F Club

12 April 2010

Over the weekend, I attended the F Conference, the first major feminist conference held in Australia in many years (no one seemed to agree just how many). It was enriching and inspiring. It was also confusing, perplexing and briefly infuriating. I consider myself a feminist but good grief, half the time I had no idea what these people were talking about. The conference seemed to divide between the older, second wave feminists active through the 1960s, 70s and 80s (who received a deserved round of applause in the opening session) and the fresh young feminists leading the charge now. I felt quite out of touch - someone in between age-wise, who considers herself a feminist but has mostly been in the corporate world for the past many years and has done something between very little and bugger all for the feminist movement.

So I spent much of the conference struggling to comprehend the language, the vocabulary, the nuances. There was the usual mix of panels and workshops that these events offer. The panels featured some well-known and not-so-known but fascinating and inspiring speakers, such as Catherine Lumby, Eva Cox, Anne Summers and Larissa Behrendt. In general, I found the ever so slightly older feminists ideas presented in a more accessible way. It was the younger feminists who left me rather bewildered - being so caught in nuance, so fearful of anything they say possibly giving offence to anyone, that left their words with little to offer a mainstream audience. The problem with some of these women is they operate in a closed system. They attend meetings with other feminists; read works by other feminists; then they write papers and blog posts on feminism which are read and commented on by other feminists.

There was some discussion on the weekend of the (ridiculous) idea that feminism is "dead", but I think the problem may not be one of relevance but accessibility. I was thinking of some friends of mine, lovely strong women, who haven't been to university, don't live in inner Sydney, don't read leftist works. Although the changes proposed at the feminist conference, and the work done by feminists past and present, is to their benefit, I'm not sure if they'd see any relevance in discussions of "the patriarchy and gender-neutral frameworks". How can feminism engage with these women? If feminism has an image problem it may well be of elitism rather than irrelevance. There was much anguished discussion of the history of feminism as a white movement, and how that can be remedied in the future. That is vital and all to the good. But feminism also needs to lose its status as an academic movement.

Much is being done to make feminism more inclusive of Indigenous Australians and women from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. The conference opened with a panel discussion of Indigenous women sharing their knowledge and how it applies to feminism. It was informative and inspiring. Sadly it wasn't all so uplifting. One panel featured a woman named Candy Bowers, a self described "Blasian" (Black and Asian) woman who is a poet, comedian, hip hop artist and co-ordinator for the Sydney Theatre company. At first I was really enjoying what she had to say about the lack of ethnic diversity in the Australian arts scene and growing up in Campbelltown. Then she stated "To Indigenous people I respect and admire you; to non-white people I support you; and to white people, I am here to challenge you". I felt my face grow red. How dare she suggest because I, or anyone else, am white, I am somehow complacent, or powerful, or wealthy? For a start I am Irish, and I think the Irish people can say a little something about oppression (my great-grandmother may have been arrested during the 1916 uprising -the family history is fuzzy). But even if I am not claiming any special status - which is often where the problems start - such sweeping assumptions as Ms Bowers made don't help anyone.

The workshops were more enjoyable. There was several mentions at the conference of modern feminism being consumed by the rise of raunch culture, so perhaps as a deliberate decision raunch culture was not a workshop topic. I can't otherwise fault the diversity of workshop topics, from Sex Work, Children's Services and Poverty, along with the more expected topics such as Domestic Violence, Consent, FGM and Plastic Surgery. Among others I attended a wonderful supportive discussion on home birth and birthrape - the unnecessary medicalisation of normal birth. All else being equal, an epidural automatically turns a low-risk into a high-risk birth yet it is presented as safe, and Nicola Roxon has made homebirth in Australia almost impossible to obtain (eerily similar to difficulties obtaining abortion in previous years- you have to go underground and it can be very expensive). I think I'll get involved with this, as well as with the ASU's Fair Pay case - but that is for another post!

Generally though, I left the conference with a sense of being unsure what to do with all this. There were times over the weekend when I felt like I had no voice, although I understand that with 400+ participants it would be fairly impossible to let everyone have a say. There were hopeful messages and things to grow on, but I truly believe feminism the movement (not just feminist principles) needs to reach out to women from all walks of life if it is to capture their passion.

