Category Archives: Feminist

Damn Girl! Confessions of a feminist lesbian.

“I don’t believe in marriage, it’s a relic of an outdated patriarchal institution”, I said as an obnoxious eight year-old feminist.

I never imagined that some 14 years later, as a 22 year-old lesbian, I’d be regularly speaking in a variety of fora, arguing for the expansion rather than the abolition of marriage.

This is not a post about marriage (though for the record while I’m very pro-marriage equality I still don’t personally believe in it) it’s about how my feminist identity and my sexual orientation intersect and conflict.

For as long as I can remember I’ve identified as a feminist. It’s not something I ever struggled with or questioned. It’s a fundamental part of who I consider myself to be.

My sexual orientation, on the other hand, is something that I questioned for years. To be honest, I still do – sometimes labels don’t really capture the complexity and fluidity of attraction – but by the time I was 17, I’d come to the conclusion that I identified as (mostly) gay.

As a gay woman, I’m attracted to women. I check women out. I make judgments about whether or not I think they are physically attractive. I discuss my opinions about women’s attractiveness with other people.

This is where I start to feel conflicted.

As a feminist, I think that the objectification of women is wrong. I think that there is much more to women than their appearance, and obviously I would never date someone just because they were physically attractive. But I still check women out.

Similarly, burlesque and drag performances by and for women are a significant feature of the lesbian ‘scene’. In these acts, women are frequently wearing minimal clothing, and performing for an audience that is “appreciating” their bodies.

Is there any difference between a room full of women doing this and a room full of men doing it? Arguably, I guess so, because as women we aren’t a part of the institutional power of the patriarchy, but I’m still not that comfortable with it. I’m just not sure that replicating what I, as a feminist, consider to be something that is an oppressive behaviour is in any way advancing the cause of women. Surely something is wrong if women are themselves perpetuating the ‘male gaze’ and objectifying other women?

It’s something I’ve discussed a lot with my lesbian friends, and it’s complicated – if women feel liberated performing in front of other women, who are we to say that they’re participating in the patriarchy? If I’m not comfortable with it, I’m free not to attend, I shouldn’t enforce my perceptions of feminism and appropriate behaviour on other women.

The problem is, women can and do feel objectified by other women. I once had a conversation with a friend about going to a particular Newtown pub’s lesbian night, and she said she didn’t want to go because “walking in there is worse than walking into a room full of seedy old dudes”.

I guess the difference between the two situations is that the woman performing for a room full of same-sex attracted women is consenting to the objectification – I don’t really think you can argue it’s anything other than objectification – while the woman casually walking in to the pub for a drink with a friend isn’t.

But where does that leave me, the same-sex attracted woman sitting at a café on King Street in Newtown watching women walking past and mentally assessing their attractiveness? Women walking down the street can’t consent to be looked at and judged (regardless of what they’re wearing – nothing is an invitation to be objectified). Ultimately I think checking out people of the gender to which you’re attracted is a just a natural instinct.

So maybe it’s all just a question of how you define objectification. Do I check women out? Absolutely. But I also respect them. I believe there is much more to a person than just their appearance – to be honest to me nothing is sexier than intelligence and a good sense of humour – and I don’t think that women exist purely as objects for my sexual satisfaction. I think that’s the important difference. Not between me as a woman checking out other women and men checking out women; but between me (and everyone else who is both attracted to and respects women) and other people. Other women and men who don’t see women as people, as independent individuals with personality and agency over themselves and their sexuality, but as passive recipients of their desire. That’s when a natural behaviour becomes participation in the patriarchy and oppresses women.

** All opinions my own and do not reflect the policy or position of the National Union of Students

Donherra Walmsley is the National President of NUS. You can follow her on twitter at: @NUS_President 

A letter from suffragette Vida Goldstein: Coming to you from an 11 Year Old Georgia

ImageWhen I was 11 years old I went through a period of being fascinated with the history of the women’s suffrage movement. I admit, I was a bit of a nerdy child. For my grade six oral presentation I decided to speak on a women’s right to vote. Instead of speaking from first person, I decided to take on the persona of an activist in the late 19th Century, speaking to a rally for women’s suffrage. My mum suggested that I take on the character of Vida Goldstein, the first woman in Australia to run for parliament. I’m not sure if I got through to my fellow classmates, but my teacher definitely loved it and I think it was probably the first time I really identified as a feminist. After moving house recently, I found the speech, still on cue cards, and I thought it might be nice to share. I have copied it exactly as I wrote it back then, even with all the corny 11 year old phrasing I used. I had the words in bold to remind myself to give emphasis when speaking, I thought keeping them was interesting to see which words my 11 year old self wanted to place emphasis on.

