All About Women

That’s the title of the International Womens Day event at the Sydney Opera House, that I attended. It comprised several panels covering a range of issues and there was more than I could find time to attend at overlapping events. In the end, I decided on three:

  1. How to be a Feminist, chaired by Geraldine Doogue  and 6 panellists (Update: I’ve found that the video is now available
  2. Gamergate and Beyond, moderated by Julia Baird, with Anita Sarkeesian relating the fallout of abuse from her web video series
  3. Women in Shakespeare with Germaine Greer in conversation with John Bell (Update: the video is now available here)

The first panel was a mixture of women: there was Clementine Ford, who blogs and writes for the Sydney Morning Herald; Celeste Liddle, an Aboriginal activist and author; Roxanne Gay, an African-American involved with social justice for POC communities in the States; Tara Moss, the author; Anita Sarkeesian and Germaine Greer. I’m sure I’m selling their accomplishments short but I’m not really familiar with the first few people although I’ve seen Clementine’s by-line occasionally as well as echoes of the fall-out from men who abuse her for some article or other.

The subject was basically a discussion of what feminism means to them and what it meant in their lives; was it the dreaded ‘F’-word and what has been gained and what needs to happen for progress in gender equality. Germaine mocked the idea of equality – equal with what? a broken system? – and the panel generally agreed that disruption of the status quo was what we need, a harking back to the idea of “liberation”. Roxanne stated that the biggest issue she saw was reproductive rights – bodily autonomy – an issue that everyone feels had been won, but is under severe threat in the US.

Anita said that she had to learn to be a feminist, to learn systemic theory, and to understand that sexual equality and opportunities is not about the individual. It’s part of the libertarian disease that I agree is deeply rooted in the US psyche, where the possibility of personal social mobility and of being able to earn and spend your own money in the way you like regardless of gender is not the same as proper social change. People are being brought up to believe that feminism is just part of a personal liberation theology rather than a broader concern, and I think the corporate systemic stranglehold on so many areas of society has isolated and conditioned everyone, not just women, and we don’t engage with people and society in helpful ways as much as we should.

Roxanne is working with Girl Guides and in grass roots communities in practical ways that may not be “pure” feminism, and both she and Celeste spoke out against the white middle-class version of feminism; if you don’t engage with poor women, aboriginal women, the transgender community etc., you are setting up structures that work against women. You need to be inclusive, and feminism can’t just be the kaffeklatsch for the privileged few who have the privilege of being able to devote time to a cause.

Germaine has a strong set of opinions on the plight of the elderly in society and Geraldine had a bit of a struggle to pull her back on topic, but I agree that Germaine is right. The elderly, especially women are at risk of being marginalised, just like Aboriginal women and children, and refugee women and children. On one level the feeling we were all left with at the end of the discussion was how bad things were compared to where they should be and that battles that had been fought and won needed to be fought all over again. It appears that the women’s lib movement plateaued and stagnated in the last few decades and, while almost everyone worldwide agrees in principle that women and men are equal – which is the good news – more structural change is necessary. As Tara said, you can ask many people if they’re feminists and they might say no, but if you read the dictionary definition of feminism and ask if they believe in those ideals they’ll say yes. Again, that’s good news.

The Gamergate talk was good – there is online footage that’s quite similar from an event in the US a few months ago that is available. Basically Anita discussed the various mechanisms that the abusers used, like impersonation and fraud to create fake profiles etc. to display made-up “quotes” and “facts” in order to feed the cyber-mob as well as conspiracy theories. She’s also subject to continual threats of physical violence – now going on for years – which the abusers and conspirators claim is made up to gain attention. As she said, and Julia Baird agreed from her own personal experience, you end up with a certain level of thick skin where a certain level of abuse is not out of the ordinary and lacks the power to shock any more; that’s sad and wrong and something Anita tries to come to terms with in its own right. She’s a really nice person  (and very short 🙂 ), and made herself available for signings and photos afterwards. There was a heap of security as well as police on hand, which is just a fact of her life now, sadly. She did say that she had to explain to US police what twitter is and how online abuse works, as they’re clueless. She’s been repeatedly told that she should change her job if she didn’t want to be abused, and she should just not go on the internet! Stupid statements from stupid people.

Germaine and John Bell had a very good discussion on women in Shakespeare’s work, like the nature of Kate in Taming of the Shrew, and how the characters related to women in the 18th century, as well as stuff like men and boys playing women and the nature of dress-up in the plays; apparently the morality police at the time were quite upset at the very idea of character impersonation in any form as morally degenerate, let alone cross-gender impersonation. Germaine was asked about her book on Anne Hathaway and detailed quite an interesting trail of investigation into who she was and the nature of her marriage to Shakespeare. It was interesting enough that I ended up buying a copy of the book afterwards and I think I ended up spending around $100 on new books to sit on the reading pile; there are several more that I could have bought and which will have to stay on the wish-list for the moment.

Overall, it was a wonderful day, and it’s just a pity I couldn’t have been to more panels. The Opera House says that they’ll continue to host such an event in the future, which will be great.

Update: there’s also a great video on “What I Couldn’t Say” about things the panellists have said and the consequences thereof, or what women have been shy of saying because they feel the consequences will be too dire.

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