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What does it mean to be a feminist these days?

It’s easy to assume that the feminist battle has been won and the fight was a historic one. Yet, we don’t need to look much further back than 2017 when President Trump took his place in the White House and women all over the world stepped out in force to protest his sexist, vulgar and derogatory attitude. There is a real fear that the work that’s been done in the past to fight sexual harassment, and promote workplace equality and reproductive rights, is being destroyed. Despite this, many women are reporting that they no longer identify as feminists.

Feminism: then and now

According to Dr Tanja Luckins, Unit Chair of Sex, Race and Australia’s People at Deakin University, ‘Feminists in 1970s Australia were a brave bunch. Then again, they had a lot to confront.’ She believes historian Miriam Dixson, author of 1976’s The Real Matilda, perfectly sums up the landscape at that time: ‘Australian women, women in the land of mateship, the “ocker” keg-culture, come pretty close to top rating as “doormats of the Western world”.’

Dr Luckins credits feminists such as Dixson, Anne Summers and Elizabeth Reid with helping to change the attitudes and laws associated with sexual harassment and discrimination, among other things. But how much have things improved today for women? Given women are increasingly adopting positions of power in business, it might seem workplace equality is increasing, for example. And yet a recent blog post by former Uber employee Susan Fowler highlights the harassment she experienced, and indicates that we are far from achieving a level playing field.

Susan says the harassment was rife and multiple reports to management about inappropriate advances went ignored. ‘When I joined Uber, the organisation I was part of was over 25% women. By the time I was trying to transfer to another engineering organisation (within the business), this number had dropped down to less than 6%. Women were transferring out of the organisation, and those who couldn’t transfer were quitting or preparing to quit,’ Fowler wrote in her post.

Future-proofing women’s rights  

In both the US and Australia there is still a significant gender pay gap. Yet in spite of this the average woman still does more household labour than a man – further proof true equality is yet to be won.

There is significant social progress still to be made. For example, Dr Luckins highlights Trump’s recent reinstatement of the global gag rule (an executive order that bans overseas organisations receiving US aid funding from performing or discussing abortion) as a huge concern. ‘This is a wake-up call that women, all around the world, must not become doormats again,’ she says.

Dr Luckins suggests that while a new generation might shy away from negative ‘bra-burning, hairy-legged’ feminist stereotypes, feminist values are very much alive and well in women seeking progress and there’s little doubt that we’ll continue to move forward, not backwards. As Hillary Clinton said in her Women’s March address: ‘the future is female’. That is, as long as women continue to fight for what they deserve.

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Dr Tanja Luckins
Dr Tanja Luckins

Senior Lecturer in Australian Studies
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