Good Morning Ladies, and the small number of brave men that have arrived. My name is Vida Goldstein and I am proud to be a suffragist.

What is a suffragist? A suffragist is a person who campaigns for National Suffrage, the right to vote for all.

The year is 1895 and we are here today protesting because Women in Victoria do not have the right to vote! Our sisters in New Zealand were the first women in the entire world to achieve the vote in 1893. A year later, our fellow female citizens in South Australia also were given the right to vote for local council. But women here in Victoria and women in the rest of Australia still do not have the right to vote for the people who represent them! What makes us any different?

I quote from my sister in suffrage Elizabeth Bennick:
“Are women citizens?
Yes! When they are required to pay taxes
No! When they ask to vote
Does the law concern women?
Yes! When they are required to obey it
No! When they ask for a voice in the representation of the country”

Queens have ruled whole empires, yet other women cannot vote for their local government, let alone state or federal parliament.

Have you noticed that terms people use in everyday language are always favoring men? Why isn’t it herstory instead of history? Why is it always for the good of mankind, instead of for the good of womankind? Just these little things are the reason we do not have the vote in Victoria.

6 years ago Louisa Lawson, a fellow suffragist said: “A woman’s opinions are useless to her, she may suffer unjustly, she may be wronged, but she has no power to weightily petitions against man’s laws, no representatives to urge her views, her only method to produce release, redress or change is to ceaselessly agitate.”

I have never heard a good reason why men should have the vote. When did they launch their campaign? When did they go on protest marches, sign petitions, and rationally argue for their basic rights? The governors raise arguments against female suffrage such as the violation of motherhood ideal, destruction of family life, dishonesty and that we are “staining the fine character of Victorian Women“.

Are not some of these arguments eligible for men also? How will the vote destruct family life, it will simply make it stronger! They say we are too weak to vote. Are we too weak to bring children into the world? Something I am yet to see a man do. Are we too weak to raise a family? Too weak to cook, clean and support the men of Victoria? 4 Years ago, in 1891, we signed a petition with over 30,000 signatures of men and women alike in Victoria. They labelled it “The Monster Petition” as it was so big, several people had to carry it into the chamber. And they still ignored us!

We are not only fighting for the vote, but for equal justice, equal privileges in marriage and divorce, rights to property and the custody of children in divorce. We argue on issues such as contraception and abortion, family allowances, equal employment opportunities, education and respect for women’s domestic labor. Yet all of the decisions are currently being made by men, when they concern us!

We really just want people to respect women’s rights as workers, as mothers and women as citizens. People ask us why we want the vote, why it is so special. The truth is because there are only men in parliament and only men can vote, politicians only worry about the things men worry about. Things like land, and beer and sheep!

We can’t go up to a politician and say “I think it is outrageous there is not enough proper education or healthcare in this town, because they won’t listen to us. We pose no threat, because we don’t vote. Men’s issues take priority because they could put the politican out of a job. We can’t pass laws concerning abusive husbands because men are the ones who pass the laws, and the ones who vote on them.

Now if we ever do get the right to vote, I want all you women out there to remember, every time you walk into that polling booth, don’t just tick any old box and please do not vote informally. Really think about who and what you are voting for. Use your vote wisely because we fought hard for it.

It would not be until 1908 that Victorian Women would gain the right to vote in Federal and Local elections. But it was not until the end of WWI in 1918 that women could finally vote for State parliament. In the time between 1903 and 1917, Vida Goldstein would stand for Parliament 5 times unsuccessfully. This made her the first Australian woman to stand for Parliament.

Edith Cowan was the first woman to win a seat for her local government in WA in 1921. But Australia would not gain National Suffrage for another 48 years until 1966 when Aboriginals were finally entitled to vote. And I want all of you out there to remember how lucky you are to vote in a safe democratic election when so many women around the world still don’t have this basic right that so many take for granted.

