big issues. Monique: I don’t think there are many, I mean, how many people do you know in the school who would know about feminism or be involved in the feminist movement? … I only know [union activist’s name]’s daughter, I mean, she’s involved and maybe that’s because of her mum’s influence. … I mean, I definitely wouldn’t have been, wouldn’t have even known about any of these things because, I guess- Tiffany: Or how many different types of feminist there are, I didn’t know that either. Monique: Or that there’s an actual women’s library [Women’s Studies Resource Centre, again under threat of closure as I write]. Monique: … And then when you learn at school, … you learn about feminists but they’re all like years old, you know, feminists from years ago who have done different things. And I think it’s because the issues back then were more major. … You got to know about those things through the media but now issues aren’t as major I guess, maybe. I guess it’s probably because there’s not as much radical feminism going on that you don’t hear about it as much (Tiffany and Monique, women’s studies high school students, Adelaide).
Expressing a widening criticism of feminism, journalist Virginia Haussegger (2005) lamented that her ‘feminist foremothers’ promised her she could ‘have it all’, only for Haussegger to discover, too late, that she had sacrificed motherhood for career. Natasha Campo, based on her university women’s studies curriculum, read such media articles with incredulity: ‘Why was it that in collective memory feminists had become the problem, rather than the solution?’ Campo (2009:2) replies that, where media narratives construct feminism ‘as solely a middle-class phenomenon obsessed with wealth and public success, academic historical accounts emphasised the diversity of 1970s feminism’. In university, Campo learned of the role of working-class women, Indigenous women, lesbian feminists and so on in forging the feminist agenda; she learned also about a diverse history, as the struggles of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which won suffrage, gave way to the maternal citizenship of the 1920s as a result of which women received some state support for caring for children in the home (see Lake 1999 for the history Campo learned). In her research, Campo (2009:4-5) set out to understand why the ‘memory and meaning of feminism’ were so different depending on whether women learned their feminism in activism on the streets, in university classes or from the mainstream media. Given that baby boomers lived through and made women’s liberation while their daughters only read about and inherited it, there are generational differences in the sources of feminism, younger women being much more reliant on second-hand stories, relayed in classrooms or the mainstream media (see Campo 2005:67-68). Naomi, an Adelaide high school student in my study, suggests that young people find feminism as
just little bits and pieces. … Because, you know, I don’t go out and do big rallies or anything like that, so I’m not there myself. So the next best thing is TV, watching, you know?
Writers, following Mannheim (1952), suggest that feminist understanding garnered from secondary sources means less emotional attachment as well as knowledge (e.g. see Pilcher 1998:124; Everingham et al 2007). Kate, an Adelaide high school student in my research, expresses ‘respect’ for the women who gave her generation of females equal opportunities. But, not having lived through the change, ‘we can’t really have the same passion about it that perhaps our grandmothers or mothers had’. Amanda, a regional South Australian high school student, agrees: ‘it happened before I was born … so I’m taking it all for granted’, growing ‘up with a silver spoon basically’. Feminism is ‘more relevant’ for ‘people like my Mum, my Grandma’s generation’.
The focus in this article is on the relationship between young people’s differently understood ‘meanings’ of feminism, in particular their perception of the history of women and the women’s movement, and the sources from which they gain their ideas concerning feminism. While my research indicates that school or university classes produce a more complex understanding than the mainstream media, I suggest that many young people exposed to women’s studies resist claims that feminist activism remains necessary and relevant, believing instead that women today are equal and do ‘have it all’.
Today’s freedoms are often proclaimed by reference to a compression of gender history into a single moment of oppression in which mothers and grandmothers were ‘not allowed to work’ and were ‘forced’ to ‘stay indoors’ and ‘cook and clean’. Monique locates feminist activism firmly in the past. Whereas today ‘issues aren’t as major’. Verity, a Perth high school student, expresses young respondents’ common presumption of equality among young women: ‘With me, I have so many opportunities in life, and I don’t feel that my gender or anything … is really holding me back in any way’. As a result, the women’s movement is now irrelevant and those asserting ongoing women’s inequality are whinging ‘victims’, complaining about women’s subordination when it no longer exists (e.g. see Baker 2008; Robinson 2008:158,177; Dux and Simic 2008:30-33). As the article concludes, there are challenges both for feminist activism and teaching women’s studies in an environment where young middle class women do have more opportunities than their mothers and grand-mothers, are celebrated as ‘can do’ girls (Harris 2004) and ‘top girls’ (McRobbie 2007).
