A would-be feminist rant

Women over
populate my life.  Four daughters,
three sisters, and a professional life both in the world of psychology and of
writing that these days is dominated by the presence of women.  It is the same wherever I go.  
The Melbourne Writers’ Festival.  Check out the audience: all those
heads, the dyed or otherwise greying hair of women, mostly older women, though
there are some young ones in between. 
Maybe a quarter of them at most are men.  I do not know the statistics.  The ratio is much the same in psychotherapy circles, one man
to every four women. 
I prefer a more balanced mix of gender, including the in between,
the hybrids, the transgendered.  I
tell myself I would prefer there were more men present, at the same time I am sensitive
to the degree to which men tend to dominate conversations.  
Research suggests that from the
beginning in early childhood at kindergarten and primary school, teachers spend
more time addressing the boys. I risk a generalisation here but it seems to me from earliest days
girls learn to communicate with words, whereas boys are more inclined towards
action, including action words.
In September this year, the feminist activist, comedian and all
round ‘nuisance’ woman, Catherine Deveny was on the panel of Q and A with the likes of Peter Jensen, the Anglican archbishop of Sydney.  Catherine Deveny gets bad press as a
loud mouth.  She invites it to some
extent because of some of the things she says, like her comment about Bindi Erwin and the hope that she ‘get laid’.  
A non-academic Germaine Greer of sorts, Deveny by and large is on the
side of the underdog, on the side of women, but she too enjoys her friendships
with men and what seems like a loving partnership with a man with whom she
cares for two sons, though to her great pride the couple remain unmarried.  I befriended Deveny on Face Book
because I enjoy her style; though I watch other peoples’ faces crumple at the
mention of her name.
I mention Deveny here because of the battle over the number of words
ascribed to her during this session of Q and A.  Several twitterers and bloggers considered her to have
dominated the show.  She cut across
the other panelists, people complained, when in fact she did no such
thing. 
Chrys Stevenson analysed the data and found that as is typically the
case the men used more words, and cut across people more often, while the two
women on the panel spoke less.  Not
to get into a battle between the sexes, I think about these issues here in my rambling
disjointed and broken way of thinking – I am a woman after all – my father’s
daughter, my husband’s wife.  I
recognize the imbalance of power in my world where women are mainstream but men
get the cream.  The cream of jobs,
the cream of books reviewed, the cream of recognition.
Despite the prevalence of patriotism everywhere, including
and for me especially during my childhood, somehow the men often seem to wind
up worse off than the women who are downtrodden, though not in extreme
cases.  Witness the plight of
certain Muslim women, Indian women, women in deeply patriarchal societies where
to speak out as a woman is to risk getting your head cut off, and not just
metaphorically. 
When I first started to write again, many years ago after a destabilising
event that left me demoralized, I could only seek solace in words on the
page.  I realised then the degree
to which writing has come to be dominated by what Ursula Le Guin has called
‘father tongue.’  Father tongue,
the language of the academy, the so-called objective language that seeks
distance; that resents uncertainty and demands closure.  This as distinct from mother tongue,
the language of mothers and babies, mothers and children, the language that Le
Guin argues is closest to poetry. 
It flies on the wind.  It is
repetitive and simple.  It thrives
on doubt. 
Both languages are essential Le Guin argues but there is a danger
when one presupposes superiority over the other, as evidenced in the hostile
response to Deveny’s non-rational comments juxtaposed to the less virulent
responses to the so-called objective and reasoned thoughts of her fellow mostly
male panelists.  We need both
mother tongue and father tongue to develop what Le Guin describes as native tongue
but this is not easy in a world dominated by the patriarchal.
My sensitivity to such things derives from my life in a family top
heavy with men and this time not only in notion, but also in fact.  There were eleven of us in my family,
six males, five females.  My father
at the head.  He ran the show.  He earned the money.  My mother obeyed.  
At least overtly she obeyed.  If ever she defied him it was a hidden
defiance, one she undertook in stealth. 
That was until she caught my father at my sister’s bedside and the look
on his face told her he had over stepped the mark.  My sister was sitting in bed, the blankets pulled up to her
chin, like a little bird, my mother said, while my father leered. 