On loving the body you have (as long as it isn’t fat, non white, small breasted, big hipped, not symmetrical, a bitch face, etc.)

I am so unbelievably sick of body image campaigns. Actually, if I see another one I think I might actually die.

No. Srsly. Fuck. Off. Why is it my responsibility to love myself and not the responsibility of society to love me for all of me, not just the way that I look?

My biggest problem is that none of these campaigns even remotely question why it is that women are valued entirely on the way that they look, they just remind us that we’re only really valuable for the way that a (male) gaze sees us.

Don’t get me wrong, body image issues are of a massive concern, particularly to young women. I read some article the other day about how many young girls go on diets, or hate their bodies, and it’s way too many, it’s really wrong. But, it seems like all the youth women’s movement does is talk about body image and – guess what- it’s not the skin you’re in, it’s the patriarchy stupid!

Lets think of an example – Dove ran their beautiful at every size campaign. Showing women that (so long as you’re still traditionally beautiful in the face and that) you can be beautiful at anything from a size 6 all the way up to, oh, size 12 (bigger than that isn’t beautiful see, cellulite sets in) same company that owns Dove owns lynx, who have been doing their part to fuck up young women (and young men’s attitudes to young women) since day one.

At the same time as Dove’s pretending it thinks you’re beautiful –EVEN if you are size 12- lynx is reminding you that you’re only worth objectifying (which to them means you’re only worth the oxygen you breathe) if you’re stick thin with massive fake breasts and covered in mud.

If you ever needed more proof that better body image campaigns are a part of the system that continues to oppress us you only need to look at who’s running them.

It’s not the campaign, it’s the patriarchy. In a lot of ways I feel as though campaigns that tell women to solve the problem of the way they view their bodies ignore the real problem, which is that we live in a patriarchal society which tells women to say not fuck you, but fuck me.

As a movement we need to stop giving into the idea that women are valuable because of how they look and start asking people to question why they care.

And that, is why I will never run a body image campaign.

What do you all think?

Stop Being Dicks: A public service announcement

Recently there was significant attention given in the Western Australian press to the actions of a group of UWA students who thought it was appropriate to create an event, vaguely associated with a university club, that advertised women’s tickets to ‘sluts’ but not ‘crying sluts’.

Profound men that these were they also included a survey for prospective attendees which questioned the women’s bra size and their capability in the field of fellatio. Because, these women having achieved the goal of attending one of the most prestigious universities in the country, should count themselves lucky to be in the company of the kinds of men which sign on to these events.

To those involved I can only say, most emphatically, STOP BEING DICKS.

No, really, just stop being such unimaginative, misogynistic fucking pricks.

To them, and those that think of engaging in similar hilarity, I inform you of a fact which it would appear has escaped you. Women are people too!

They appear women in shape and size and not simply as walking orifices to be penetrated. They have faces, and eyes and noses and mouths and they all have brains too. Brains that have thoughts, thoughts that you are all just massive dicks.

I don’t even want to accuse these sorts of events of backlash, they’re not that profound or well thought out. These events are not about backlash against the theories and ideas which demand equality, they are just massive, underdeveloped dicks.

Stop being this way, no one really thinks it’s funny and I like to believe that we now live in a world where this sort of behaviour is no longer accepted by mainstream society. A society which has realised what these people have not. That women are not things but people, not orifices but individuals, not sluts but women.

There is, as with most things, a significant downside and danger to these sorts of events. Which is, that these sorts of ideas feed into a concept which says that women are worth less than men. These ideas and events translate into an acceptance and condoning of a society which allows violence against women to continue.

In the Talk About It survey of 2010/2011 86% of women reported being sexually harassed on campus. 67% reported having an unwanted sexual experience. The acceptance of these statistics is an acceptance of these sort of attitudes. To continue this behaviour is to state that women are some how worth less than men. That they  have some less intrinsic value. This is an attitude which must be rejected.

We as a society, as a community, need to stand up and say emphatically Women are people too- stop being such massive dicks.

I don’t think it’s funny, I think it’s harmful. And so does nearly everyone else.

