Sexism, feminism and misogyny

The need for feminism is still alive and kicking today. Every since I was a little girl, I was made to feel somehow inferior to the boys around me; at school the boys wore shorts so they could run around and jump, while the girls wore dresses that inhibited physical activity even though I could run faster than any of the boys. “You throw like a girl” was just one of many phrases used to remind you that being a girl was somehow not as good as being a boy.

I have always been aware of sexism on some level of consciousness; it wasn’t hard to miss because it was so obvious in nearly everything aspect of life as I was growing up during the era that is known as the second wave of feminism – but the cult of domesticity was still very much in place.

Girls at school were encouraged to pursue subjects like home economics rather than maths or science. The prevailing view of society at the time was that many girls would eventually leave school at the end of Year 10, perhaps to do a short secretarial course before finding an appropriate job in a typing pool, all the while hoping to marry their high school sweetheart and start a family. As they wouldn’t have to worry about working ever again, they had no use for learning about male oriented subjects. Raising a family, keeping the house clean, cooking, washing, and the many other tasks women faced were not considered as work but were suitable subjects for girls to learn.

There was little to encourage females to step outside the stereotypes society placed on them. At that period in the early 1970s, female teachers in New South Wales schools were not permitted to wear pants in the classroom; main characters in novels, films and television programmes were rarely female, while the female roles were usually as the love interest of the leading man or someone to be rescued; and women were largely excluded from the world’s written history as we learnt about the deeds of men only.

Charles Dickens was my favourite author, yet the more I read, the more I became aware of the poor way women were depicted and treated in his novels. Even more disturbing was his treatment of women in his personal life, particularly his wife Catherine. I found myself more and more drawn to these women and eager to learn more about their stories. Dickens lived in an age when the patriarchal society of Victorian England subjugated women, ironically because the reigning monarch was a woman. Nevertheless, Dickens did depict many women in non-traditional roles, but rarely in positions of power and often he cast moral judgement or ridicules these women. So it was in vain I searched for a strong female character that I could admire. Occasionally I would watch glimpses of myself in a Nell or a Florence, but their shallowness would leave me dissatisfied.

I remember being a teenager in high school when we studied feminism in a social science class. The message that resonated strongly with my innate sense of social justice was how we were all equal and capable, regardless of gender. It all seemed so simple to believe in equity and equal opportunities for men and women.

Yet when I set out to write an essay on sexism and feminism in Australia, I realised that I didn’t have a clear enough picture of what these terms really meant. I started by looking up the word ‘sexism’ in the dictionary where it was defined as “prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women, including behaviour, conditions or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex” – the term was first used as recently as 1968. Feminism was defined (not so helpfully, I thought) as “the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes”. This term was first used in 1895. Misogyny is even older; first used in the 1600s, it is based on two Greek words (misein—to hate; gymè—woman), with ‘hatred’ being defined as “prejudicial hostility or animosity”.

In 2012, the Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, made a speech in parliament about misogyny that was directed at the leader of the opposition. Despite misogyny being defined as the act of hating women, men all over the world rejected the use of the word by the Prime Minister, claiming they didn’t hate women; they had mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, friends that were all women so how could they possibly be misogynists?

But Julia Gillard was right on the button in using the word ‘misogyny’ to describe the behaviour she had been subject to. Of course many men missed the point, because they have failed to recognise and admit to themselves that any act of sexism directed toward women is driven by misogyny. While men may face their own version of sexism, most men have not been subject to much sexism in our patriarchal society, particularly on the personal and institutional scale that has affected women.

Given the centuries-old use of the word ‘misogyny’, there is clearly a long history behind such attitudes toward women, which then made me wonder why this was the case and why is it that in our modern 21st Century society, we are still dealing with many of the same fundamental issues? From the personal to institutional, sexism and misogyny are still very much part of Australian society where images of the female body are used again and again in all forms of media to sell things, attract interest, or maybe even to distract from the real story; where women dominate in the number of university placements, but not in workforce managerial positions; where domestic violence against women becomes an unspoken cultural norm.

My own journey into feminism has been a very personal one as I have either experienced directly or observed many aspects of sexism and misogyny. I have often been the only women in the room at business meetings, and I have lost count of how many times I have had men talk over the top of me, ignoring my words and contributions in both work and social settings. Or the relationships I have had where a partner took the availability of sexual intercourse for granted, rather than it being a mutually desired action. Or partners that never understood the effect of periods on my body or my moods, making fun of me instead, belittling my feelings and emotions. Or the hours spent doing housework —cooking, cleaning, ironing, caring for my children — that happens on top of the hours I spend working each week without any assistance from male partners. Or how many times I have heard men comment on my appearance, both positively and negatively, without them thinking about any of the other aspects that make up my personality. Or the times a man has brushed against me, put his hands on my hips, made suggestive comments, or simply stared at my breasts rather than talking to me. Do any men stop to think about what these things do to a person’s sense of self? When everyday you need to convince yourself, let alone the rest of the world, that you have more to offer than a pair of smooth legs and a pretty smile — how would they feel?

The struggle against sexism and misogyny is everyone’s struggle, but where is the process occurring by which men are being made to realise that they are accountable for oppressing women? So many times the response is to blame women for being raped, for staying in abusive relationships, for not reaching the top of their profession, and so on, rather than blaming the male perpetrators and society’s attitudes.

Sharing power, less gender stereotyping, better counselling for younger women, more women in management positions, flexible working conditions, no more violence against women; all of these things are steps on the road to making women’s issues more visible. That would be the best Christmas present of all.

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