My 26 years as a woman

Today is my 26th International Women’s Day on our beautiful but somewhat decrepit planet. I turned 26 last week and so have a lived a full quarter of a century + one year as a girl and as a woman in our society. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that.  

I’ve just driven back from Sydney’s ‘All About Women Conference’ (you read it here first: I drove the whole way! No casualties.) and have been reading about Thordis Elva and her activism and her forgiveness, I watched Q&A’s women’s special, and I have been trying to get my head around where are as women, and as people participating in often multiple struggles for equality and justice.

Most people measure out their lives in days and months and years, and we document the great moments of our Australian past in history books and celebrate our progress in great ceremonies. But, I suspect, almost every woman could also measure out her life in unwanted kisses and hands on buses, in bosses who see through them, in Prime Ministers who have failed them and in men who have hurt them.

We could just as easily substitute the great pillars of progress with chronicles of sexism and we could count dead women instead of days to mark the passage of time.

The year I was born Donald Trump famously said in an interview with Esquire magazine “you know, it doesn’t really matter what [the media] write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” Now, eleven accusations of rape later, Donald Trump is the President of the United States of America, our former Prime Minister Abbott has called his policies “reasonable enough” and a relative of mine overheard a Sydney doctor joking in one of Sydney’s hospitals about the “locker room banter” that he had been a part of.

When I was four my friend Penny was twice as old as me and at primary school. A young boy about her age pushed ahead of her in line. When she objected, he told her that he would rape her. It turns out, he didn’t know what that meant. She did. When the other boys explained it to him, he turned back around to Penny and told her he’d do that to her anyway.

That same year, or thereabouts, Justice John Gallop from the ACT Supreme Court justified his lenient sentencing of man who raped a 12 year old girl by saying that “our jails would be full if we locked up everyone who did this.” So instead, a year later, mandatory sentencing laws were enacted in the Northern Territory and then Western Australia, and our jails were filled with men who didn’t pay their parking fines and who broke windows while men, like the one who terrorised that young girl, walked free.

In 1998 Australia’s second longest serving Prime Minister John Howard was awarded the Ernie Award for sexist behaviour – marking the beginning of a fruitful career over the course of which he has won the award eight times. His sexist deeds ranged from his inability to conceive of a woman who would be suitable to be Governor General to him vetoing a domestic violence advertising campaign for being “anti male.”

God forbid, we could be a little more anti-male than the kind of society that lets men kill two women every week and then erupts in confected rage when councils change pedestrian light crossings to depict women instead of men walking across the road.

Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott outdid his predecessor John Howard and won Ernie awards fourteen times. In 2002 he said that maternity leave would happen “over his dead body.” It appears he was not only sexist, he was also wrong. He endorsed one of his own party’s candidates for her “sex appeal” and he lauded his greatest achievement as Minister for Women as the abolition of the carbon price, because women were concerned about the household budget. Never mind those women who understood the Gillard government’s compensation scheme – not to mention the somewhat fundamental necessity to preserve the planet for themselves, and offspring if they choose to have them.

Sometimes in primary school I would visit a school friend Rebecca and her two older sisters who lived around the corner. I remember one afternoon sitting on the floor in her living room and her oldest sister teaching me patiently how to draw the hind legs of horses (something I found particularly challenging). Not long after that afternoon, I remember seeing Rebecca’s mum’s face pop up on corflutes around town in the lead up to the Strathfield Council election. I was so excited that this woman that I knew was going to be a politician.

That woman was NSW Fair Trading Minister Virginia Judge who later was subjected to a deliberately humiliating and aggressive campaign by Independent Strathfield councillor Danny Lim who put a motion to Council that called for the Council to buy her a vibrator so she would “to stop screwing with the people of Strathfield and screw her- self instead”.

I was just beginning to understand the hazardous nature of being a woman at work in our Australian culture.

When I was fifteen, I was spending almost every waking moment studying. When I wasn’t studying I was raising money for charities with our school social justice group and volunteering on weekends. I wanted to be a lawyer, and then I wanted to be politician.

I went to an all girls school in Sydney, and I remember in those later years of high school arguing with my friends about the relative “selfishness” of our life plans. Was it selfish to have children? Or was it selfish to abandon them and pursue a high flying career? Was it selfish to do both?

That year Bill Heffernan called former Prime Minister Gillard “deliberately barren.” Moreover, he said she was unfit to lead because she did not have children. The tired, but still potent, idea that her choice not to reproduce made her less of a leader has been prosecuted by the consistently sexist former Labor Leader Mark Latham, Attorney General George Brandis and former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

I’m not sure that I want to have children. When I accidentally fell pregnant some years ago, and then later, just as accidentally, fell unpregnant, I did not feel that my ability to participate in our community was affected.

I did, however, balk when Senator John Madigan introduced his private member’s strawman bill to outlaw selective sex abortion – a practice that there is no evidence of in Australia. It’s a funny thing how a man in a velvet lined chamber in arguably one of the most powerful buildings in the country can make you doubt your ability by simply making it known that there are men in velvet rooms determined to pass laws that restrict your ability to make choices about your own body.  

I turned 21 in 2012.

I remember walking to a party in Marrickville and stopping to roll a cigarette by the side of Enmore Road. A cabbie slowed down. He got out, and lit a cigarette. We chatted. He asked if I wanted a ride down the road, for free, he had to go that way for his next ride anyway.

I got in.

He locked the doors and kissed me. I can still remember what his mouth felt like and how sick and stupid and small I felt. I remember trying to imagine myself head butting him and breaking his nose just in case he moved on from kissing and tried to touch me. He didn’t. And I didn’t try to headbutt him either. He got out of the car and into the backseat and opened the door for me to join him.

I ran all the way to the party and never got the number plate.

