Is Australia more feminist?

The Australian prime minister Julia Gillard’s labelling of the leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, a “misogynist” has become the focus of intense debate both in Australia and here in the UK. What has been most striking for me is the recent news that Gillard received a huge boost in her Australian approval ratings immediately afterwards, with both men and women, and her disapproval among male voters fell by 5%. Further, 78% of respondents thought her reaction was right.

This did not surprise me, although it seems to have surprised many in Britain…

.. In Australia, perhaps because of the mode of its establishment – a European colony transported halfway across the world – women have had to be strong, and men have needed them to be so. So, while it would be disingenuous to argue that there is equality there, or that Abbott is our only misogynist, there is certainly a greater expectation and acceptance of women being able to act in a forthright and engaged way. Women’s suffrage in 1901 is a shining example of this.

What has surprised me the most is that the sort of women in Britain who, in Australia, comfortably describe themselves as feminists, are either reluctant to do so or have rejected the term outright. One could argue that this is simply a rejection of the label, but for me it is symptomatic of a greater malaise. The endless hand-wringing that goes on about the term “feminist” reveals a discomfort with the implications of feminism that I find disquieting.

From Peter Salmon in The Guardian with “Feminism is more advanced in Australia than Britain”. (Thanks to Robyyn for sending me the link).

I have to admit I felt very warmly towards Australian men when I saw the latest federal polls. And it has been men’s response to the speech that has intrigued me most. Several men in my workplace brought up Gillard’s speech with me because they were interested in discussing it. And male political junkies on twitter flooded my stream with outrage about how mainstream, conservative media tried to paint Gillard’s speech as ‘playing the gender card’. I have seen these same progressive guys, who are friends with a lot of us, feminists, on twitter sometimes sparring with us too, and clumsily tripping all over male privilege, but along the way they picked up a lot more feminism than we or they realised and when this all went down in Australian politics they really got it.

There’s a lot of ‘gut reaction’ going on in Salmon’s piece and not much in the way of evidence, plus, what do women think/experience? On many measures of equality Australia doesn’t score higher than Britain, but I get a sense that for our population size we have a bigger feminist voice than you’d expect – certainly, we do on the Internet. Australia, for all its limitations has a very healthy feminist movement. Why? I do think there is something about that idea that their is a significant machismo in this country among men but that it is matched by an equal sense of forthrightness from women. And that men, here, generally accept that forthrightness. (My advice for being in a relationship with an Australian man (from my generation) is don’t expect equality from him but do expect that if you are prepared to argue about it with him he will probably give ground and try to meet you halfway).

Cross-posted at blue milk.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, media, parties and factions, relationships, social justice

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12 replies

  1. Maybe for us descended from convicts folk it was because there were male and female convicts or because for early free settlers life was so bloody tough that everyone worked regardless. Growing up my Grandmother was the second set of hands on the farm when there wasn’t offspring available to help, quite often that offspring was my Mum. So for me at least there has always been an expectation of being able to do most of the labouring that a man could do. Plus cooking and looking after children.
    Perhaps in Britain with the Edwardians being the last of the landed gentry with servants before WWI things have taken a bit longer for the equality idea to spread through society? Although I am sure that for the working classes the expectations that wives/women were able to work just as hard as men was always there.

  2. Another anecdote: most academic legal writing in the UK still uses “he” as the default human being. There isn’t even really a discussion about it – at least, there didn’t seem to be 5 years ago when I was there, and when I commented on it to friends, they looked at me like I was from the moon.
    In Australia, academic legal writing has used various attempts at gender neutrality (most commonly, he or she) for at least 15 years, and I think significantly longer, and there was a point made about doing so when I was a student. Some judges still use “he”; some use more gender neutral language. (It tends to be less of an issue in judgments than in academic writing, because you tend to spend more time writing about the specific person or people involved and less time writing about the general case.)
    It would be interesting to know how this works in academic writing in other disciplines.

  3. My guess is that Australians, male and female, in general admire someone who will stand up for themselves, regardless of their gender or race. I think there was a national sigh of relief that she finally gave him (and I suspect, her idiot advisors) the good slap he so thoroughly deserved.