The purpose of this Australian Research Council funded research was to explore young people’s attitudes to a range of gender and social issues. Between 2000 and 2007, a questionnaire was administered to 1000 young people and 230 of their parents across four Australian states. Initially my plan was to secure something like a representative sample of schools from four major categories: government schools in disadvantaged areas, middle class academically oriented government schools, parish Catholic schools and elite Protestant schools. I also wanted to survey schools in regional cities as well as capital cities. It soon became clear that almost no school would grant me access unless a personal contact smoothed the way and my sampling grew increasingly opportunistic, albeit that I did secure high schools in my chosen categories. South Australia made up 53 per cent of the sample, Western Australia 25 per cent, New South Wales 12 per cent and Victoria 10 per cent. Year 11 and 12 high school students made up 60 per cent of the sample, most of the questionnaires being completed at school in a single class period. The students took a near identical questionnaire home to their parents to complete and post back to me (19 per cent of the sample).
In order to identify the opinions of young ‘cosmopolitans’ (tertiary educated Australians with quite different views on social issues from ‘locals’ with only secondary education: see Simons 2004), I also surveyed first year university students studying women’s studies or social sciences (12 per cent of the sample). In order to widen the sample to those often under-represented in youth studies, I surveyed youth service clients, aiming for services for early school leavers, Indigenous youth and young people with sexuality issues (9 per cent of the sample).
Around 150 follow-up interviews were completed with respondents who indicated willingness to be interviewed, 53 per cent of them being school students, 30 per cent parents, 10 per cent university students and 7 per cent youth services clients. The sample was unintentionally biased towards females, largely due to the greater interest women expressed in completing questionnaires and interviews (65 per cent of the total sample was female).
The data in this article is drawn from the interviews with the young people and their parents, and the answers to questionnaire items concerning the sources of their ideas about feminism and the image of feminists they have. The questionnaire consisted of a number of questions concerning social and gender issues asking respondents to choose their response on a scale from ‘agree strongly’ to ‘disagree strongly’, with subsequent space for comments after each question. The comments were coded according to ‘gender vocabularies’ (see Pilcher 1998), allowing this to be entered into an SPSS file, along with the other quantitative data. The ‘gender vocabularies’ also informed my analysis of the interview transcripts as did my secondary reading and emerging explanations for young people’s attitudes to feminism, gender issues and other social issues, as I shuttled back and forth between reading the data and accumulating a secondary literature on young people and their political and social engagements.
I often say to my mother, ‘I am so proud to be your daughter’. … I walk in strength because she taught me to walk in strength (Sharon, university social sciences mature-age student, Adelaide).
It doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis. … (W)hat has the feminist movement done for us? Well, I don’t know what they’ve done. It’s not publicised. It’s not something that you see every day. It’s not on the local news every day (Francesca, mother of high school student, Adelaide).
For most respondents, television and newspapers are their main source of information concerning feminism: male or female, older or younger (see Chart 1). The partial exception is young females’ reliance on school classes. This is an artefact of the heavy sampling in South Australia where women’s studies is offered as a subject in Humanities and Social Sciences in the final two years of high school. In year 12 students can take women’s studies as a South Australian Certificate of Education course. Around a dozen schools each year offer the course in either year 11 or year 12 or both.
Apart from widespread reliance on television and female friends, there are some generational differences in the sources of ideas concerning feminism. Newspapers are more popular with parents; television, films and the internet are more popular with young people. There are gender differences in relation to school classes (more important for young women), other family members, in particular wives, and the internet (fathers), mothers and to a lesser extent television (young men). Female friends are a little more important to females than males; male friends are a more significant source to males in each generation.
Each of these sources can provide either positive or negative examples that ‘teach’ about feminism. When she said she learned about feminism from her ‘male friends’, Zoe, an Adelaide high school student, means they ‘make you realise that feminism has a way to go. … You can’t say women have equal rights with men when men don’t see that’. Another respondent identified the source of feminism from female friends as ‘girls whinging’. By contrast, Vanessa, a Sydney high school student, and her non-English speaking background friends are ‘very passionate, very intelligent girls’ who discuss feminist issues ‘a lot’. They are particularly interested in issues they face as ‘ethnic girls’, for example the greater freedom of brothers to ‘go out’ and some young women’s expectations of marriage, ‘even if they are in the middle of a university degree, soon as they find a man’.
