I am writing this note in defence of the radical feminists. They do not need my defence as they are more than capable as strong, committed, usually well-educated women, of defending themselves. But I feel compelled to write not only after a number of snide comments I have read about RadFems and their views, but also after reading an article on how a male academic at James Cook Uni resigned in protest because a radical feminist colleague of his was not disciplined following a confronting blogpost she'd written for RadFem Hub. I am also writing this to reinforce a position I stated in my very first post about where my own understandings and interpretations come from when it comes to both feminist and Indigenous politics. I daresay this will be quite the rant! It will simplify some things for the sake of keeping it rant-length, but I do plan on writing some more on specific points at a later date.
Over the years I have read a lot of feminist opinion, but mostly, it seems to be those that continually unpack social structures and examine where these oppress that have appealed to me the most. In the main these have been the Radical Feminist and the Marxist and Socialist Feminists writings. My reason for this is straightforward: I find synergies between these arguments and the arguments I find most useful when it comes to Indigenous politics. I also think, although I may be showing my own bias here, but we tend to appreciate our radicals more in the Indigenous movement because we see them continually challenging the status quo, decolonising dominant opinions, and getting others to think. Additionally, although I have read a heap and will continue to do so, a lot of my understanding comes from a practical basis: as an Arrernte woman living in hipster Melbourne I have experienced enough to know that slipping into existing power structures may change the circumstances of the individual in a couple of ways, but overall tends to change little with regards to broader society.
Take black experience in the workplace as an example. For at least 20-30 years now there have been equal opportunity policies and employment programmes in existence to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participation in the workforce and in a number of different capacities. These in part have led to what has sometimes been referred to as a "black middle class"; a bunch of Indigenous people have moved out of poverty and are earning enough to live a reasonable lifestyle. Yet despite this, it seems that dealing with direct and structural racism is still an ongoing issue. Also, colleagues having disrespect for your work and specific knowledge continues no matter how high up the chain you are. A survey conducted last year of Indigenous union members working in Higher Education shows that a majority of Indigenous staff were still experiencing racism in the workforce, were fighting hard to get academic respect for Indigenous knowledges they brought to the academy, and were continually thought to have gotten their qualifications on a concessional basis rather than having worked damn hard for them. Indeed some expressed that they had worked twice as hard to get half as far due to lack of recognition of their knowledges and community links. They also felt they continually hit barriers when it came to academic respect and promotion. Additionally, for nearly a century in this country, many Indigenous workers were free or cheap labour (hence why there are "stolen wages" cases being mounted) and so accumulation of wealth for a lot of non-Indigenous families was done off the back of unpaid Indigenous labour, and the accumulation of any independent wealth in Indigenous families is only a recent thing. Sound familiar?
After years of having their work undervalued with pay rates significantly lower than similarly qualified people in other industries, only in May last year did community sector workers win the right to be paid fairly. Why? Because the Australian Services Union was able to prove in FairWork Australia that the work of community service workers had been continually undervalued because it is a female-dominated industry. Despite the years of study and experience that it takes to be, say, a social worker, the rates of pay are significantly lower than they are for someone of similar levels of qualification and experience in a male-dominated industry. Therefore again, we're talking about working twice as hard to get half as far, and an undervaluing of skills and experience because they don't adhere to some dominant understanding of what is valuable. Additionally, domestic labour is argued to be the unpaid labour that women were expected to partake in order to allow men to participate in the workforce, and therefore society has been reliant on it in order to develop. Due to this, women have only recently really been able to accumulate their own independent wealth. Women for years have also had policies and employment programmes in place in many areas to assist them in gaining entry into the workforce, but women still complain about having a hard time climbing corporate ladders, hitting their heads on "glass ceilings" and difficulties achieving work/life balance because women still do the majority of the child-rearing and housekeeping. Whilst it's not as straightforward as a "swap women for black" scenario, the similarities are striking.
The radical argument for both is that workplaces are set up in the image of the majority life experience for white, male workers and so through the various structures that exist in a workplace, this experience is continually preferenced therefore actively prohibiting others from participating fully. Therefore these structures need to be examined and changed so that they are inclusive. As the evidence piled up for me, both through my own experiences in the workplace, and through observing those around me, I came to agree more and more that this was the case and that things weren't as simple and straightforward as someone being able to achieve because they had the opportunity, the drive and the ability to do so.