  4. One of the other academic disciplines I happen to know about is biology (including medicine). Biological papers about Homo sapiens have traditionally used “Man”, but there’s an increasing trend to use “Human” instead, and sometimes quite a bit of arguing about which, and why.
    Some recent examples from PLOS One:
    Atrial Natriuretic Peptide and Adiponectin Interactions in Man
    Differential Inflammatory Response to Inhaled Lipopolysaccharide Targeted Either to the Airways or the Alveoli in Man

    The Tempered Polymerization of Human Neuroserpin

    Scleral Thickness in Human Eyes

  5. I love how these British articles periodically pop up and are like, “*Gasp* The colonies are more progressive than us in some ways! HOW CAN THIS BE?!?” Bring on the republic, I say.
    I wish I knew the sort of men you guys do. It’s a different world outside the white collar water cooler and Twitter. I don’t know where these progressive Aussie guys work, but I’m guessing it’s not a building site.
    I think what Ian said is probably true, though. There’s this video on YouTube at the moment called, “rail rage blonde spitting, swearing and hitting other passengers.” It’s one of the most viewed. The comments from Aussie men on the video are disgusting: “If you women want equality, then us men should have the right to deck that bogan sl*t”. And lots of other drivel in that vein, with a side-serving of “our PM’s a stupid misandrist.” Anyone who suggested that just *maybe* hitting other people isn’t cool for *anyone* got a bunch of people jumping all over them with, “WHAT, SO THEY SHOULDN’T DEFEND THEMSELVES!?” A while ago, when an overweight boy picked up an Indigenous kid who was bulllying him and threw him head-first into the pavement, people had the same response. The idea of turning the other cheek seems to be verboten to Aussies.
    Anyway, don’t check out the video, it’ll ruin your day. Suffice to say I’m not feeling too well-disposed towards my fellow Aussies right now.

  6. My gut feeling is that if the man in the street responded positively to Gillard’s speech it reveals more about how disliked Tony Abbott is, rather than anything to do with his (the man in the street’s) attitude to gender equality. If she’d blasted someone widely considered to be a good bloke, I dare say she would have got an almost universal “what a bi__” response.

  7. I was too young when I left England to be much aware of sexism, so I can’t comment on the difference from personal experience, alas (not to mention that things might have changed in 20 odd years). But there are things that are better here, and things that are better there. I suspect there’s not a lot of difference in level, just in style.

  8. Like Angharad I feel like the US, Aus and the UK have around the same level of sexism, but in different flavours. The fact that sexism is so divergent shows how much of a construct (and how unnecessary!) it is. I’m blanking on concrete examples, but this article and thread have got me thinking. Will have to come back.

  9. I should add that all my experiences of sexism are as a white, CAB, cis, hetero woman. I’m sure that sexism comes with a whole nother layer of crap for others.

  10. I agree with Eden and Angharad that sexism just comes in different styles in different countries, and when you come to a new country the types of sexism there stand out quite starkly, whilst you often don’t notice (or perhaps don’t think are that bad) the sexism you deal with everyday in your own society.
    By coincidence, I, a Scot, was actually having this conversation with two Americans yesterday (we all now live in Australia), started because of one of them commented on how sexist she thought Australia was compared to the US. I, a UK-er, was surprised as to me the US seems like the epitomy of westernised sexism. But, her big concern was that she felt that Australia had a complete absence of women in notable positions of power, particularly in professional occupations (she was an academic married to a lawyer). And she thought the US was much better in this area. I certainly feel that women are less noticeable in universiteies and I think that the university curriculums seems much more tokenistic with regard to the inclusion of women and non white-male groups than is now the case in much of the UK. Can I also note that in my discipline (history, but the humanities more broadly) the UK does not use ‘he’ as a default, and most journals and all publishers in my area have a stated policy against this practice.
    With regard to Gilliard case, I think that it’s true that a woman speaking out against misogyny would not go up in the polls in the UK, as we have actually seen the criticism that Harriet Harmen (leader of the UK Labour Party at various points) gets when she makes comments that even resemble feminist critique. But, I can also say with a certainty that someone who made the comments that Abbot made would not be a mainstream political figure in the UK. He would be seen as an extreme, eccentric who might be tolerated on the margins of the party but not in a position of power. Similarly, Alan Jones might have a job as a pundit in a right-wing paper, but he wouldn’t be treated seriously as a political commentator – he would be someone to roll your eyes at and ignore. Our political leaders actively distance themselves from sexist comments that come out from their parties, even if we might suspect they probably hold those views themselves and don’t behave any better in practice. So, I guess I don’t think we would have created a context in UK politics, that would have given Gilliard the opportunity to take this stand. And this is why when women do speak out against sexism in politics, there tends to be eyerolling, rather than support. Because probably just like Australia, we might agree that calling someone a bitch is sexist, but we think that women who complain about more subtle discrimination are over-reacting.

  11. I actually agree with what has been said about sexism being fairly even, at least in the two countries in which I have lived (UK and Australia). I think it is often expressed in different ways – culture affects what is acceptable, what is assumed, etc.
    That said, I find it difficult to compare my general experience of sexism in the two countries because I lived in the UK for a shorter period and for a specific purpose, so I did not come into contact with as broad a range of people as I do in Australia (and even here, I am fairly sheltered, vis-a-vis cady’s comment – there are many conservative people in law but I am pretty sure my experience of sexism from such people is quite different from what I would experience on, say, a building site).

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