Five early lessons of feminism

by Stephanie Wescott

Discovering feminism in my early twenties was a great relief. It gave me a theory, a tradition and a framework to help me understand what was around me.

As intended, it was a true liberation. To understand the burdens, pressures, inequities and disparities in your world as part of a social system, a culture, and how they function to limit your gender, enables you to interrogate your choices, what informs your fears and anxieties, and ultimately, discern your personal values from those of your environment.

Below, are five key, early realisations I had soon after encountering and aligning myself with feminism:

5. Marriage and motherhood are not the default for women’s lives.
We condition girls and women to imagine a certain type of future for themselves. This future is often domestic; inherited from a long tradition of social structures that were designed to keep women in the home, out of government, out of the workplace. While most have moved beyond the belief that women’s brains are not capable of thinking beyond the domestic realm, there exists still a culture that celebrates marriage as an achievement, and motherhood as the ultimate feat of womanhood. Marriage and parenthood are not part of the dialogue we have with boys; we don’t teach boys to aspire to fatherhood as a measure of status, or that marriageability is a currency, nor do we convince them of the desirability of being someone’s husband.

Our culture very much still sells girls the narrative of the miserable, unmarried spinster, childless at 35 and in a state of desperate hopelessness. This symbol serves as a threat, invoked to incite fear: this could be you. imagine. what poorer fate could possibly befall you? Of course, there is no parallel narrative for men. Single men in their thirties and forties are represented in Western culture as empowered; sexually liberal; successful; financially stable; never at home in their pyjamas with cats as surrogate babies.

Feminism showed me another version of my future. I could remain unmarried, by choice*. As soon as I understood marriage’s patriarchal underpinnings and viewed wedding culture as a product of rabid consumerism, I realised that neither aligned with my personal values. I could comfortably reject them, and focus on other pursuits.

*I acknowledge that this choice is an expression of the privilege of inhabiting a heterosexual relationship, and that for LGBTQIA people in Australia, both the right and choice to marry is denied to them by our government. It is my hope that in the future, people in same sex relationships will have the right to participate in or reject marriage, too.

4. Women and girls are not enemies or competition.
Women are socially conditioned to perceive other women as threats. We are rewarded when we act on this threat and seek to demean and belittle other women, and when we attack them for their least interesting attribute: their appearance. This is a long-established practice that keeps women small and quiet, and is often employed by men to slice divisions between women, thereby weakening them and preventing them from working cohesively. Viewing other women as enemies and competition is a practice condoned and supported by men, for as long as women and girls view each other as adversaries, not comrades, and seek the affirmation of men in doing so, we substantiate the power men hold over us.

Feminism invites women into a sisterhood. One where the success of one is a success for all. It teaches us that other women are to be celebrated and enjoyed, not envied and punished. Feminism also helps me to support the young women I teach. It has given me the knowledge I need to provide to them so that they can empower themselves. It helps me to teach them to aspire to greater lives than the women before them had. It helps me to teach them that their education is their greatest privilege, and talk to them about their friendships, bodies, health and relationships.

Feminism has taught me to catch myself before I unfairly hold another woman to a greater standard of behaviour than I do men, just by virtue of her being a woman.

3. Feminism inadvertently liberates men and boys, too.
Cultural masculinity continues to grossly underestimate and infantilise men and boys. It teaches them they cannot be vulnerable, that they cannot be weak or emotional, minimises their role as fathers, and encourages them to bond with other men over sexually exploiting girls. Feminism, in its rejection of all gender-based stereotypes, also rejects the ones that place restrictions on men. If a woman can reject the mannerisms, attributes, occupations, and interests society picks for them, so too can men.

Contrary to misinformed opinion, feminism does not hate men, nor does it exclude them. It simply strives for equal status for women after a centuries-long battle to enjoy the privileges men have always had. To think anything else is a fundamental misunderstanding of its key principles.

2. Women’s insecurities are the product of marketing, history, and the male gaze, rather than the inherent goodness/badness of their bodies.
Once women understand that upon our bodies rests billion dollar industries, we can begin to interrogate where the relentless self-critique begins. What the world around us shows us that women first and foremost must be aesthetically desirable, anything else is secondary. We must always be visually pleasing, too. At all stages of our lives. There is no rest, no break, no exceptions. And, if a woman dares to be both publicly visible and unconventional in appearance, anything spoken or achieved becomes irrelevant to the critique of her appearance (case in point: the media’s treatment of Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. What do you remember most of her legacy? The commencement of a royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse? Legislating the National Disability Insurance Scheme? Her apology on behalf of the Australian government to mothers and children of forced adoption? Endorsing David Gonski’s needs-based funding model for Australian schools? Legislating a mining tax? The Carbon Tax? Or her outfits? Her body shape? Her hair?)

1. There is a long history of women who fought for, and could only dream of, the lives we live now.
I feel that I am hugely indebted to the women of the early feminism movement. Those who fought so that I could vote, remain employed after motherhood, make choices about my own body, relationships and marital status. These women campaigned, protested, sacrificed and agitated so that now, we don’t have to as much. Women of now who reject feminism in fear of associations with ‘extremism’ commit a disloyalty to the legacy that enables them to enjoy their lives today. It suggests that they care more about being less threatening and more desirable to men than they do showing gratitude for the movement that gave them the very choice to disassociate themselves with the feminist movement.

The most important lesson of feminism however, and, its greatest reward, is that we are in a privileged position to share the liberation it gifts us among our sisters, friends, partners, children, and see the ways it frees them to find their rightful space in the world.