‘Get out of here,’ my mother said to my father.  ‘If I ever see you with her again I’ll
kill you.’  
Later she thought my
father’s visits to my sister had stopped, but my mother could not bear to see,
and my sister protected her by keeping my father’s further visits a
secret.
I do not want to suggest that men are the bad guys here and women
are the victims.  We are all in
this together.  The other night at
dinner after a day long writing workshop, four women and one man, we talked of
travels overseas, and one woman, the youngest among us, talked of how she had
been groped six times in India in less that six days until she finally saw
red.  She ran after the man who had
grabbed her breast, and yelled at him that he should not behave so while
squeezing a bottle of water over his head.  She yelled at him all the way down the street and
imagined-hoped, she said, that she had managed to shame him in front of friends
and family.  
‘It happens all the time,’ she said. 
Not to me, I thought. 
But then again I have not travelled through India, or Rome, or the
Middle East where others have told me such extreme exploitation of women takes
place.  And I am over fifty, the
age they say when women disappear from view as sexual objects.
Alas, these unwarranted gropings do not just happen overseas.  I went to the most recent Reclaim the Night march in Sydney Road in Brunswick in October this year.  The march followed closely on the death
of Jill Meagher.  This much
publicized event took Melbourne by storm. 
Jill Meagher was young, beautiful and talented.  She worked in the media.  She had a profile in her ordinary
day-to-day life that drew people’s attention to her, but now she is dead and
her alleged killer is in prison awaiting trial.
There was a storm of protest when Jill Meagher disappeared, mostly
fueled by comments on social media and people’s rage which apparently made it
easier for police to track down the alleged killer.  When I heard they had found him, not only did I feel relief,
the man was off the streets at last, my daughters might be safe, especially the
one who lives in Brunswick close by to where Jill Meagher was raped and murdered,
I also felt sorry for the children of this man, boys or girls, what does it
matter?  
How is it to live your life in the knowledge that your father is a
sexual predator and a murderer?  I
know something of what life is like with a father who sexually abuses his
oldest daughter and moves in the direction of his younger daughters.  And it sucks.  It sucks because it makes you twitchy in relation to all
things sexual.  And it makes you
wary of relations with men.  Not
that I haven’t had my share of them. 
And I have been married for 35 years to a man who even as a successful
lawyer and a man of many talents still struggles to find an identity in a
world, his world dominated by women, his mother, his sisters, his wife and four
daughters. 
He calls it girlie talk when we prattle away in whatever is of
interest to us at the time, the price of the new Funkey shoes, the intricate
details of my daughter’s recent birth of her son, the latest gossip about the
girls at my youngest daughter’s school. 
I am used to my husband’s disdain and often times will try to redirect
the conversation to something that might feel more inclusive of him, but my
daughters are less so inclined. 
It is not simply the gender divide.  The generation gap applies too.  My husband who had his formative years during the hippie
loving seventies now and then comes out with schoolboy humour, lightweight
sexual innuendo to my ears but to my daughters, his jokes are appalling.  He once argued with one daughter and in
the heat of the moment referred to her as a tart.  She objected to the word.  She still does. 
She considers it an affront to have a father who calls her a tart.  He used the term not to describe her
appearance but more because he was angry about her behavior, too long on the
telephone or some such thing. 
I argued with my daughter over her sensitivity to the word.  ‘Bitch would have been better,’ she
said to us, ‘but not tart.  Tarts
are prostitutes.’  My husband
learns to hold his tongue. 
Language changes and with it words take on new meanings.  The politically correct extracts its
toll and plays its part in the power imbalance between men and women. 
When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came
a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father
died, when the tables turned.  My
mother took up voluntary work with the church visiting impoverished families in
the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he
was stuck at home alone.  He did
not want her to learn to drive for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the
city from Cheltenham every day in order that she should be near.
The tables turned and my father, once the strong one became the helpless
dependent one right up until his death. 
And my mother grew stronger once he was gone. 

