Is standing up and proclaiming to be a non-feminist a sign of personal success, or is it an insular subconscious privileged rejection or blindness to the existing failures in our system that still affect women in Australia today? How does the absence of self-identifying as a feminist affect policy issues at Government level?
Julie Bishop, MP & Foreign Minister, only woman on the front bench in the Australian Liberal (conservative, neo-liberal, right-wing) Government stood in front of the National Press Club on Wednesday and declared that she was not a feminist. She doesn’t reject the term, but she feels no need to self-describe herself that way. Her main argument was that she doesn’t define her success or failures through a prism of gender. Bishop also does not acknowledge the glass ceiling and says for her, she ‘will work hard and set her mind to it and if it comes off that is great.‘ If it doesn’t, she will try to understand if she was ‘competent enough or whether she worked hard enough or if the breaks went her way.’ She doesn’t look at this as gender specific.
Julie Bishop also spoke of feminism in the past tense, the role that it (feminist movement) has played,’the barriers they faced and the challenges they had to overcome. This further re-enforces her position that feminism is no longer a necessity in today’s society. That we somehow have all ‘made it’
If we contextualize Julie Bishop’s stance of non-identification as a feminist, we need to understand her position in society. Julie Bishop is a white woman, raised in South Australia, went on to study law, practiced law, became a partner in a law firm at 26, married a property developer and has had relationships with a senator and former Lord Mayor (source: JulieBishop.com.au).
Is it justified to say that she holds this view, because she is a woman submersed in an environment of privilege?
Julie Bishop doesn’t believe it is a big deal. However, as a woman in Australia, I feel it is a big deal for any politician not to identify as feminist. They are the policy makers. It is their ideas, beliefs and experiences that lead them to policy decisions. Even people who are from positions of privilege attempt to engage with women from all walks of life, so they develop an understanding of barriers, discrimination, injustice and inequities women face and take a feminist position and advocate for equality for women. If someone doesn’t truly value equality for all women and identify as a feminist – someone who advocates for equality for women, then where does this leave us in terms of policy development, towards a more equitable future?
One of the main themes I heard in Julie Bishop’s narrative that I found concerning, was that feminism is irrelevant as because it is ‘all about her’ She never spoke of other women, only her own personal situation. Feminism is about inclusivity of all women.
If Julie Bishop could de-contextualize herself from her personal situation, upbringing, background and privilege; I wonder if she was another women in another situation, would she self-identify as a feminist?
Would Julie Bishop as an Indigenous woman, when faced with cuts to Indigenous Legal Aid Services, contemplate a future of staying in a violent situation, because maybe she didn’t work hard enough?
Would Julie Bishop as a teenager, faced with pregnancy discrimination and terminated from her traineeship, self attribute blame that maybe she wasn’t competent enough?
Would Julie Bishop as a woman returning from maternity leave, and missing out on training and development opportunities still not acknowledge the glass ceiling?
Would Julie Bishop as a woman and a victim of rape in our justice system, experiencing accusatory questioning and double the length of questioning than for other assaults, or as an Indigenous woman experience significantly worse questioning, with racist imputations being made in court – would she still not look at this through the ‘prism of gender?’
Would Julie Bishop as a woman working in two casual jobs, in a lower paid traditional woman’s field of work and experiencing non-secure work and a gender pay gap of 17% still truly believe that the feminist movement should still be spoken of in the past tense?
Would Julie Bishop as a woman seeking Asylum and fleeing from sex slavery, rape, sexual abuse and attack, fear of honour killings, female genital mutilation, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, one-child policies, discrimination due to sexual orientation or feminist political activism, children being under threat, general religious restrictions on women, sexual harassment, denial of education, forced marriages, slavery, trafficking, and imprisonment – and then sent back to that situation, due to poor policy on the processing of women and the legitimate attempts to understand their history and claim for asylum, still shrug and reflect on “if the breaks went her way?”
Would Julie Bishop as a retired woman discovering that she has substantially less superannuation than her male counterparts due to breaks in work, lower paid work and casualisation of work; or as an indigenous woman realise that as one of 40% of Indigenous women, who actually has no superannuation at all – still not feel the need to self-identify as a feminist and advocate to right this wrong?
Does Julie Bishop, as Julie Bishop reflect that 64% of law graduates are women, however only 22% of women hold senior positions in law firms. Only 16% of women are on the bench in the Federal Court of Australia. Does she truly believe that all of these women simply just did not work hard enough?
Does Julie Bishop, as Julie Bishop try to understand if there are inequities within the Australian Liberal Party for pre-selection of candidates, such as questions about parental and marital status? Or does she truly believe that she is the only woman of calibre and of suitable merit in the Liberal Party, capable of a position on the front bench?
Does Julie Bishop also stand with the Prime Minister and Minister for Women, hand on her heart and truly believe that “Women do not suffer legal discrimination in Australia?”
I see Julie Bishop’s announcement that she does not self-identify as a feminist a huge gap in policy decision making in Australia. Increasing the representation of women in Parliament should lead to a new perspective and a diversity of contributions to policy-making and to priorities of development, and it gives the female population a role in deciding the future of their country and the rights and opportunities for their gender. However, if one is not in touch with the inequities present in contemporary society for all Australian women, policy development towards equity will be very slow and still permeated with male voices and perspective.
Many people have touted Labor of late as ‘Liberal-Lite’ however, this is an example of a very stark contrast between the Liberal National Party and the Australian Labor Party. The Australian Labor Party has a policy platform on equality for women in Australia. They understand that equality for women is not only good for the economy, but essential for the progress of our country. Recently in my hometown, Bill Shorten gave a very powerful speech on the necessity of equality for women. Tim Watts, Member for Gellibrand as a male politician, advocates very strongly on domestic violence issues, as does Claire Moore. These are only two notable MP’s amongst many. Similarly, the Greens also have a strong platform for women, with Senator Waters a very proactive advocate for women.
What we hear on the Liberal’s side of the fence in terms of equality for women is silence and symbolic gestures from the only woman on the front bench, that ‘feminism is in the past’ and “is not a useful term today.’
As former Prime Minister Mr. Keating famously said about Tony Abbott (and I’ll extend to the team he leads) – “God Help Us, God Help Us!”
A) The sources for the claims for legal discrimination and discrimination by default in this post, can be found here
B) This post is not intended to take away from or de-legitimize any of Julie Bishop’s personal achievements or successes,
but to decontextualise her position, as a women in a position of privilege, to attempt to challenge her position on feminism and what it means for our country.