One of the most appealing things about radical opinion to me is that it is focussed on collective rights.The source of the oppression is the patriarchy and therefore arguments are framed accordingly with "men" being called out. This is done because the movement is committed to the breaking down of the patriarchal systems that oppress women, and building a more egalitarian society, as opposed to merely assimilating within something that is inherently corrupt. I was reading this piece by Julie Bindel the other night and I found it really useful because in it she highlights the many arguments that current mainstream feminists use against the radicals. It's striking to me that when I read those arguments, I could remove "women", insert "black", then remove "men" and insert "white" and directly reflect what a lot of our older Indigenous activists have to say about the direction of black movements nowadays. This is why the push for Sovereignty (reinvigorated through the 40th anniversary of the Tent Embassy), rather than Native Title, is so important; Sovereignty is not about mob being recognised within existing Australian laws, it's about questioning the right that Australia has to enforce these laws on a Sovereign people who have never ceded that sovereignty, and then building a more egalitarian society.
Moreover, when my article was published by Daily Life recently, I scanned the comments. It wasn't the predictable couple of comments from people questioning my right to claim sexism and racism in the article or the "we're all Australian" comments that got my goat. No, it was the one or two comments from (allegedly) Indigenous apologists who not only undermined what I had to say, but managed to validate both sexism and racism by essentially stating that both "didn't bother them (to be called "the prettiest Aboriginal I have ever seen"), indeed I saw it as a compliment". Seriously? So it's okay, as a woman, to be reduced down to your looks? So it's okay, as an Aboriginal person, to hear someone make a disparaging comment about everyone else of your racial group? I'm sorry, but apologists bug me. What's so wrong with calling someone out a bad action? Are people's feelings of self-worth so diminished that they actually would see something like this as a compliment? I'm about building esteem through worthwhile means rather than reinforcing a false economy.
But enough about me! The crux of what I am saying is this: the radicals want to change stuff on a big scale. They believe that society, that structures, that laws etc have been built by those who have the power, to reinforce that power, and these need to be challenged and restructured so that society becomes a lot more fairer. This leads to a lot of dualistic terms: men and women; black and white, as way of explanation when discussing the issues. The issue others express with radical thought seems to often come down to this dualism, and how individuals believe that they don't fit within these terms. But this, to me, is where those arguments lose the plot because these terms are not geared around individuals, they are geared around social power struggles. And there are plenty of individuals who recognise these power structures and act against them despite being named as the dominant group. I have seen a lot of white people devote their lives to Indigenous politics, working in collaboration to achieve change. I have a lot of amazing male friends who refuse to buy into social dominance and do everything they can to assist with change. Hell, Julie Bindel mentions that men can make a commitment to not rape or not perpetuate violence, and I know that a group of proud men marched through the streets of Alice Springs a couple of years ago promoting anti-violence. I also personally know a heap of men that have signed the White Ribbon pledge and assist in visibly stating to their brothers that violence against women is wrong by wearing their ribbons. If you're a member of a dominant group, you are not being picked on by radical feminists or by the Indigenous left. You are being handed an opportunity to challenge yourself, assist equality through your actions, and build something better through the messages that you relay on to other members of the dominant group.
The third wave of feminism reckoned itself to be in response to the essentialism that the second wave was prone to. It argued that the dualism was erasive of the varied experiences of different cultural groups, sexualities etc, and also negated people's individual agency. I think this has opened up a space for feminist politics to be discussed in many different ways that did not necessarily exist before. But I also think that this has led to unnecessarily disparaging remarks with regards to the radicals that throw the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak). I think it is also no coincidence that the women whose views created in the push for greater cultural recognition within the third wave, such as Audre Lorde, were proud radical feminists who saw racism also as a tool of the patriarchy and who felt feminism could be used to fight both provided feminists addressed their own racism. The radicals may say stuff that is unpalatable to some in a post-structural, third wave, queer theory, rauch culture world, but it does not mean that they offer nothing to the debate. In fact, in a country where the government can so completely violate human rights by introducing the most paternalistic of policies on a specific cultural group so that their income, their activities and their education is completely controlled, I think the voices of the radicals are needed in the mix more than ever before.
Oh, and I also think it is rather lame that someone would resign because a workplace did not discipline a feminist colleague who wrote an opinion piece in an independent forum. If that's the opposition, then we have nothing to fear!