Charts 2 and 3 correlate the sources of feminist ideas with the extent to which young respondents held a ‘negative’ image of feminists. This is expressed in their cumulative response to the three descriptors of feminists taken from the following question in the questionnaire (derived from a 1995 Time/CNN Poll in the USA – see Bellafante 1998:58):
3.6 Do the following describe feminists (please tick either the 'yes' or 'no' box)?
|Work for equal rights||Work for equal pay||Work against sexual harassment||Support abortion rights||Work for affordable child care||Don't respect stay-at-home mothers||Don't like most men|
I chose ‘work for equal rights’ as representing a positive view of feminism, while the last two, negative statements, provided the most variability between male and female respondents. The ‘negative’ view of feminism is expressed by believing feminists do NOT work for equal rights, don’t respect stay-at-home mothers and don’t like most men. The negative responses are summed in the charts below.
Respondents who rely on male friends and the mass media are more likely to have negative views of feminists (for analysis of popular media representations of feminism see Campo 2009; Henderson 2006), while mothers, school and university classes, books and magazines are sources of more positive views.. Significantly, females identify their teachers as a source of positive ideas about feminists, while the young men gain a negative image from their teachers. Although the direction of causation cannot be deduced from the data, the young men’s comments suggest that they are more likely than young women to be ‘forcibly’ exposed to their teachers’ feminist messages. Few young men enrol in women’s studies classes and so they have received their feminist messages in other courses, for example English literature classes. They interpret their teachers’ comments as stereotypical ‘radical’ feminism, anti-male and anti-motherhood. On the other hand, it is likely that young people with a positive interest in feminism will pursue their interest via feminist books, just as these sources tend to provide more positive images of the women’s movement.
I think every woman now is, has power to, has enough power to enforce feminism or encourage it or whatever. And so, it doesn’t need to be a movement anymore. Like, you know, a group of women burning their bras. It’s alive in every woman sort of thing (Kate, high school student, Adelaide).
Students who did not learn their women’s studies in dedicated classes (and some who did) more often claim that feminism is redundant, given every woman now ‘has enough power to enforce feminism’. Some students concluded from this that their feminist teachers were crying false victimhood.
David, a high school student in Perth, studied Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1955) by Ray Lawler in English Literature. From this he learned how bad women’s lives once were, for example ‘Nancy working in a bar’ and the ‘stupid’ ‘attitudes of the time’. Elise, a young mother in high school in regional New South Wales, remembers learning in year 10 that
most women weren’t allowed to work and they always had to stay home cleaning everything. And then they got a female president and [realised] … women can be just as good presidents as what male presidents can.
Fraser, a youth services client in regional Victoria, learned the progressive story by comparing women’s position in 1902 and 2002, concluding that the only impediment to gender equality today is ‘small-minded people’:
We studied it a lot in class for about half a term and that really got me into it. Now if anyone says feminism, I know what they’re talking about. We learnt about like in 1902 how – we compared 1902 to 2002, looked at the differences. There’s a massive margin of difference. … It’s certainly better than it was 100 years ago. It’s more – like how women were treated then and now, there’s still some similarities. There’s still like – in communities like this, there’s small-minded people that won’t change their perspective on how they do things. I mean, that’s always going to be the case, I guess.
While Evelyn, a high school student in Sydney, took the message of gratitude and responsibility from her feminist history lesson, she also concludes ‘now we don’t even have to struggle’:
I learnt that in history about two years ago [about suffrage and so on]. … It certainly set an example to the rest of the world basically. To women, it’s like these people are our ancestors and they did that for us. We should be independent as well. It’s like they struggled so hard to do something like that, and now we don’t even have to struggle to get equality so we should appreciate it.
