Presiding over policies that actively harm women does not a feminist make, writes Lauren Bull.
To be a feminist ‘in any authentic sense of term’, writes bell hooks, is ‘to want for all people, female and male, liberation from sexist role patterns, domination, and oppression.’ That is, a feminist is not a person who just gets angry when men are sexist. A feminist is a person who recognises that domination and oppression in society are structural, are often linked to capital, and hit women harder, especially those who are not white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, wealthy, and/or mentally ill.
It would be nice to think that in 2018 this was not revelatory. However, social media this week is abuzz with people falling over themselves to congratulate Australia’s apparent newly-minted feminist icons: Julia Banks and Julie Bishop. Two women who could not fall farther from the ‘authentic’ definition of feminist if they tried – and let’s pray they don’t try.
Let’s start with the obvious. Both women are members of Australia’s most conservative government in years. Bishop, the woman whose sparkling red high heels were recently proclaimed to be a symbol of ‘solidarity and empowerment among Australian women’, has publicly stated that not only does she have no need for the term ‘feminist’, but implied that to link sexism to differential treatment of women would be misguided, even going so far as to victim-blame Julia Gillard for her treatment by the public and media. She is Deputy Leader of a party which has systematically entrenched poverty, racism, and disadvantage in Australian communities since winning government in 2013.
Before her perfectly timed exit from the Liberal party, Julia Banks was best-known for claiming she could, but of course, ‘live on 40 bucks a day’, and for locking Newstart recipients out of her office when they came to discuss the realities of living on the allowance with her.
Considering women are significantly more financially vulnerable in Australia than men, and considering many recipients of government payments such as Newstart are living below the poverty line, this hardly paints Banks as a beacon of feminism or any kind of ally for all but the most privileged women.
And this is the crucial point – the status quo suits these two women. As privileged white women, upholding systems which reward whiteness and wealth suits them. This is typical of white women who, as Ruby Hamad has noted, ‘loudly object’ to a dearth of females in business and public spaces, but who hold some degree of power and who continue to deny non-white, non-privileged women the same access or rights.
Beyond their personal statements lies their voting history. A perfect example occurred earlier this year, when both Bishop and Banks voted to expand the roll-out of the cashless welfare card. For those unaware, the card is part of a system that disproportionately negatively impacts the lives of Indigenous women in particular, as well as those fleeing family violence, and others already under financial stress due to policies enacted by fiscally conservative, market-driven governments.
There is also a clear link between the roll-out of the card and a rise in family violence.
They have both voted along party lines for a number of other economically and socially conservative policies which the LNP government have introduced, to the significant detriment of Australian women. And, significantly, despite Banks’ recent defection to the #KidsOffNauru camp, they have been an active part of a political machine that has kept refugee women locked in detention and separated from their families, that has criminalised many migrant communities (including migrant women), and that thought it fitting to make Tony Abbott the special envoy on Indigenous Affairs.
They may think they’re empowering women, but if they are it is a very specific type of woman.
It seems clear that there are real issues of sexism in the federal Liberal Party, and it seems clear that both women have had a difficult time. But let’s not confuse things – a woman reaching up to smash a glass ceiling while standing on the necks of her sisters is no better for us than if the person doing the reaching was a man. And until “women’s empowerment” in this country becomes synonymous with demolishing structures of ongoing colonisation, enforced poverty, and racism, the terms ‘feminism’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ will continue to be drained of all meaning.
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