As a group we need to stand up to these people. Until we do more than half of the women you go to uni with will experience unwanted sexual experiences. More than three quarters will be harassed on campus. They will be heckled, they will be abused and they will be raped.

Enough is e-fucking-nough .

Stop being dicks.

A letter from an activist to her pre feminist self

Dear Pre-Feminist Self,

At the moment you’re in a really awkward stage. You’re using foundation that a friend left at your house in a desperate bid to hid your pustules. You’re passionate, about something, but you’re not sure what. You’ve just stopped calling yourself a ‘non-conformist’ and your friends have breathed a sigh of relief that they can stop rolling their eyes quite so hard.

I wish I could tell you that you’ll get less awkward soon. The thing is that you really won’t. You’ll be 21 and you’ll be walking around with ash in your hair and every time you think of something vaguely witty to say you’ll get tongue-tied.

Here’s the beautiful thing:

You’ll be cool with that.

Feminism won’t be a cure all for your problems – but it will teach you how to stand your ground. You will start to understand why things seem so unfair, and you’ll realize what you need to do to fight back. You will realize that you’re more than a number on the scales, more than a uterus, more than a canvas for that horribly mismatched foundation.

And yeah, you’ll get really mad at times. Like when a pharmacist glares at you for buying emergency contraception, or you’re told you’re “too feminine” to be taken seriously, or people discuss your body as if it’s a car that needs work. But you’ll be able to deal with this bullshit so much better because you know that it is bullshit.

So don’t worry. You’re going to find an outlet for your passion. You’re going to learn a lot. You’re going to do a lot. You’re going to meet amazing people. You’re going to like yourself. Maybe not the ash in your hair, but that’s rather secondary in the scheme of things.

In sisterhood.

The backlash isn’t over yet. It’s only the beginning.

I spend a significant amount of my time, both professional and personal, talking about female leadership. Why it’s important, why we need more female leaders and why, despite the fact we have a woman in the highest elected office in the country, women continue to have their leadership and authority undermined in society.

This is a problem that exists within almost every political situation and organisation. I speak to women who are presidents, convenors, elected returning officers and prominent within their workplaces and they tell me the same stories. They are being undermined by virtue of their gender.

Men continue to assume their supremecy in leadership, negotiation and relationship building. Worryingly, there are many women who also seem to believe this. They will undermine, undervalue and speak with disrespect about the abilities of female leaders in a way that they never do of men.

Julia Gillard was last week attacked by Germaine Greer on national television. Told she had a ‘big arse’ and that she needed to accept that. Sorry, what? That’s the level of the debate that we can now expect from one of the most celebrated feminists in Australia. Of our first female PM, you’ve got a big arse, accept it. A generation of women who may have looked at the Prime Minister and felt that the sky was the limit of their capacity can rest assured that the glass ceiling will remain, in the form of a feminist critique of your ‘big arse’.

Backlash against the gains made by women exists across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right. A culture that celebrates and promotes women is a grand conspiracy against men. Affirmative Action targets endanger the assumed place of men within political organisations. Infuriating as it is, what we as women wear and who we sleep with continue to be used against us by both women and men.

We’re told to be quiet, sit silently and wait for the problem to be solved. Rowdy women seldom are promoted in the real world. This seems to go against how the fight has been won in the past. We need to speak up and stop being afraid of the consequences. If the worst thing someone thinks to say about me is I have a big arse and should deal with it, or that i’m a man hater, lesbian, slut then I’m cool with those consequences. Lord knows, I’d be in some quality company.

There exists an upside to this though, a community of female leaders that grows stronger with every part of this backlash. The women that tell me these stories and the women that support them. Because we have to fight to be recognised behind every strong and powerful female leader there exists a community of mentors, mothers, daughters, sisters, friends and allies who got her there. Strengthen this community, join it, our backlash isn’t over yet.

Introduction to Violence Submission: Safety on Campus

In 2010 NUS Women’s Department launched the Talk About It Survey, the survey ran from the end of 2010 through to the end of o-weeks in 2011. The report, released mid 2011, showed a worrying trend of violence against women on university campuses. The report is included as an appendix to this submission.