Fiona has campaigned actively for women’s issues, including establishing a women’s health centre in regional Western Australia where she lives. Despite this living example of feminist activism in her own household, Fiona’s daughter, Eleanor, concludes from her school history lessons that ‘it’s all been won now’:
Eleanor: When I first thought of feminism I thought of like people getting out there in rallies and women are the best, I think it can be more subtle than that. But I don’t really know. I don’t have, I don’t really have great feminist views. Chilla: Do you think your mum’s a feminist? Eleanor: I don’t know. Are you? Fiona: Well, I would say, yes. Yes, in my own way. Eleanor: I think that we get a lot more, females get a lot more, what’s that word, options now. So it doesn’t really – you don’t have a lot of feminist actions happening anymore. Fiona: Do you think that some girls your age and probably even a bit older are a bit complacent really? Eleanor: I don’t know. Fiona: That they don’t feel that have to fight for anything anymore? Eleanor: Yes, I reckon. I’m like that. … Chilla: So you really think most of the battles have been won, do you reckon? Eleanor: Yes, I think if it was like a big issue, I definitely would, and some smaller issues as well, but – particularly I don’t think that feminism is as much use as it used to be. I do history too and I studied that when feminism was a great issue with suffrage, the voting and everything. It’s all been won now. Fiona: Now that I’m older, there’s a lot that needs to be fought for. Eleanor: You can’t say, I don’t know of many jobs that a woman can’t get a job just as a man can, now.
Fiona goes on to discuss community ‘attitudes’. As an example, when a boy cried in Fiona’s pre-school class, the other boys and girls remonstrated, ‘Don’t be a girl’. I asked Eleanor if she had witnessed this retort among her own friends. Eleanor did not see this as a gender issue, but as a matter of growing up, as only young boys would worry about being called ‘a girl’:
I think when you’re younger it hurts the kids, but when you get to my age if someone says that to a boy, they take it on the shoulder. It’s just a joke. You know what I mean. I don’t think they have any big, you know, conspiracy theories of how they are going to bring the boys down and everything, but I can see how younger boys can get really distressed about being called a girl. At my age they really don’t care.
Eleanor’s comment can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it appears that Eleanor cannot see the insult in calling a boy a girl (there are no ‘conspiracy theories’ to bring boys down). On the other hand, perhaps there really is a more equal valuing of males and females among Eleanor’s friends, and boys Eleanor’s age ‘really don’t care’ if they are called ‘girls’.
The comparison between then and now is reinforced by the media. An example is the illustration for an article on contemporary negative attitudes to females. Instead of showing those negative attitudes with a current image – for example a row of anorexic models or a shelf of girls’ toys in a toy store – the illustration is a row of girls in a 1930s home economics class pegging clothes on the line (Polly Curtis, ‘Dated attitudes “holding schoolgirls back”’, The Guardian, 9 June 2009). The implicit message is that gender stereotyping occurred a long time ago, in the 1930s.
Given that ‘it’s all been won now’, women’s studies teachers were sometimes criticised when they claimed that there was still much for feminism to achieve. Matthew, a high school student in Perth, complained about Sister Kate (written by Jean Bedford in 1982) which he studied in English, because it was written by a ‘militant feminist’: ‘pretty much everything bad that happened to her was blamed on men, nothing was ever her fault, that she allowed some of these things to happen to her’. Monique gets ‘really sick of hearing about … poor women did this, they haven’t had any success. … writing the same thing over and over again’, rather than studying women who are ‘moving their way up in like their jobs and everything’. Larelle, a sexuality youth services client in regional Victoria, agrees:
it was fascinating to learn, but I found it very negative because a lot of the time it was, you know, this is bad, this is bad, this could be better, we still don’t have rights in this area - rather than focusing on a positive. Like at around the time I was studying women’s studies Christine Nixon got herself into the position of the first female Police Commissioner for Victoria. Those sorts of things, and they stopped and went, ‘Ooh, that’s awesome, but this is shit, back to this’. I thought they should spend more time acknowledging that in the last probably a hundred years, if not a little bit less, things have changed significantly in a very short period of time for women. I respect the chicks back then that were doing that and have given me opportunities of growing up. … I think it’s very integrated now and men understand that women have the same responsibilities and those sorts of things.
Sallyanne, a women’s studies student in regional South Australia, saw her fellow students as man-hating:
the girls in my class were very anti-men. That’s what I think I didn’t like about the subject, that it was ‘men do this, men do that’, and that’s not sort of what I thought it would be like. I thought it would be more of talking about women and getting their equal rights and that sort of stuff. … Obviously it generally was the men, but obviously women did the wrong thing sometimes as well.