I'll leave you here with some quotes from the weekend. These were scribbled in my notebook on the spot so may not be verbatim, but the spirit is there.

"You can't use one experience to paint the whole story" - Dixie Link Gordon

"Feminism - you think you don't need it, until youneed it; when you bang your head up against the patriarchy" - unrecorded

"Without the ability to be economically independent and control our fertility,we have nothing" - Anne Summers

"A woman is not sad, or lesser, or missing out, if she doesn't have children" - Anne Summers

"While women are excluded from positions of economic power in this country they will be excluded everywhere" - Elizabeth Broderick

"We think if we are nice to the bastards they will let us into their club" - Eva Cox, exhorting feminists not to play nice

"Grassroots work won't change the basic policies that are screwing women" - Eva Cox

and finally...

"When women are taught to have orgasms, they are empowered to change the world" - Pat, an 89 year old feminist.

Who could argue?


  1. Thanks for these reflections on the conference! I had to miss out on it so it's super to have a blogcast.

    Candy Bowers' talk sounds great to me as a white Australian of Irish heritage. And it's not because I'm masochistic or overly apologetic, nor because I believe I'm *especially* powerful or wealthy (which I don't think she was suggesting at all). It's because I know that being a white woman in this country means I have a whole heap of privileges that women who are not white do not have. I also think that claiming my Irish ancestry (I stress ancestry, which is very different to being a migrant with a different culture and a different accent, for example) is something that has helped me avoid acknowledging these privileges. It's a very common way of dealing with being white, feminist and anti-racist in Australia. You might be interested in Peggy McIntosh's reflections if you haven't seen it before? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DRnoddGTMTY (excuse the naff 'reconstruction' imagery....!). This isn't about reading heaps of lefty books and/or being scared to offend, it's about grappling with huge social injustices that impact on the very possibility of having a feminist alliance.

  2. We-ell...I am not an Australian of Irish heritage, rather I arrived here as a child, with a strong accent, and underwent much bullying at school because of this. I can't compare this to institutionalised racism, obviously. (What of the white woman who came to Australia as a Kosovar refugee, for instance).

    But what was Candy Bowers' saying, if not that white is a marker of privilege somehow? Her remark drew applause but there were a lot of women who were conspicuously not applauding. I feel extremely uncomfortable with the implications of what she said.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment - it's always welcome even when people interpret thing in different ways.

  3. My pleasure ;)

    I don't see anything particularly offensive or restrictive about the suggestion that whiteness is a marker of privilege which needs challenging (a la the McIntosh thing). It's not to exclude other experiences/oppressions, or even to suggest that some people with white skin don't experience racism. It does take on greater meaning when you're in a non-white minority that's targeted on the basis of race, but it's not a meaning that excludes all others, I'd have thought?

  4. I don't think whiteness is a marker of privilege in and of itself. I don't think skin colour ever signifies a person's traits and I find that slightly racist in itself. *shrugs* We shouldn't corelate disadvantage with dark skin, it's not so, especially out of Sydney.

  5. As a recent migrant to Australia and a minority - yes, your skin colour makes a HUGE difference in how you are treated. It shouldn't indicate what sort of traits you have, but currently it does, and - at least as far as Australia is concerned - white people do get a lot of privileges and free passes that they take for granted or just don't even realise. It's one thing to be picked on for your accent (I get that all the time); it's another to be denied jobs, to not have your concerns be taken seriously, to be assumed that you can't possibly be Australian, to be demeaned to, just because you look foreign.

  6. Sadly, I can't deny that Australia, my adopted homeland, which I love, has a significant racist minority. It is particularly galling that anyone of non-Anglo ethinicity that such an ethnicity is a synonym for white. I have a part time retail job whilst I'm finishing my studies; many of the women I work with are of Asian descent. When a customer refers to me as "Australian" I often reply, "well, I wasn't born here, but my friend was" (co-worker of Asian descent). I do like to challenge prejudices.

    But I wait for prejudices to be stated. For someone I have never met to make assumptions about me based on my skin colour really hurt (I am a youth worker and believe me - skin colour is no signifier of advantage in Australia). Ms Bowers may say that if I have confronted prejudice based on her words, and contemplated what the reality s for non-white women, she has achieved her goals. I would understand that but still disagree with it. Perpetuating stereotypes helps no one; two wrongs don't make a right.


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