Saturday, December 29, 2012

A would-be feminist rant


Women over populate my life.  Four daughters, three sisters, and a professional life both in the world of psychology and of writing that these days is dominated by the presence of women.  It is the same wherever I go.  

The Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  Check out the audience: all those heads, the dyed or otherwise greying hair of women, mostly older women, though there are some young ones in between.  Maybe a quarter of them at most are men.  I do not know the statistics.  The ratio is much the same in psychotherapy circles, one man to every four women. 

I prefer a more balanced mix of gender, including the in between, the hybrids, the transgendered.  I tell myself I would prefer there were more men present, at the same time I am sensitive to the degree to which men tend to dominate conversations.  

Research suggests that from the beginning in early childhood at kindergarten and primary school, teachers spend more time addressing the boys. I risk a generalisation here but it seems to me from earliest days girls learn to communicate with words, whereas boys are more inclined towards action, including action words.

In September this year, the feminist activist, comedian and all round ‘nuisance’ woman, Catherine Deveny was on the panel of Q and A with the likes of Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney.  Catherine Deveny gets bad press as a loud mouth.  She invites it to some extent because of some of the things she says, like her comment about Bindi Erwin and the hope that she ‘get laid’.  

A non-academic Germaine Greer of sorts, Deveny by and large is on the side of the underdog, on the side of women, but she too enjoys her friendships with men and what seems like a loving partnership with a man with whom she cares for two sons, though to her great pride the couple remain unmarried.  I befriended Deveny on Face Book because I enjoy her style; though I watch other peoples’ faces crumple at the mention of her name.

I mention Deveny here because of the battle over the number of words ascribed to her during this session of Q and A.  Several twitterers and bloggers considered her to have dominated the show.  She cut across the other panelists, people complained, when in fact she did no such thing. 

Chrys Stevenson analysed the data and found that as is typically the case the men used more words, and cut across people more often, while the two women on the panel spoke less.  Not to get into a battle between the sexes, I think about these issues here in my rambling disjointed and broken way of thinking – I am a woman after all – my father’s daughter, my husband’s wife.  I recognize the imbalance of power in my world where women are mainstream but men get the cream.  The cream of jobs, the cream of books reviewed, the cream of recognition.

Despite the prevalence of patriotism everywhere, including and for me especially during my childhood, somehow the men often seem to wind up worse off than the women who are downtrodden, though not in extreme cases.  Witness the plight of certain Muslim women, Indian women, women in deeply patriarchal societies where to speak out as a woman is to risk getting your head cut off, and not just metaphorically. 

When I first started to write again, many years ago after a destabilising event that left me demoralized, I could only seek solace in words on the page.  I realised then the degree to which writing has come to be dominated by what Ursula Le Guin has called ‘father tongue.’  Father tongue, the language of the academy, the so-called objective language that seeks distance; that resents uncertainty and demands closure.  This as distinct from mother tongue, the language of mothers and babies, mothers and children, the language that Le Guin argues is closest to poetry.  It flies on the wind.  It is repetitive and simple.  It thrives on doubt. 

Both languages are essential Le Guin argues but there is a danger when one presupposes superiority over the other, as evidenced in the hostile response to Deveny’s non-rational comments juxtaposed to the less virulent responses to the so-called objective and reasoned thoughts of her fellow mostly male panelists.  We need both mother tongue and father tongue to develop what Le Guin describes as native tongue but this is not easy in a world dominated by the patriarchal.

My sensitivity to such things derives from my life in a family top heavy with men and this time not only in notion, but also in fact.  There were eleven of us in my family, six males, five females.  My father at the head.  He ran the show.  He earned the money.  My mother obeyed.  

At least overtly she obeyed.  If ever she defied him it was a hidden defiance, one she undertook in stealth.  That was until she caught my father at my sister’s bedside and the look on his face told her he had over stepped the mark.  My sister was sitting in bed, the blankets pulled up to her chin, like a little bird, my mother said, while my father leered. 

‘Get out of here,’ my mother said to my father.  ‘If I ever see you with her again I’ll kill you.’  
Later she thought my father’s visits to my sister had stopped, but my mother could not bear to see, and my sister protected her by keeping my father’s further visits a secret.

I do not want to suggest that men are the bad guys here and women are the victims.  We are all in this together.  The other night at dinner after a day long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had been groped six times in India in less that six days until she finally saw red.  She ran after the man who had grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so while squeezing a bottle of water over his head.  She yelled at him all the way down the street and imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends and family.  

‘It happens all the time,’ she said. 

Not to me, I thought.  But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the Middle East where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes place.  And I am over fifty, the age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.

Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas.  I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick in October this year.  The march followed closely on the death of Jill Meagher.  This much publicized event took Melbourne by storm.  Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented.  She worked in the media.  She had a profile in her ordinary day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.

There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage which apparently made it easier for police to track down the alleged killer.  When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief, the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered, I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it matter?  

How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a sexual predator and a murderer?  I know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters.  And it sucks.  It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all things sexual.  And it makes you wary of relations with men.  Not that I haven’t had my share of them.  And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four daughters. 

He calls it girlie talk when we prattle away in whatever is of interest to us at the time, the price of the new Funkey shoes, the intricate details of my daughter’s recent birth of her son, the latest gossip about the girls at my youngest daughter’s school.  I am used to my husband’s disdain and often times will try to redirect the conversation to something that might feel more inclusive of him, but my daughters are less so inclined. 

It is not simply the gender divide.  The generation gap applies too.  My husband who had his formative years during the hippie loving seventies now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight sexual innuendo to my ears but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling.  He once argued with one daughter and in the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart.  She objected to the word.  She still does.  She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart.  He used the term not to describe her appearance but more because he was angry about her behavior, too long on the telephone or some such thing. 

I argued with my daughter over her sensitivity to the word.  ‘Bitch would have been better,’ she said to us, ‘but not tart.  Tarts are prostitutes.’  My husband learns to hold his tongue. 

Language changes and with it words take on new meanings.  The politically correct extracts its toll and plays its part in the power imbalance between men and women. 

When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father died, when the tables turned.  My mother took up voluntary work with the church visiting impoverished families in the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he was stuck at home alone.  He did not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.

The tables turned and my father, once the strong one became the helpless dependent one right up until his death.  And my mother grew stronger once he was gone. 

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