‘All the guys’ at Jasmine’s university college in Perth think ‘it’s like … the hugest joke’, asking “Why isn’t there men studies?”. Lucy and Michelle, in the same women’s studies class, believe that indeed ‘guys’ need their ‘men’s revolution’, their gender identity ‘spread right over the table’ and analysed. Lucy recommends men’s studies for men and women’s studies for women, but Michelle prefers gender studies as ‘you can’t define a women’s role unless you can expect to define a man’s role’. The ‘hugest joke’ got nasty at the University of New South Wales a few years ago. Male students left comments on the feminism class’s whiteboard: ‘Bitches. Get back into the kitchen!’ Students wearing ‘women’s power’ t-shirts in the student election campaign discovered ‘the depth of mostly male hostility and apparent paranoia concerning feminism’ (Raddeker 2006). As Zoe quoted above wryly suggested, these are some of the ways women learn about feminism via the negative attitudes of males. Discovering the survival of misogynistic attitudes in this direct way, while painful for the students involved, is a telling lesson. It could be seen as an example of ‘DIY women’s studies’ (see Bail 1996 on ‘DIY feminism’).
A good number of questionnaire respondents report a DIY approach to learning about feminism. They write that they understand feminism through ‘life experiences’, ‘personal experience’, ‘my own beliefs’, ‘ideas from myself’:
I make up my own mind based on facts and not the crap on TV (male, high school student, Perth)
I decided myself, men have no right to treat me like shit and neither does anyone else. I treat males the same as females (female, women’s studies high school student, Adelaide).
Stephanie, who found the legal treatment of battered women so outrageous, applauds the ‘strong female teachers [who] have taught me’ and helped form her opinion. However, she asserts that her opinions are her own: ‘not exactly adopted theirs but been influenced by them’.
Carina, a high school student in Perth, believes:
I don’t think I’ve ever really seen any inequality. I mean, our lit teacher Mrs Lake, she constantly says there is but honestly, personally I’ve never really experienced any of it, I would say. I mean, everyone has always treated me as a competent person and I don’t think I have ever been discriminated against.
Carina only became aware that feminist history was relevant in her own life when she completed a project on Vida Goldstein, who
ran for parliament eight times in a row and every single time she didn’t get in and she still did it. … I would have given up after the first time. I would be like, ‘No-one wants me, damn’. She just said that just as long as I keep campaigning and more people become aware of it.
As a result of this project, Carina suggests that ‘strong women’ in history are ‘relevant to me rather than just a thing in history’. Carina chose who she would study, rather than being told what to write about, or even what to think about the issues. Dominic’s class studied female writers, like Jane Austen, but the males were not allowed to study male writers such as Joseph Conrad or Shakespeare. Given gender pervades every text, Dominic’s teacher could have allowed students to choose their own text, at least within the constraints of tertiary entrance examinations, and required a gendered analysis of the chosen texts.
Tiffany and Monique were disappointed that their women’s studies class did not include ‘many views on the topic’ ‘so then we can make up our own mind about it instead of just hearing one thing’ (Tiffany), the teacher’s perspective. In pursuing these different views, they hoped to be ‘out in the community more’ (Monique). Florence and Daphne specifically wanted to visit a brothel: to ‘meet a real live sex worker’ (Daphne) and find out more about ‘different jobs for a woman’ (Florence). While implementing the students’ desires would create more organizational work for their teacher as well as raising ethical issues, the students had clear views about a preferred syllabus to – as they saw it – repetition of the mantra that ‘poor women did this, they haven’t had any success. … writing the same thing over and over again’. Although hardly a stunning revelation, I am suggesting that the more students can discover feminism for themselves by choosing the texts, the historical figures, the projects on which they work, the more likely they are to discover the struggles still to be won.
