There’s a distinct aversion to identifying with feminism among women my age. Proclaiming yourself to be a feminist is about as welcome as a declaration that you’ve tested positive for chlamydia. Millennials are rejecting the feminist label with the type of zeal and repulsion one might otherwise reserve for an accusation of racism or something similarly reprehensible. “Oh, I’m definitely not a feminist, I love men!” Surveys reveal that as few as 30 per cent of women in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK self-identify as feminists, a number in decline amongst younger candidates. Indeed, I myself am guilty of defensively scrambling to disassociate myself from the F-word out of a fear of being perceived as a self-pitying provocateur.
That young women are shying away from the divisive feminist nametag is an unsurprising phenomenon. Even Beyoncé – whose overtly feminist-themed open essay declaring gender equality a ‘myth’ received international praise early this month – ironically seems afraid of the F-word, so what hope do us mere mortals have? The feminist label is undeniably riddled with negative connotations. It has become synonymous with radicalism, misandry and the rejection of basic hygiene. Accordingly, when a woman says, “I’m not a feminist”, what she’s actually saying is, I’m not the “angry, man-hating, perpetual victim” that comes to the Average Joe’s mind whenever they’re exposed to the icky F-word.
Even among my tertiary-educated female peers and colleagues, there’s a tired and troubling misconception that brandishing nail polish and shaved legs, aspiring to be a mother or choosing to take a husband’s surname upon marriage precludes one from being a feminist. Frankly, the notion that enjoying traditionally feminine attributes and activities somehow disqualifies one from the elusive ‘sisterhood’ is self-defeating and archaic in itself, limiting women by way of shaming and imagined dichotomies.
I suspect that some of you may be thinking, “So what? Women here have it better than millions of other women around the world! Stop obsessing over trivial nonsense!” And when I hear horror stories of ‘honour’ killings, genital mutilation, child ‘marriage’ and other instances of gross mistreatment of girls and women emerging from countries where they’re yet to be afforded basic human rights, I’m inclined to engage in similar sentiments. In light of how fortunate we are to live in a country like Australia, it’s easy to comprehend how the modern feminist movement may strike people as superfluous.
But comparative privilege doesn’t negate the legitimacy of local battles yet to be won. Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts, earning around 80 cents for every dollar that men earn over a lifetime. Women comprise half of the total population, yet are significantly outnumbered by men in senior leadership positions across the public and private sectors, as well as in the upper and lower houses of federal parliament (under both the current Coalition government and their Labor predecessors).
Pregnancy discrimination is still a major issue in our workplaces, recently overtaking disability as the number one complaint against the nation’s employers. One third of Australian women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes – 18 per cent before age 16. At least one Australian woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. And while all of this is still relatively trivial compared to the systemic oppression faced by women who are far more disadvantaged than ourselves, the ongoing existence of these problems is proof enough of feminism’s legitimacy in seeking genuine, full equality.
Consider the existence and authenticity of ‘equality’ in a society where issues that primarily affect the prospects and quality of life of women are dismissed as unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Meanwhile, there’s a standardised sense of legitimacy when Australians bemoan rises in petrol and energy prices, in a country that offers safe and efficient public transport and reliable electricity.
Applying the same threshold used against ‘women’s issues’, is it not ungrateful to complain when there are impoverished Africans walking miles a day for fresh water, returning to homes without any electricity at all?At the end of the day, hardships are relative; in the same way that an Australian is justified in expressing disillusionment with inflation and the suffocatingly high cost of living, a woman’s disappointment over being paid less than her male counterpart to do the same work or repeat sexual offenders-turned-murderers receiving probation should be justified as well. Our progress as a society should never be dictated by the progress of another – it should shape and inspire change.
As Gen Y shies further away from the F-word, there’s a risk of pressing threats to gender equality slipping under the radar. Women aren’t a homogenous colony of ants – our goals and values differ according to our politics and religion (abortion being a prime example of a divisive matter, even among self-identifying feminists such as Melinda Tankard Reist, a prominent pro-life feminist).
However, amid the constant smearing of feminism through portrayals of caricature Feminazis and shrill harridans, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that, at its heart, the fundamental goal of feminism is equality between genders in all spheres of life. This unifying factor should transcend not only political partisanship, but also petty, artificial gender wars, particularly in light of the many benefits that men have to gain from equal pay, for example, which would equalise the ongoing pressure on husbands to be the main breadwinner of the family.
Feminism is not some elite club for latte-sipping Gender Studies majors. The request for equality is neither ungrateful nor radical. For the sake of overcoming continuing struggles, the F-word needs to be recouped by ordinary folk who adhere to the radical notion that women are people too. Without such an overhaul or resurgence of the perception of relevance, feminists are a breed on the verge of imminent extinction, the ramifications of which will be that ongoing risks to gender equality go unchallenged. We are at risk of stagnancy in the attainment of genuine equality, and that’s not the kind of legacy Gen Y should want to leave.