The Age

Friday 19 May 2000

Alas, poor feminism...

The Age (Melbourne)

WELL, that's that then. I give up. Far from improving our situation, feminism is clearly just causing us all sorts of problems. Rather than "having it all" (which was what feminism was supposed to give us apparently), women are faced with full-time work at home, full-time work at work, an ultimate choice between reproduction and remuneration and, on the whole, are thoroughly miserable.

If we have an abortion, Bob Ellis will warn us of the untold grief of which we were apparently oblivious when we decided to abort. If we decide not to reproduce at all, we're selfish hedonists and Leunig will draw a cartoon about our unborn babies waiting for us up in Heaven.

If we have children and take extended leave, our careers will nosedive and we will lose out on $200,000 in earnings, according to an ANU study. If we return to work and put our children in care, we will feel racked with guilt, be inundated with advice about professional versus familial care, Leunig will draw a cartoon about us and Peter Ellingsen will write of his despair at being "abandoned" at creche by his mother. If we are single, we will struggle to afford either option and if we seek government assistance, Jocelyn Newman will tell us we are buying into a "culture of dependency".

If we have male partners, they are rarely given paternity leave and are forced to work extremely long hours. And if our partner is a woman, we can't have children, because they need a father, even though they'll never see him.

We will be exalted and revered as mothers, just so long as we don't trust our own judgment about what is right for ourselves and our children. And on this page on Monday, Charles Krauthammer kindly revealed the source of it all: that this misery is simply the "tribute exacted by feminism".

As the "child-care debate" has lurched its way across these pages over the past few months I have had an uneasy feeling that the underlying message, whether intended or not, of many concerned voices has been the same as Krauthammer's: that feminism has been all very well, but that ultimately it has made women unhappy. This is the result of a wicked little paradox to which Krauthammer seems oblivious: that feminism apparently "commands the day", but that women are dissatisfied because they expected too much.

The Pythonesque cry of "yes, we are all feminists" seems recently to be followed by a substantial "but": we all wanted women in the workplace, but nobody wanted the tension that this seems to cause within the family unit, and absolutely nobody wanted to be burdened with journalists' abandonment syndromes over their muesli.

Feminism has become the patsy for a society that remains patriarchal. Voices of reason like Pamela Bone and Fiona Stewart remind us that it usually takes two to conceive and care for a child, but their sensible words fall on ears numbed by a community consumed with the challenge of fitting personal lives around a 12-hour work day. Where is the fury at a work culture that forces people into such long hours that they are forced to "choose"? Where is the condemnation of a society that has created the "mummy and daddy track" (so conspicuously gender-neutral) as a "detour" rather than a main road, and consequently undervalues human relationships? Where are the men banging on doors in a show of I've-got-more-balls-than-Blair bravado to demand parental leave from their employers? Where, in fact, are the men, full stop?

How did feminism get hijacked on to the track of assimilation - be like men - struggle to be included in the existing structure without really changing it substantially; or bow out, be part of the attrition of women from the workforce who are sick of trying to "do it all"?

Maybe there was a chapter I skipped, but I don't remember feminism being a fight towards one goal: women in an unaltered workplace and that's all folks. Whittling away at the edges of the existing work structure, grappling to have women "accommodated", will only serve to entrench it and will leave men's roles unchanged.

As I had understood it, feminism has always been and will continue to be about much more than two choices. It is about all choices: what we do with our time, how we do it, what we wear when we do it, how safe we feel when we do it and how free we feel to express ourselves about it. Far from being just about the opportunity to work, feminism is about women's participation in all forms of society, about education, representation, control over our bodies and sexuality, freedom from sexual violence and poverty, about our complexities and even our inconsistencies, although we are not permitted to have them if we are feminist academics.

Further, it is about looking beyond our own situations, and I agree with Don Edgar when he classifies the child-care debate as middle-class. This does not diminish its importance in any way, it simply means that many women have a lot more than the challenge of juggling work and family to contend with and that, while this is the case, feminism does not, in fact, "command the day" as Krauthammer suggests.

I am a professional woman in her late 20s in a permanent relationship. I am on the cusp of both my career and of my child-bearing years. I am terrified at the prospect of managing career and children, even despite my completely domesticated and supportive spouse. The knowledge of the impending exhaustion and stress I can only now begin to imagine fills me with extreme anxiety.

The challenge is a difficult one. But I do not see feminism as the culprit. Rather, feminism steels my nerve to take it on. It urges me to look beyond my privilege to a broader sphere of problems and fills me with a satisfaction that we have nevertheless come so far in what was always going to be a protracted battle.

I am not happy in spite of my feminism, but happy because of it. It fills me with pride and, no doubt to Krauthammer's surprise, with joy.

Elena Campbell is a Melbourne lawyer.


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