Interviewer: sometimes feminists on television are shown to be rude, radical and - Ross: That’s why I get in touch with my feminine side (male high school student, Adelaide)
I’m pretty lucky, but, umm, the people that I hang around with are mainly female ‘cos I went to an all-girls school, as you know. We all knew about the rights through our parents and television and just through school. But, so even when I wasn’t in class, just through discussion we’d be talking about female rights and things like that (Niki, high school student studying women’s studies, Adelaide)
Despite their criticisms of some aspects of their courses, students also reported eye-opening ‘epistemological breaks’ (Althusser and Balibar 1970:25-28), particularly those enrolled in university courses. In their interviews, students enrolled in university and secondary school women’s studies courses displayed greater resources with which to interpret messages from family, media and wider society. These students were also generally more articulate concerning the specifics of what they had learned. Kelly ticked school classes as a source of feminist ideas but admits in the interview:
I don’t really recall anything significant from that that made me say, oh, that’s the one for me or anything like that (Kelly, high school student, regional South Australia).
Alex, now a sociology student in Melbourne, learned in school about ‘gender equality’:
Pretty much that women didn’t have it as good as men, and that throughout history, women have started fighting for it, but it wasn’t really covered in great detail.
Anne, a high school student in Adelaide, remembers a male sex education teacher who taught the students a variant of ‘dress sensibly and avoid rape’:
females have to be more careful. [If] … the guy sort of like offers, like buys you a drink, it’s not just because they want to be friendly and that sort of stuff.
By contrast, Stephanie, a high school student in Sydney, took a powerful message from her legal studies course when she learned about the legal treatment of battered women who kill their violent husbands:
the battered wife syndrome in … court cases. … I was so surprised because that wasn’t accepted until a few years ago. … I was shocked that women could be battered so much and yet in their retaliation they would be found guilty of a more heinous crime than that that was committed to them. I was shocked and I thought to myself that has to change. That has to change if we’re going to have equality. A man can be provoked by his wife committing adultery and that can be considered provocation but a woman can’t be beaten and considered that. It just, that wasn’t even sensible.
At their best, women’s studies classes impart ‘feminist literacy’: a ‘set of interpretive strategies for reading both texts and everyday life’ (Lisa Hogeland in Taylor 2004:82). Charmaine, a women’s studies secondary student in regional South Australia, had ‘grown up and seen like heaps of women in like relationships or whatever where like the guy just totally dominates, and it’s just always made me really angry’. But she ‘learnt to be a feminist mainly through school’:
You know that things like that happen. But to hear them and have them said to you like straight out, this happened, this happened, it makes you like think about it a lot more. Yeah, ‘cos I wasn’t as strong like a year ago or anything before I started. Yeah, it really like strengthened my views on lots of things. Like even now I’m not doing the class, I will never, like, let go of that or anything.
In the section of the questionnaire which asked respondents to complete the statement ‘I am …’ ten times, Charmaine described herself as
somebody who wants to make a difference, somebody who wants to help people, somebody who doesn’t want to rely on a man to keep me happy, disgusted with the way the media portrays women, disgusted with the way women portray themselves, disgusted with the way men sees women, a feminist, somebody.
Studying women’s studies at university in Perth, Jane now notices ‘lots of things’, such as the sexism in her boyfriend’s ‘footy club’. Women’s studies has given her the means to think about and express her critique:
I’m very much aware of it now, whereas I think probably before I was, but I didn’t really have an avenue in which to sort of express it, or to think about it really. There was no sort of arena to think about it in, but yes, now there is. Yes, whenever, ummm, I’m trying to piss him off, I just say, ‘Yes I’m going to bring this up in Women’s Studies on Monday’.
Jane now ‘sticks up’ for females. If her boyfriend or his friends criticise women in a sexist way, she tells them not to ‘put these women down in front of me’. Alyssa, a gender studies university student in Adelaide, also found her feminist voice:
when I realised all the things that we’ve had to go through and still do, it … got me all fired up and I’ll go home and I’ll tell my mum and she says, ‘I know’. … [In second semester] I was doing something else but I actually changed so I could do gender again.
My own first year students have written similar comments in the feedback forms: women’s studies ‘helped me understand what feminism is all about so I can talk to other people about it if asked’; ‘taught me not to take things at face value’; ‘helped to formulate my ideas on feminism’. It is ‘like opening a foreign dictionary and opening a whole new world of concepts I never knew’. Second and third year students articulated their ‘feminist literacy’ with more complexity:
It gave me a better understanding of the way I am in the world, of how I construct and am constructed. I learnt a great deal. Expanded my understanding of discourses and contemporary debates.
I felt enlightened, personally, politically, socially. I am no longer a passive woman with little understanding of how I am and have become.
