Scott Morrison – We’ve come a long way, but it can all be taken away
That’s another reason why we must pause for reflection on days like today; the speed with which the feminist movement secured so many of its aims is itself a warning against complacency. What’s done can almost as easily be undone. In large parts of the world, political Islam has wound back women’s autonomy. In Poland, the government, judiciary and Catholic Church have conspired to tighten abortion laws to a near-total ban. In the US a little over four years ago, a pant-suit presidential candidate with an intimidating CV lost out to a man highly credentialled in the belittling of women.
And yet – I gather you’ve anticipated a “yet” – perspective is harder to come by this International Women’s Day. Perspective is harder to come by generally, in the relentless now of the digital age. It’s also been a debilitating few weeks, and an even worse few days, Canberra’s sexual assault earthquakes dredging up dark thoughts across the country.
I’m finding it hard to resist an undertow of … weariness, I think. Which is probably masking another, much older emotion: fear? Like Prime Minister Scott Morrison, I have daughters. And as the revolutionary catch-cry instructs us, “the personal is political”.
My fear is not so much about the pendulum swinging between progression and backlash, but about the things that barely shift at all.
I’m roughly the same vintage as Morrison, Christian Porter and his accuser (don’t read anything into those references) and for that matter, Linda Reynolds, only the second female Defence Minister in Australia’s history, her career wobbling on her response to the alleged rape of former staffer Brittany Higgins.
We all reached adulthood about a decade after South Australia became the first state to outlaw rape in marriage and about a decade before Victoria explicitly outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. In our summer holidays, the cinemas screened flicks such as Animal House, peppered with rapey humour. Broadly, I remember a critical mass of boys cavalier about sexual consent to little or no consequences.
The tsunami of online testimonials about sexual assaults in (mainly) private schools suggests my male peers haven’t sufficiently reckoned with their own past to stop their sons enacting the same sins. It doesn’t help their sons are now watching rapey porn.
Violence, sexual or otherwise, can have a crippling effect on a victim’s psyche and self-esteem. If there’s an overwhelming cause for optimism, it is in women’s growing refusal to be shamed, silenced or sidelined. Teenage girls are posting their assault testimonials online. Grace Tame not only fought against a paternalistic Tasmanian law prohibiting sexual assault victims from speaking out, she scored a gong for doing so.
The scourge of domestic violence was finally deemed worthy of a royal commission, even if women are still being killed by their male partners with sickening regularity.
Sometimes I worry the feminist cause lacks the clarity or stamina to fight an underlying cause of women’s vulnerability, namely their relative lack of money and power, their concentration in low-paid, insecure industries, the long-term financial penalty from motherhood, the gender pay gap that deems a childcare worker less valuable than a fitter-and-turner, the fact that even though women were hardest hit from coronavirus job losses, the Morrison government backed a tradie-led recovery and this doesn’t generate anywhere near the sort of political heat it should.
At such times, I take heart from the knowledge that high aspirations, even when thwarted, are themselves a legacy of the battles my feminist forebears set in train.
So while I no longer smoke, I raise my glass to them.
Julie Szego is a regular columnist.
Ahead of International Women’s Day on 8 March, The Age has been publishing a series of pieces by prominent writers looking at issues facing women 2021.
National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800 737 732. Crisis support can be found at Lifeline: (13 11 14 and lifeline.org.au), the Suicide Call Back Service (1300 659 467 and suicidecallbackservice.org.au) and Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636 and beyondblue.org.au).
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Julie Szego is an author and freelance journalist.