A woman prepares for life

I am having trouble with mascara
these days.  Not that I wear much
of it but it’s harder to see these days to put it on.  I’d need a magnifying glass to be able to see my eyelashes well enough and I only have two hands.  So I tend to apply mascara by touch, and make a mess of it along the way.  
All my life my mother told me my eyes, my eyebrows and ear lobes were
my greatest asset.  Therefore, I’ve tended to dress
mine up. My eyes with a touch of mascara, my ears with earrings but my
eye brows I leave alone. 
The other day I was horrified when
one of my daughters made an appointment to have her eyebrows plucked.
            ‘Let
them be,’ I said.  ‘They’re lovely
as they are.’  But no, she insisted
they were like Frida Kahlo’s.   My
daughter takes after her father in her colouring and hair.  Women pluck their eyebrows all the
time, my daughter tells me.  For
some it’s necessary. 
This reminds me of the day another of
my daughters gave me a voucher as a Christmas present  to have my eye lashes
coloured.  Even now it seems a
ridiculous idea, but at the time I went along with it in the hope that I might
then be able to forgo the mascara.  
For half an hour I sat in a hairdressing salon with strange bits of
protective covering around my eyes while the dye did its job.  Afterwards, I could scarcely see the difference.  It had been a wasteful plea to my
vanity. 
I have grown increasingly weary
with the stuff of dressing up for the world.  
When I was young I loved spending hours thinking about what
I might wear, laying it out before hand and then showering, putting on
my mascara and eye liner and finally dressing.
Earlier, because I was a slob at school, or
so I believed: shabby clothes, dirty shoes, untidy hair; but also a worthy
student, ‘from a poor family’,  the nuns gave me free access to a series of
classes conducted at my school through the Elly Lukas deportment school.  
Once a week for eight weeks a woman whom I shall call  Miss Bright
came from the Elly Lukas deportment school to take us through our paces.  We were in fourth form, the equivalent
now of year ten, all of us aged between fifteen and sixteen years.  
The expectation was that most of us
would soon be out in the work force preparing our lives for that big moment
when we met and fell in love with the man of our desires and would soon be
married.
Miss Bright taught us how to dab
nail polish onto a stocking to catch a run before it ran too far.  She taught us how to wash
our stockings separately in hand made lingerie bags, and how to lay out our
clothes every evening before bed in anticipation of the next day.  
Given that we would all be off to the
office the next day with early starts, it was imperative that we leave only our
dressing to the morning. The evening, after a light and
nutritious dinner, should be spent preparing for the next day. 
Miss Bright estimated we needed to set
aside a good hour in these preparations – cleaning shoes, mending tears, ironing blouses and skirts.  We were to leave nothing to chance.  Makeup from the day before needed to be
removed carefully with the aid of moisturiser and water and little cotton buds
and swabs.  Showers, deodorant,
attention to finger nails and feet were also essential.  
Nail polish was tricky.  It
was fine to use it but imperative to keep coloured nails in top shape, with no
chips or cracks and certainly no ridiculous colours as were coming into vogue
in those days.  A pale pink for day
wear was acceptable, one that blended in with the tone of our smart work suits
and maybe red for evening wear, but to be cleaned off before the end of the weekend
and the return to work.
When would we read our books? I
wondered, or get our homework done, not remembering that these duties were
aimed at the woman at work, not the student or school girl, nor at the woman of
leisure.
Finally, there was a long lesson on how to
deal with men, dining out, etiquette and the like.  
I did not take the lessons seriously in the end, but the concepts stay with me.  The idea of having to sculpt myself into the perfect woman irks me still.  
Today, and throughout the past week,  I’m doing battle with my feelings about the rape and murder of a young woman here in Brunswick.  I’m not alone in this.  Jill Meagher’s senseless death has aroused widespread public grief and outrage.  It has also caused a storm about the difficulties women face in the world, the idea that women are not free to walk the streets alone after dark.  
My memories of being groomed to be a fine young woman seem anarchic in a world where women are also the victims of such random and gratuitous brutality.  And I know, despite the horror of this behaviour that somewhere along the line the perpetrators of such crimes are also victims. 
I cannot get these difficulties out of my mind.  Everything else pales into insignificance.