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Every year in March, we celebrate International Women’s Day, an event held annually around the world to celebrate women’s achievements – social, economic, cultural and political – throughout history.
But does the day still have significance these days, when other issues like racism and identity politics seem to dominate the media and activist landscape? Does feminism even mean anything to the millennials of today? Or is it a thing of the past, a cindered relic like the symbolic bras (mythically) burnt in the 60s?
For Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli, Senior Lecturer in Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development, International Women’s Day (IWD) has both personal and political significance.
‘IWD means a lot to me personally because of its roots in the working class. I’m one generation away from the women – including migrants like my mother – who cleaned the kinds of offices that I sit in today.’
She sees IWD as a chance to reflect on these roots – foundations that may have been overlooked by the evolution of feminism into liberal/individualistic terrain as the years have passed.
‘Liberal feminism has tended to focus on white middle-class women with the “you have choices” mantra which is essentially the idea that because women are supposedly free to do and be whatever they want, if they don’t achieve or succeed according to society’s norms of success and achievement, it’s their fault.’
‘Yet there are still many women in the world today who face systemic political, cultural and educational barriers and are discriminated against due to ethnicity, class, geography and sexuality. Feminism has come a long way forward and achieved much – but there is still a long way to go, and IWD is a worthwhile reminder of that,’ she says.
Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli believes ‘rather than being lost, feminism is reconfiguring via the millennial generation’ with younger women and men using digital technology to protest about intersectional issues via social media. These protests, that begin online and in popular culture, are translating into global change.
‘Young people are taking feminism forward with a stronger “glocal” view, as in the connections between the local and the global,’ says Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli, who emphasises the importance of what she calls the theory-into-action equation.
‘I strive to translate the theory I’m researching into something practical that will help society.’
She hopes that this is the future of academic feminist research. ‘I’m seeing a shift, whereby the de-colonising feminist research and activist movement will pop the academic bubble and services will call us to task to make our work useful and accessible.’
She refers in particular to the recent domestic violence work done in Australia as an example of this theory/practice disconnect. She is pleased that domestic violence is back on the theoretical political agenda, with some very successful public awareness campaigns involving courageous women speaking out and seeking support. But she worries there is not enough practical action such as increased funding for family violence services that cater to the diversity of women and effect real social change.
'Feminism has come a long way forward and achieved much – but there is still a long way to go, and [International Women's Day] is a worthwhile reminder of that.'
Dr Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli,
School of Health and Social Development, Deakin University
There is a view that the term ‘feminism’ has become meaningless, sabotaged and sensationalised by the media. Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli is concerned that while the media’s focus on Trump and other men’s misogyny and sexism has been fantastic and empowering, it could also be sabotaged – to dangerous effect.
‘We must be aware of patriarchal sensationalism and its power to erode sex-positive feminism and encourage puritanism that may shackle women again – another form of patriarchal control. This could be expressed via unspoken attitudes – “don’t hire women, they cause problems to men in the workplace” for example,’ she says.
Yet she doesn’t believe that feminism is disappearing. Rather, that it is being manifested in a different way, through an intersectional lens.
Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli is passionate about intersectionality and believes that any discussion of a universal feminism is simplistic.
‘We need to apply an intersectional lens for broad clarity and adopt a holistic approach.’
‘The intersectional lens (first introduced in 1989 by African-American feminist Kimberle Crenshaw) argues that the one-size-fits-all approach to issues such as health service provision for women is not working. The intersection of various factors of a woman’s life need to be equally acknowledged and addressed, as well as including pro-feminist men into our work.’
She points to rights activist and American writer, Audre Lorde’s observation that, ‘there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we don’t live single issue lives.’
Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli notes that an intersectional lens has been applied to recent research findings into women in the workplace. While historically women were invisible in this public sphere, and issues such as gender parity weren’t even considered, now there are other challenges.
‘Research shows that we need to address toxic managerialism in the workplace, with masculinist styles of authority and patriarchal systemic frameworks,’ says Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli. ‘We are seeing women in positions of leadership who are mimicking this toxic masculinity.’
Jessa Crispin, author of Why I’m Not a Feminist Anymore, argues that we need to reject assessing the success of feminism via patriarchal markers of success (for example, how much money do women earn and how high can they climb the corporate ladder?) and be more humanistic.
She suggests we ask the question: ‘how is our society working for women?’ and ‘address issues that are very important to us like income inequality, social welfare systems, reproductive and other health care. These are the things that are important to women, and to men.’
Dr Pallotta-Chiarolli supports this humanistic approach. ‘I’m not fussed about the use of the word feminist. It’s the action and the implementation that really matters,’ she says.
She hopes that one day there will be no need for feminism. That everyone in the global community will be humanists and draw on all the existing feminist work to change and improve existing systems to create more options for everyone.
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