The ‘language, concepts, and categories employed to frame an issue affect what is seen’ (Carol Bacchi in Hall and Rodriguez 2003:884). Some secondary school respondents distanced themselves from ‘whinging’ ‘radical’ feminists on television, describing them as ‘bleating “Oh, the women, the women!”’ or seeking ‘too much help for women when there wasn’t as much help for men’.
Some of the respondents with women’s studies training brought a more critical eye to the media. Tiffany claims issues are ‘exaggerated’ as though all feminists are the ‘same’. Monique, in the same high school women’s studies class, adds ‘it’s mainly radical feminism’ that is shown in the media, Tiffany defining this as ‘protests and so on’. Monique is able to distinguish articles about women (‘You just see it’s about women and think “Oh yeah, women are getting new jobs, okay”’) from the almost non-existent ‘feminist article’. As a result of women’s studies, Charmaine stopped watching as much television because so many shows ‘bag’ women who are represented as ‘trampy and getting used and abused and stuff all the time’.
I think I just learnt a lot of it for myself just thinking. I think a lot. So I just think and think about how things came to happen and how. … Because I had a baby young I had to think about how it is that I can actually keep it (Kristy, high school student, regional New South Wales)
Representations of women’s equality in the mainstream media are encapsulated in images of the ‘can do’ girl (Harris 2004) or ‘top girl’ (McRobbie 2007) with her educational success and glittering career. Indeed women in Australia confront almost no systemic gender barriers while at school, university or even in the early stages of their careers. They are the perfect neo-liberal subjects ‘seduced’ by capitalism, as Hester Eisenstein (2009) puts it, to see freedom as located in wage work and consumer choices. Telling these young women otherwise is a challenge for their teachers, mothers, mentors.
As Lisa Adkins (2002) suggests, there might have been a ‘de-traditionalisation’ of gender when university courses and occupations opened up to women, but there has be a ‘re-traditionalisation’ over the last decade or so in which a new, but apparently chosen, gender order has emerged. In this new order, many young women claim that, where their foremothers were forced to stay at home and to please their husbands, women today choose their destinies – whether in full-time child-rearing or full-time work. Women’s re-regulation is achieved through their own apparent choices.
Thus, as McRobbie puts it, the present scenario is one in which feminism is ‘transformed into a form of Gramscian commonsense, while also fiercely repudiated – indeed almost hated’. Feminism is engaged with and to some extent incorporated in institutional practices in education, work, and the media (McRobbie 2004:4-50; see also Hall and Rodriguez 2003:879-884 for a review of US research coming to similar conclusions). Furthermore everyone claims to support gender equality but most women, young or old, ‘fiercely repudiate’ the label feminist. Top girls embrace their ‘choices’ and ‘freedoms’ at the cost of renouncing the feminist critique of the world as still marked by gendered structures of inequality and discrimination. ‘Young women are able to come forward on condition that feminism fades away’ (McRobbie 2007:720).
McRobbie (2007:727-8) wonders if ‘feminist pedagogy [has] become a thing of the past, frozen in educational history as marking out a moment of now outmoded radicalism’. My research suggests that ‘whingeing’ ‘radicalism’ is indeed disliked by many young people and a more sophisticated message is required, one which deconstructs the notions of ‘choice’ and ‘equality’ so freely flung about in the media. We need a curriculum that arms students to understand the complex crossroads at which feminism now stands. Mainstream media focus on the apparent individual freedoms of paid work, consumption and leisure have masked ongoing structural inequalities lived by disadvantaged women, and repressed from discussion in the realm of politics and public life.
But the trick is to open these spaces in ways that enable young women and men to find their own vocabularies and strategies of struggle. Texts written by a generation of young feminists offer other young women and men sassy and media savvy critiques of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’in an age of neoliberalism (for example see discussions by young feminists Maguire (2010) and Dux and Simic (2009)). As feminist teachers, we must ride the contradictions of the multitude of ways to be feminist, including cherishing expressions of sexual difference even as we yearn for gender equality; the structural impediments confronting most women and many men, even though individualisation provides little space for this understanding; and that feminism is still a vibrant and necessary activism. As Niki puts it, drawing on lessons learned from her mother and her teachers, the relevance of the women’s movement is ‘Not only in teaching us of the past, but also to influence in the future’ (Niki, women’s studies high school student, Adelaide).
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