When my mother was 21 she went a Halloween party at Sydney University, where I used to study law. When she got sick of the party she walked home around the St Paul’s Oval behind the boys college and went to bed.

The next morning a girl had been killed and my mother, unawares, went grocery shopping in Broadway while her sister desperately tried to call her because the murdered girl matched mum’s description and had been killed in the middle of that oval.

Decades later, as far as I know, my mum has never walked home by herself again.

Just before I moved to Canberra to take part on my first ever election campaign, I experienced my first taste of sexism in the workplace, and I had my first taste of that hollow feeling that follows sexual violence from a partner, all around the same time that Jill Meagher was brutally raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley.

Adrian Bayley is a man with a long history of sexual and physical violence towards women that our society did not care about enough. And so he continued to perpetrate that violence, and our community continued to ignore it.

I think that may have been the first moment I truly realised that not only does every single one of the women in my life have a story of violation and fear at the hands of men to tell, but that almost every man I know has a story of dominance and control that he doesn’t want to share. Before the men start yelling: no, I do not think every man in my life is a rapist. Far from it. But I do think that probably all of them have been in situations where they have wanted something from a woman and used their power to try and get it.

It is also at this time that I realised just how broad the definition of a woman that our society does not care enough about can be. It could be the three women who were raped before Adrian Bayley finally killed Jill Meagher. It could be the 23 year old young woman in America who, as she heartbreakingly and clearly explained, had been been hurt in a way that “doesn’t expire” after she was raped, while unconscious at a party, behind a dumpster. It could be any one of the important, strong woman I know all of whom have a story about violence or fear.

And, it was then I realised that as broad as the definition of the women we do not care about, is the definition of the men we are determined to protect. It is difficult to thing to know that you love men who hurt women. It is a difficult thing to swallow the idea that men who are talented and kind and loving may also be cruel and vicious and violent.

And yet, we find it so easy to bag and label women before we bury them.

I moved to Canberra the year after in 2013, and I met my wonderful friend, and fierce activist Em. Em is one of the many women who I know who, over beers and cigarettes one Tuesday night, in a relatively matter of fact way, mentioned that not too long before she moved to Canberra she had been sexually assaulted by a boy she was dating, and she didn’t know sure how to feel about it.

I remember crossing the road with her as we walked home. As the little man turned red, she wondered aloud whether she should call it sexual assault or if that made sound worse than it was – as if that kind of violence isn’t self evidently terrible.

Which, of course, it isn’t. Last year alone, twenty one thousand three hundred and eighty victims of sexual assault were recorded by the police. Twenty one thousand. And then all the others who never talked to the police for fear of repercussions or disbelief.

And this of course brings us to today. 2017. The end of my 25 years as an incredibly privileged, white, educated woman in an Australian culture that spends a great deal of time mocking, belittling, underpaying, and killing the women it is supposed to value equally.  

There has been progress, don’t get me wrong. I have had the extraordinary good fortune of having some of the most remarkable women leaders, like Christine Milne and Larissa Waters, guide my entry into politics and encourage and support the next steps in my career. I have watched with deep awe the work that women are doing to combat the intersection of racism and sexism and the compounded discrimination and oppression that they face. I have learned from my women friends in the union movement about the ongoing struggle for equality and an end discrimination at work, and the crucial role that women are playing in that fight. I have been lucky enough to have known women with such big and brave hearts that they have shared their stories in the hope that other women will feel less alone and less responsible for the injustices perpetrated against them.

But, we are so far from being there yet.

On Sunday at the All About Women’s conference much of what was said was not new, but tragically still salient in our deeply unequal world.

Geena Davis talked about representations of women and girls in the media. She talked about how there has been relatively no change in gender representation on our screens since 1946.

She talked about the worst genres for gender parity – films for children under 11 years old.

How tragic that we are teaching tiny little humans with flexible brains that women are there to be killed off, sexualised or not there at all. And how absolutely heartbreaking that their little brains will become hardened around the depictions they see of themselves and of others, and another generation of young people will enter adulthood believing that boys and girls and men and women are not of equal value – unless we stop it.

Lindy West talked about how sexism teaches us to hate ourselves. She talked about always feeling that she failed at her gender, because she understood that our role as girls and women is to be sexually appealing to men – and they made it clear to her that she had failed. Much of the abuse that Clementine Ford receives online harks too, to this idea that our role as women is to be sexually appealing to men. And, when women like Clementine speak out loudly and don’t care about their appeal to the angry men on the other side of the computer screen, they respond by telling her she’s too fat to be raped, too ugly to be wanted and make threats of sexual violence.

The theme this year for international women’s day is ‘Be Bold For Change.’ It’s true that boldness is required at a time when an alleged sex offender and indisputable misogynist is President of the United States. We undoubtedly need boldness at a time when paid parental leave, and the family law system, is being threatened by ignorant and bigoted people like Pauline Hanson and her hard right followers. And no doubt boldness is required when so-called ‘feminists’ like our Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are threatening the funding to the very frontline services that women’s lives depend on.

I wonder too whether now is the time to be bold with what we demand. Perhaps right now, at a time when global warming threatens every element of our existence. Right now, when we are facing crucial choices about how we build and power our cities and our communities. Right now, when we grapple with having the largest number of displaced people ever in history desperately seeking safety and survival. Perhaps now is the time for us to be bold in imagining what a better world could like.

And I am not saying for a second that people, women, are not doing this.Storytelling is not new. Women have been telling stories of change for hundreds and thousands of years. On Sunday I was inspired by Geena Davis’ conviction that while it may take decades to shift the number of male CEOs we could have gender parity in the world’s most influential positions immediately on the screen.

 And, perhaps part of being bold for change is telling the stories of what the world we want to live in could look like.

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