As soon as I said it, I regretted the comment but that didn’t stop me digging an even bigger hole for myself. My weekly coffee after our library trip has seen me make some really bigoted comments of late, which is strange, because I don’t consider myself a bigoted person. I consider myself quite the opposite, actually. So, the fact that I have caught myself first making comments about race and then gender has me feeling quite ashamed.
We don’t like to admit it but Australia can be quite a racist place, at times. Especially out in the country. I grew up in a regional area and have acquired the habit of categorizing people by their race and their religion. I don’t think any less of people after I’ve categorized them, but it just goes to show that you can’t completely separate yourself from the discourses in which you have grown up. Some ways of speaking and the prejudices embedded in those conversations become naturalized within you, even if you don’t want them to.
This week’s transgression was gender-based. Firstly, I whined about working with Lesbian teachers, who were particularly nasty people. Then, I whined about working with middle-aged women. As I made the comments, I felt like I was having an out of body experience, because I am a feminist. Always have been. I also have a degree in Journalism and English Literature, so I know that language has immense power and can be used to do great harm.
However, there is another reason that I am particularly mortified at myself as well. Not only am I a person who respects women, but I am also the mother of a beautiful daughter. I want the best for her in this world and I want her to treat others with dignity and respect. I want her to treat herself with dignity and respect, as well. I believe that when we make comments that disparage others on the basis of gender or race, we hurt ourselves a little as well by supporting the very patriarchal power structure that subjects us in the first place.
As I was driving home from coffee today, I got to thinking about why I was so particularly mortified at myself and why I had come to make such comments that undermined other women. A lot of it has to do with how disillusioned I feel with second wave and third wave feminism. When I was young, I was fiercely passionate about women’s rights and I had to be, because growing up in the country and then starting a career in commercial radio meant I had a lot of prejudice to fight against. I knew I didn’t have the same opportunities as the boys in my university course and when I did start working, I had a battle to try and be something other than a pretty little thing that read the news with a nice voice. It was a battle I ultimately lost, as the pressure from ignorant, bullying, often lecherous, middle-aged men ultimately drove me out of the job and into teaching. Even in teaching, where women are well represented, it was clear you didn’t get anywhere unless you were a member of the boys’ club or a force to be reckoned with.
My thoughts turned to a segment I saw on the news about Miley Cyrus. Apparently, she is at the centre of a furore over her latest video, her comments about which drew an open letter from Sinead O’Connor and Annie Lennox. I thought about what I would say to Miley, if I had the chance to speak to her. I would counsel her about the way she was representing herself, explaining that you cannot control the way people perceive you (cue: Marshall McLuhan, “the medium is the message”). So, even though she may feel that she were representing herself as an empowered female who is comfortable and in control of her sexuality, others may see her as an object for their gratification and exploitation, devaluing the myriad other talents and gifts that she possesses. I would warn that by allowing herself to be treated this way, she implicitly supports the subjugation of other women, even if she doesn’t mean to.
That is also why I feel third wave feminisim has failed us. It is so hollow and focuses too much on sexuality, as though that is the sum total of what a woman is. The very tool, which means to free us, binds us. Young women take control of their sexuality but end up presenting themselves according to some very damaging stereotypes, which have more in common with pornography than healthy self-expression. Sex sells and some very astute marketers have learnt to hijack young women’s attempts to represent themselves as confident and in-control of their sexuality and turn them into a product to market, regardless of the fact that they are exploiting those young women and undermining them in the process.
So should we turn back to the message of the second wave feminists as a means to fight this? Unfortunately, no, because the well meaning attempts of our mothers and their mothers have failed us too. The second wave tried to bring us equal opportunity in the work place but instead just ended up leaving women with more on our plates than ever before and lead to isolation and lack of support within the female community. As a new mother, I have had to resign from my employment because I just cannot do it all, much as I would like to. Of course, I feel guilty about that, as the expectation is that we should do it all these days and being a stay at home Mum is undervalued. I think that was the unintended by-product of second wave feminism.
So, what does it this have to do with motherhood? I am Mum to a beautiful little girl. I care what sort of a world she grows up in and what sort of a person she matures into. I want her to have every opportunity to have a happy, balanced and successful life. I need to think about what messages I send her and, more importantly, what example I set. It’s a huge responsibility and something I’ll try to keep in mind next time I’m making careless comments over a coffee at mother’s group.