My weekly Guardian column:
Men are afraid to talk about feminism. If that sounds melodramatic, I’d ask you to count the number of articles written by male writers tackling the big and small issues around gender and women’s equality. You’ll be hard pressed to find a strong selection.
This is not acceptable. Men have a stake in gender equality, from promoting fair pay and no-fault divorce laws, all the way to stopping honour killings and sexual violence. We are boyfriends, husbands, fathers or friends, and yet too many of us shy away from these sensitive matters, fearing opprobrium. Too often, men worry they’ll be attacked by women for questioning a consensus position on feminist issues.
When Australian prime minister Julia Gillard was in power, a common refrain on the left was that she faced appalling attacks on her appearance and marital status. Her famous misogyny speech prompted headlines around the world after she accused her opponent, Tony Abbott, of sexism.
There is no doubt that Gillard faced obstacles that men rarely have to contemplate, and that many of her ugliest critics have never accepted her legitimacy. Writer Anne Summers uncovered a litany of “vilification and denigration” against Gillard that went well beyond opposing the Labor leader’s policies. Many women applauded Gillard because they knew the daily realities of men ignoring, shaming or humiliating them at home, or at work.
And yet, during this entire period I found the debate depressingly staid. The forums available to discuss these issues were limited, leaving (mostly female) feminists to defend Gillard from the trolls who mocked her ideas, clothes and hair. My argument here isn’t that men should have been central in the debate – our role as privileged players in society has lasted far too long – but that mainstream feminism seemed only to feel aggrieved, and little else.
But here’s the catch: Gillard ran a government that routinely enacted policies that harmed women, including placing asylum seekers in privatised immigration detention, backing warlords in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, supporting the Israeli occupation of Palestine, cutting benefits for single mothers and opposing gay marriage.
There are countless other examples, yet they remained mostly dismissed by the same women (and men) who lavished support on Gillard for her “feminist ideals”. The love-fest continued in September last year when Summers interviewed Gillard in an Oprah-style format, with sell-out crowds lapping it up. This was, unquestioningly, a moment of public catharsis. Of course, there is nothing wrong with praising Australia’s first female prime minister for her achievements – but at least be honest, and admit that a few principled speeches on her part don’t compensate for years of abandoning the very gender you claimed to be helping.
In many of my books, female voices challenge a corrupt and militarised capitalist system, and it’s these characters that inspire me. We rarely hear from those women in the west, and if we do they are buried under the din of articles about face-lifts and marrying George Clooney (a great recipe for click-baiting). I believe that’s part of the reason why female anti-feminism is growing, especially as issues many women see as tangential gain disproportionate online prominence.
In Unspeakable Things, British writer Laurie Penny argues:
“The feminism that sells is the sort of feminism that can appeal to almost everybody while challenging nobody, feminism that soothes, that speaks for and to the middle class, aspirational feminism that speaks of shoes and shopping and sugar-free snacks and does not talk about poor women, queer women, ugly women, transsexual women, sex workers, single parents, or anybody else who fails to fit the mould.”
This perfectly describes many western women who have become media spokespeople for their gender, appearing on TV with predictable lines. These are the same self-described feminists now salivating over the possible US presidency of Hillary Clinton, despite her record as a pro-war Democrat who believes in endless war. Yes, some feminist hero.
In hindsight, there’s no solid reason why I couldn’t have written this article years ago, but I’ve hesitated to do so. I’ve worried that I would be slammed for my white, male position and dismissed as ignorant of the real problems faced by women today. It’s an odd concern, because I don’t worry about extreme Zionists challenging me when I call them out on their racism (and I do receive plenty of vicious attacks whenever I write about it).
The bottom line is that writing about feminism when male is like gatecrashing a party – and I’m concerned I’ll be slammed for daring to arrive without an invitation. But the responsibility to advocate for half the population falls of everyone’s shoulders, not just women. To do it meaningfully, however, we need to focus on the issues that truly need our help the most urgently: benefits taken away from single mums; sexual violence which affects all women, but especially already vulnerable ones; endemic racism which leads to parents of colour scared to have their childshot by police forces; lack of unionising or legislation which leaves women without working rights worldwide; the right not subject to rape threats and abuse, online and offline; equal pay for equal work.
Ultimately, I realise I’ve been been too cautious for too long, not daring to add my voice to the debate. I agree with The Atlantic’s Noah Berlatsky who states that although misogyny predominantly affects women, “it’s important for men to acknowledge that as long as women aren’t free, men won’t be either.” But to win this battle, we have to remember that the debates about celebrity red carpet dresses and celeb-feminism are designed to distract us. This is feminism lite, and is little more than white noise. Gender equality will only be achieved by hard work and uncomfortable questions.