Voice of feminism a force for change

Protester arrested in New York
PHOTO: Anger can be a powerful, bonding force. (AFP: Mario Tama)

On International Women’s Day, ABC’s Julia Baird takes a look at how women through the past century have fought for their equality. Anger, especially when springing from a desire for freedom, is a powerful and bonding force.

One of the most startling exhibits in the Museum of London, lying in the corner of a dimly lit display case on the lower ground floor, is a wide brown leather belt, with a thick iron chain attached to it.

A century ago, suffragettes, standing in their petticoats while dressing in their homes, would buckle these firmly around their waists, before carefully placing their dresses over them, and pulling the chain out of a hole sliced into material.

They were gambling on the oppressive, proper Victorian morality that meant no policeman would slide his hands inside a woman’s dress.

They then went to public buildings, padlocked themselves to the fences outside and stood delivering incendiary speeches about women’s rights, as bobbies furiously sawed and hacked at the locks. Once the links were broken, the women were arrested.

The chains bought these intrepid, articulate, angry women time to speak.

Sometimes it’s good to remember that anger, especially when springing from a desire for freedom, is a powerful and bonding force, too easily derided as mere emotion.

Anger is what churned the rumbling discontent of women and their lot into the tsunamis of the late 1800s and 1970s. And we must not forget, on this International Women’s Day, how good anger can be for women. Anger is also a kind of dreaming: a dream of a better life.

In the last couple of years we have witnessed a resurgence of public female anger in Australia, and globally, enabled by social media and facilitated by sheer numbers, which has reminded Persons of Influence that – golly! – we vote and we buy things. Younger women are beginning to protest in increasingly innovative ways, using satire, force, numbers and wit, in tumblrs, Twitter, and their own sites, which – gasp – draw traffic.

Male editors of mainstream papers ignored, or sidelined women readers for so long that the clout of this bloc has come as a great surprise, and increasingly, threat, to many of them.

Some have called this the third wave we have been waiting for.

I don’t believe in the idea of “waves” of feminism, largely because it makes so many other eras invisible. Historians have documented the on-going activism of women in the decades where it was assumed feminism was dormant, like the 1930s, and 1950s. Women have never stopped desiring, or seeking a better world.

But it is true that at certain times in history, a common anger, pegged to a basic right like the vote, or the determined push for equality of the 1970s, saw women combine in unprecedented numbers to force change. And this is another time: the potential of online activism is only slowly dawning on us.

Now, women don’t need to padlock themselves to public fences; they can speak on Twitter, finding each other in seconds. They don’t need to go to the consciousness raising groups of the 1970s; Twitter will tell them they are not alone, their anger is shared, their understanding or offence is not oddball or crazed or lacking in humour; it is on Twitter that anger is channelled, and productive. And it is on Twitter that we are reminded that this anger can get results, evident in campaigns about sexual violence and contraception.

In America, women mobilised against politicians who said there was such a thing as legitimate rape, broadcasters who called women who wanted funding for contraception sluts, and excoriated Republican nominee Mitt Romney for saying he had seen “whole binders of women” in a search for female candidates for cabinet posts while he was governor of Massachusetts.

In Australia, the death of Jill Meagher infuriated hundreds of thousands; Twitter spread their horror and concern, and alerted them to the resulting march on to the streets. When broadcaster Alan Jones accused women of destroying Australia 25,000 women clustered to form the “Destroy the Joint” community, which is intent on exposing and shaming sexism and misogyny.

Since, they have campaigned against hate radio, comedy festivals organised on the theme of rape, forced Telstra to change their policy on silent numbers so that they will now provide them free of charge to victims of domestic violence and lobbied intensely about breastfeeding in public:

“We post two or three times a day, we share information, we publicise the struggle. We Facebook, we tweet, we blog,” says one of the founders, Jenna Price.

Groups like these show how technology has fundamentally levelled public debate; in that forum, however limited right now, feminist voices can be quickly and easily heard.

There are dozens of days dedicated to holidays marked by tales of male valour: there’s Anzac Day (April 25), Remembrance Day (November 11) and some newly added days: Battle for Australia Day (first Wed in September), Merchant Navy Day (September 3) and the Bombing of Darwin Day (February 19). Americans also remember D-Day, for the invasion of France on June 6, and Memorial Day (the last Monday in May.)

There are none for women; and yet the fight for suffrage was in a sense a war, a guerrilla war. The reason International Women’s Day – meant to celebrate the achievements of women – is important is that we need to remind the world, and ourselves of two things.

First, without the propulsion of anger and foolish, defiant, often embarrassing, and daring acts, the movement for women’s rights which occupied much of the 20th century would have been glacial.

Second, there is little we do not owe to the tireless, sometimes dangerous efforts of those who have gone before us. The debate over the word feminism can often be a distraction, but it would be timely to remind the ‘I’m not a feminist BUT’ women that, in history there is no “but”.

If you believe you owe nothing to feminists, then best you hand your property over to your husband or father, give up your job, stop voting, renounce contraception or pain relief in childbirth, pull out of school and university and start mopping floors at home whilst begging male relatives for a dowry.

Just don’t disconnect your WiFi. You might find you need it.

Lest we forget, ladies. Happy International Women’s Day.