Yesterday, on the centenary of International Women’s Day, Crikey asked readers to reflect on feminism’s role in the twenty-first century.

The response was, in one sense, heartening. The broad range of engaging, thoughtful reader replies demonstrated that discussions about the “f-word” are alive and well — amongst men as well as women, and amongst the younger generation as well as those who lived through the second-wave movement of the 60s and 70s.

In another sense, the responses revealed a sad consensus. Practically all our readers agreed that, while the feminist movement has affected incredible change in a number of areas throughout the past 100 years, it still has a long way to go.

The sentiment expressed by Eva Cox in Crikey’s International Women’s Day issue yesterday — that feminism has become wrongly aligned with the appearance of a select number of high-powered women in traditionally male executive roles — was echoed by a number of readers.

Emily Crawford, in her email to Crikey, laments liberal feminism’s focus on merely assimilating women into an economy and working environment that “are still structured pretty much along male lines.”

She writes:

“If we take earnings and status as a signifier of values in our capitalist society, it’s pretty clear we do not value ‘female’ occupations and concerns because care workers of all types are paid so bloody badly and those jobs attract no status. Not like those oh-so-clever Masters of the Universe in the financial sector nearly bringing the world to its knees with their hubris.”

Niall Clugston feels similarly. He writes:

“International Women’s Day was founded by the socialist movement, but now the discussion centres on getting more women on corporate boards … The assumption is that the payment system, and other social structures, are fair for men, and all that’s needed is for women (as a statistical classification) to receive the same results.”

Essentially, a number of readers made clear to Crikey their view that we need fundamental shift in our societal understanding of the workplace — a transformation that cannot be reflected by the meeting of quotas alone. To put it simply — as Ian Buchanan did in his email to Crikey — “culture change is needed, not quotas.”

One such change, reader Janet writes, might be the implementation of schemes to encourage companies to employ women in permanent, rather than casual or short-term, roles. Kate Sands suggests that we might consider “reducing the workplace hours of people who work full time” to make workplaces more accessible for women as primary carers, and adds that “real support is needed for women who would like to return to work in any meaningful way after having children…. there needs to be a coordinated state or national approach to the reintegration of women into the workforce.”

Beth Wright can relate. Her response to Crikey’s call-out focused on the struggle to return to work after having children, and the difficulty of striking an appropriate balance between career commitments and childcare. She commented:

“I never wanted to have children. But my husband did, so I agreed.”

“And that was when my world collapsed. I was in the public service so I was one of the lucky ones and had some paid leave. Then I came back part time. And discovered that the world of work was a changed place. It treated me differently. I was no longer ‘up and coming’ … I was ‘been and gone’. I felt like I was in a holding bay.

“But even more surprising to me was that I was different. The biggest difference was the guilt. I felt guilt all the time.”

Other readers were concerned that a focus on gender statistics in the financial sphere detracted from a fundamental tenet of the feminist movement — that of choice. In particular, some readers complained of feminism’s apparent dismissal of the “choice” to assume more traditional gender roles. Marni Switzer, for example, writes:

“But what I hate about so-called feminism today, is that when a woman chooses to put a hold on her career so she can raise her family, she gets told she’s setting the ‘feminist movement’ back decades. Wasn’t the whole point of feminism the right to choose how we lead our lives, instead of being told how we should lead them?”

The familiar but central feminist issues of gender stereotyping and a lack of female role models were raised by a number of readers. Catherine Scott, in her email to Crikey, reflected on gender roles a contemporary context, writing:

“I thought that the latest Disney cartoon Tangled was [an] interesting insight into the reactions to the social changes in s-x roles we are seeing. The male characters towered over the female ones, who only came up to the men’s waists. They were like children standing next to adults. There is something of that in the real world too, where women diet themselves down to smaller than ever while men bulk themselves up in the gym. We are uncomfortable with equality and when forced to at least pay lip service to it we subvert it in physical ways.

“The whole pink thing has [also] gotten out of hand. Clothing and toys have become more and more s-x-stereotyped and the sorts of things available for little girls are ludicrous in the extreme. Once they have grown out of the princess stuff the next available line of clothing encourages them to dress like w-ores.

Alisha Dahlstrom, meanwhile, is concerned with the lack of women teaching at the tertiary level:

“While females tend to dominate the K-12 classrooms, the pipeline to graduate and post graduate studies necessary to teach at the university level fairly hemorrhages females … [W]ithout more females professors in the university educational systems providing proof and support that a professional career is indeed possible for women, the female graduates in [the disciplines of media, arts, law, medicine, and science] will continue to fall by the wayside.”

For Emily Crawford, one of the most relevant issues for feminism to tackle today is the rise of “raunch culture” — that is, “the casual, insidious s-xualisation and p-rnification of our mainstream media.” As Emily notes:

“…I find it deeply disturbing that we’re all confronted with images of inflated bo-bs, butts, pouty lips etc etc on a daily basis. Just look at music videos — when did it become OK to broadcast what is essentially p-rn on a Saturday morning?!

“The whole “raunch culture” and its focus on girls out-drinking and out-f-cking the boys as proof of their emancipation is so not the point! I’m 32 (and obviously a cranky old prude) so grew up during the grunge-flannel shirts-Doc Martens era. Thank God for that. I worry for both the girls and boys the generation younger than me and their far increased exposure to highly s-xualised, totally Photoshopped, reality TVed media.”

What other issues might feminism seek to tackle in the twenty-first century? Some readers responded with the view that, while feminism has worked well for a certain niche of women in the Western world, it has not addressed the most fundamental issues of equality across the globe. Tackling this topic, Yasmin Khan writes:

“Feminism is great — and even better if you’re white, middle to upper class and in the west. [W]e have failed women in developing countries because we have not taken on the cause to bring all our sisters along for the ride… The fact that feminism has enabled many to succeed where once there was hope, is to be celebrated, but it has also enabled and justified ruthlessness and callousness towards females that I don’t think even cavewoman experienced.”

Khan signs off “Feminism has a lot to answer for, still.”

That may be true — but it’s not all bad news, Crikey readers say. Although there clearly remain a number of areas to be tackled by feminism in the upcoming decades, readers agree that we have certainly come a long way. As Harold Bell writes, progress has occurred “because people like us chipped away at the edges” of issues, one by one.

“So do not dwell on the failures of the movements,” Harold writes, “but rather see what still needs to change and chip away.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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