Any framework prepared surrounding Violence Against Women must include a consideration of the lived experience of women university students in Victoria. Universities are well placed to enact the focus on prevention and early intervention. An area which is in need of significant attention within the framework and universities is response, with many women, particularly in colleges, having the experience swept under the rug.

Reporting presented as a significant issue for female university students. With only 3% of those who stated they had had an unwanted sexual experience reporting it to their universities and only 2% reporting it to the police (Talk About It, 2011). Response can only work with increased reporting. Actions must be taken to ensure that young women feel safe reporting instances of violence on campus.

University campuses exist in a complex dichotomy, between State and Commonwealth assets, between public and private spaces and between public and private enterprises. This dichotomy cannot be seen as reason to ignore the violence which occurs against university students because it is ‘not this government’s problem. Those students who are victims of violence on Victorian university campuses must be included in this framework.

Students at university accommodation are particularly vulnerable to being victims of violence against women.  Quantitative evidence for this is difficult to attain, however there is significant evidence to suggest that colleges are unsafe places for women. There has been significant media attention to the issue, in particular following the release of ‘Talk About It’ in 2011.

Studies by NUS Australia, NUS UK and NUS NZ have all found varying degrees of problematic behavior within university accommodation. The UK research, entitled ‘Hidden Marks’ found that 25% of sexual assaults took place in public places, such as university colleges. In the NZ research ‘Are You OK?’ there was a particular focus on the importance of clear harassment policies.  However the Australian survey had a particular focus on women’s negative experience of university accommodation and sexual assault.

The NUS Women’s Department would like to stress the significant reported anecdotal evidence surrounding the risks associated with women and university accommodation. However, instances of sexual violence and assault are not contained within the university accommodation, instances of violence being reported across the university sector.

#thenewfword A letter to before I was a feminist

Dear Little Me,

 You don’t know what the word feminist means yet, you won’t for quite a while. All you know right now is that you’re a vegetarian ‘cos mum and dad say you are. There’s video evidence of this, at your birthday party your grand grandmother will try and give you a salad with bacon in it, it’s okay ‘cos Auntie Nikki will save you. Despite this your nan is right, you wouldn’t have known the difference is anyway.

 You’ll grow up a little and begin to understand, being a feminist is a pretty rubbish thing, being a feminist means that when your mum hears you and your friends giggling about sex in the backseat she’ll find the need to draw you an anatomically correct picture of a vagina and a penis. You still haven’t really forgiven her for that, and you’re a lot older now.

 You won’t have a lightbulb moment, you’ll read The Female Eunuch when you’re fourteen but close it in the section when she talks about tasting your own menstrual blood. For Christmas the year that you turn 15 you’ll get a copy of Gender Troubles by Judith Butler. You’ll never read the entire book all the way through. You’ll write three essays at university based on her theories and you’ll still never read an entire chapter. Because you don’t understand her you’ll say she’s stupid. Until I finish the book I don’t know if that’s true or not.

 People won’t really understand where you’re coming from, they’re about to start calling you names, ‘cos you’re different. Try not to let it get to you too much, it’s not really that bad to be a feminist. In the end you’ll actually find that it gives you the strength you need to make it through the hard times.

 You’ll be an angry hairy feminist for a while, you’ll spend a year flirting with lipstick post-feminism. Then you’ll have a lecturer who completely changes the way you think about everything. She’s pretty hated by a lot of people but she makes you radical. You won’t throw away your heels or cut your hair but you’ll become more empowered and questioning.

 When you’re 21 you’ll shave your armpits for an election pledge, it’ll get your campaign 500 bucks but you’ll still cry when you do it. It seems like less of a big deal after that. One of your teachers from high school will tell you that you paved the way for strong feminist women at your old school, you’ll cry at this too. Basically feminism means a lot of crying for you, but that’s okay too.

 For you #thenewfword is really just the old ‘f’ word. It’s never a dirty word around your house. Except for when your mum draws the diagram. That part sucks.

 There’s a lot of time left to go in your life, but I don’t think you’ll ever stop being a feminist. For now you can keep playing with your Barbie dolls. Kiri who’s your favourite won’t be yours for much longer though, you’re about to leave her in the sun and she’s going to melt. You won’t get over it for a week.

 In Sisterhood,

 Noni xx