I attended the live-streamed All about women sessions beamed in from the Sydney Opera House to the Christchurch Art Gallery on Sunday from 3pm to 7.30pm.
It was heartening to hear the introductory voiceover acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which the Sydney Opera House stands in both English and the local Gadigal dialect of the Dharug language.
The first session was called Grabbing Back: Women in the Age of Trump, chaired by Julia Baird and featuring author Fran Lebowitz, moderate Republican commentator Sophia Nelson, and Francesca Donner from the New York Times. Each of the panellists had been totally surprised and disheartened by Trump winning the Presidency. Nelson said she had a sense of foreboding when she saw huge Trump billboards all over rural Virginia where she lives. Lebowitz, the archetypal New Yorker, said she remembered three days in minute detail: Kennedy’s assassination, 9-11, and Trump’s election victory. She remembers the New York streets being empty at 3am on a Tuesday morning which is unheard of in “the city that never sleeps”. Donner felt that the media treated Hilary Clinton badly and that Trump’s victory was due to white fear of women and black people.
All of the panellists were puzzled by the fact that 53% of white American women voted for Trump given the many appallingly sexist comments he had made. The consensus of opinion was that those women had overlooked Trump’s sexism in order to vote for their men’s economic welfare.
Lebowitz and Donner disagreed that the #MeToo movement was not related to the rise of Trump with Donner arguing that the political climate provided the arena for the “whispers to become a roar”. Lebowitz said that #MeToo needed to concentrate now on the abuse of women in low-paid jobs. Nelson felt #MeToo needed to open up the conversation with men and that young boys needed to be taught to value women. Donner felt it was really positive that #MeToo had men now thinking much more about their behaviour.
The second session was #MeToo: the making of a movement, chaired by Jacqueline Maley and featuring Tarana Burke (Skyping just before the Oscars ceremony), and Tracey Spicer, an Australian investigative journalist.
Tarana Burke founded the MeToo movement in 2006 when it was a little-known and grassroots. The movement entered the global consciousness when actress, Alyssa Milano, started using #MeToo as an Internet hashtag in response to the allegations circulating about Harvey Weinstein.
Tracey Spicer, after 14 years with the Ten network, was dismissed in 2006 after returning from maternity leave when her second child was two months old. She took the Ten Network to court for discrimination and won. Tracey Spicer felt that the Australian media had failed to expose powerful male abusers and that women were stronger together if all their stories of being abused were told.
Tarana Burke was a community worker in Selma, Alabama, and she wondered why sexual violence wasn’t discussed as part of the social issues she was working with. As an abuse survivor from a young age herself, she felt that the young women she was working with needed a trajectory to healing. She felt a community problem needed a community solution, but most organisations were dealing with young women’s external needs, but not their internal needs.
In 1996, a shy young woman Burke calls “Heaven” told Burke how she was being molested by her mother’s boyfriend. Burke found Heaven’s story triggered her own trauma and she could not deal with it at the time. Burke later reflected that she wanted to say to Heaven “Me too”, but she couldn’t at that moment. Later, when Burke started sharing her story she found that the exchange of empathy between abuse survivors was healing.
When asked by Maley, Burke did not feel that Hollywood actresses had co-opted the MeToo movement. She felt the real co-opters were the media and corporations. Burke saw the global expansion of #MeToo as a real opportunity, but was worried about failing abuse survivors. She feels that the larger focus must be on helping those who really need the movement’s help.
Spicer made the important observation that sexual abuse/violence is a pyramid, with rape and sexual assault at the top and sexually inappropriate comments and put-downs and the like at the base. She said it all needed to be addressed as a pattern of behaviour that society should no longer tolerate.
Both panellists felt strongly that #MeToo can’t be allowed to fade into “hashtag heaven”, but must be sustained by engaging in the conversation with men and for women to continue applying pressure to the media and to politicians.
The third session was Suffragettes to Social Media: waves of Feminism, chaired by Edwina Throsby and featuring Barbara Caine, Anne Summers, Rebecca Walker and Nakkiah Lui. Each panellist spoke about the wave of feminism with which they were most familiar.
Barbara Caine spoke about the first wave of feminism. She said they started as very polite, upper middle-class women called the Suffragists until Emmeline Pankhurst made the movement more militant. The term, “Suffragette”, was coined by the Daily Mail newspaper with the intention of being patronising by using the diminutive ending “ette”. Pankhurst galvanised the movement by instigating property damage whereby the Suffragettes were determined to be arrested for the publicity and when they were jailed, they demanded to be treated as political prisoners. They sought the sexual mores of men, but were still somewhat exclusive as their aim was to seek the vote for white, middle-class women. Caine ascertained that the first wave ended with the advent of World War One.
Anne Summers was a protagonist in the second wave of Feminism. She was a young woman in the 1960s when the Vietnam War and Women’s Lib were prominent in the headlines. Although revolution was being espoused, she realised that “it was still women who were doing the shit work of the Revolution”.
Books such as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex radicalised women in the 1960s who sought a total transformation of Capitalism and Imperialism. In Summers’ pithy phrase: “women wanted equal pay and orgasms”. Through their activism, they brought about many reforms including anti-discrimination, gender pay equality, rape crisis centres, better child care provisions and getting more women into higher education.
Summers said the ’60s and ’70s saw a flowering of women’s creativity and it never occurred to her or many of her fellow feminists that the changes they had wrought would not be permanent. Unfortunately, John Howard’s government came to power in Australia in 1996 and “turned back the clock’ by dismantling many of the reforms.
Rebecca Walker spoke about the third wave of Feminism. She grew up believing in feminist ideals, but found, in the early 1990s, that many young women felt a “deep disconnect” with Feminism. She saw a need to re-radicalise a generation of women who felt alienated by Feminism. Women of colour felt left out of Feminism, seeing it as a white, middle-class movement. She perceived that the movement needed a more diverse leadership and had to emphasise both similarities and differences. She spoke of the need for third wave Feminism to become multi-issue, inclusive and working for all forms of equality.
Nakkiah Lui wasn’t sure if she represented a fourth wave of feminism, but, as a “queer black woman”, she knew she didn’t want to be part of the patriarchy. She said her feminist hero was her mother who had only identified herself as a feminist two years ago. Her mother grew up in a tent and had to leave school in Year 10, but she left a violent domestic relationship to go into tertiary education and now she works in Aboriginal communities empowering indigenous women.
Liu said many indigenous women in Australia still endure high rates of domestic violence, have lesser life expectancy and fear having their children taken from them by government agencies. As for fourth wave Feminism, she said there can be no “true victories if they don’t include all women”.