Still Kicking

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Mardi Gras Sydney 2006, photo by BadPauly.

Last Saturday, as I was frocking up to go to the ‘alternative’ Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras party, I got a call from New Matilda‘s editor: could I write about the relevance of International Women’s Day (IWD)?

The parallels between the two events weren’t lost on me. The Sydney queer community media has been full of soul-searching and hand-wringing lately. Is Mardi Gras still relevant? Has the gay and lesbian community gone mainstream? Is there a ‘community’ at all, or have we fragmented into hundreds of sub-communities? What about all the political struggles still raging? How do we make our voices heard when it really matters?

I still remember the International Women’s Day marches of my childhood, where what seemed like thousands of women, chanting and singing, closed down George Street on a Saturday morning. Like the Mardi Gras parade, the IWD rallies of the last few years have gotten smaller. I’m not likely to march myself, but I don’t see that as a sign that rallies are irrelevant.

Meanwhile, commentators circle like vultures, trying to be the first to definitively pronounce feminism ‘dead.’ Anything and everything, from Hilary Clinton’s response to Monica-gate, to hipster jeans, can be seen as the sure sign that feminism has bitten the dust.

Frankly, I see feminism going from strength to strength. With the growth of online communities and focussed, niche political campaigns, women everywhere are working on the micro-political level at the childcare centre, in the office, or at their local sports club towards goals that can easily be recognised as feminist.

This work doesn’t seem particularly outrageous or revolutionary, precisely because feminism has totally permeated mainstream culture in Australia. Why else would there be all the continued huffing and puffing about political correctness? We may not live in a feminist utopia of equality (there’s a bloody long way to go before that happens), but key feminist issues like women’s right to reproductive choice are well and truly being seen not just as ‘women’s business,’ but as issues that affect everyone.

As I see it, even the co-opting of feminist rhetoric is a key indicator of feminism’s mainstream success. It’s impossible to publicly debate an issue involving women, or families, without appealing to feminist arguments on some level. This has not always been the case. Take, for example, the question of pornography and censorship. Prior to the 1970s, it was entirely possible for male religious leaders, politicians, artists and business people to stage a major pro- and anti-censorship debate based on issues like ‘obscenity’ and ‘public decency.’

Female sexuality might have been the ‘object’ of the debate, but since women were not a political constituency that needed to be addressed with any kind of subtlety, their opinions and attitudes were assumed. The question of ‘free speech’ was men’s business.  Women were either the degraded sluts represented in pornographic media, or the high-minded wives and daughters who must be protected from such filth.

Now women are not only recognised as active producers and consumers of explicit media, but their involvement in public decision making is solicited through the language of feminism. I may cringe when Hugh Hefner claims to be ’empowering’ his models, or fume when Catholic politicians claim that pornography is ‘demeaning’ to women, but I can recognise that I am being clearly invited to enter the debate as a political agent, in feminist terms.

What interests me most is the way that feminism continues so strongly, despite the fragmenting and blurring of what once seemed like a clearly defined political movement. As with the ongoing struggle for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered rights, strategies and approaches have changed as the structure of public life, and community itself changes. The line between the Left and Right isn’t clear cut anymore. It’s hard to believe that everything will be okay after the (worker/women’s/gay/insert-your-cause-here) revolution.

Fringe issues have become mainstream, but hard-won battles are never final. Fortunately, political tactics can (and do) adjust to the demands of time and place.

So, given that I went to the ‘alternative’ Mardi Gras party, what will I do to celebrate an ‘alternative’ International Women’s Day? Well, I’ll probably contribute to a few activist e-lists, and browse the website for the Sheila Autonomista DIY women’s festival.

Then I’ll prepare my first lecture for the popular introductory subject in the Gender Studies major at the University of Sydney, and see if any of my friends are going to the AIDS Council of NSW Lesbians and Breast Cancer forum on Thursday night. After work I may pop over to my boyfriend’s house for dinner and some hardcore snuggling.

Am I a typical feminist, and will it be a typical International Women’s Day? Probably not.

Is that going to stop me being political in my own terms, despite the so-called death of feminism? What do you reckon?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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