The Me Too movement has fostered a sense of community — women stand strong together, hugging, crying, supporting.
But there’s a distinct demographic at the heart of Australia’s movement: middle-class cis white women. This is a massive concern. Although sexual violence affects everyone, not everyone benefits in the same ways from calling it out.
As feminist scholar Nilmini Fernando told Crikey: “[White women] strive for equality with white men … which focuses on the idea that success and equality will trickle down,” she said.
Women of colour, she says, fight for justice and equality for the collective.
Sense of community lacking from today’s feminism
Second-wave feminism’s slogan across the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was “the personal is political”. The movement focused on equality and discrimination, criticising male-dominated practices throughout society.
Feminist academic Eva Cox participated in many of the marches: “We wanted to change the values of masculinity so that the feminised stuff had the same value as the blokey stuff — like money and power and war and business.”
This isn’t to say women of colour weren’t left out of the movement, but overall its goals were more inclusive. Cox doesn’t think this is a case of looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses but is instead down to the rise of neoliberalism which has put free-market capitalism, privatisation and competition between individuals above welfare and the collective good.
One example of this, she says, is how we talk about childcare. In the ’80s it was framed as a necessity for children and families’ welfare. Now it’s discussed in terms of the impact it would have on the female workforce and GDP.
“We’ve got a very deteriorated sense of what community is and the morality of taking care of people because that doesn’t fit into neoliberalism because it’s largely done unpaid by women,” she said.
COVID-19 has exposed this disparity, with women holding most essential worker roles and shouldering domestic duties while working from home.
The latest budget pledges $150 million of previously announced funding to reduce domestic and family violence. This represents just 0.3% of the $500 billion budget.
Indigenous voices risk being ‘tacked on’
March4Justice was met with mixed responses from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women of colour. Some believed the rallies incorporated their views but others, including Yuin woman and Aboriginal postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Wollongong Dr Marlene Longbottom, feels Indigenous issues are seen to be on the periphery.
“In Australia when you start to talk about diversity, you tend to see diversity in terms of not necessarily Indigenous women or women of colour but white women with different coloured hair,” she said.
“Our issues are never white women’s issues unless it’s actually happening to them.”
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children experience violence at 3.1 times the rate of non-Indigenous women and are 35 times more likely to experience domestic and family violence. They’re 11 times more likely to die due to an assault than non-Indigenous women. Three in five Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have experienced physical or sexual violence perpetrated by a male intimate partner, compared with one in four women across all demographics.
Distinct from white Australia’s individualist culture, Longbottom says, Indigenous people think in collective terms, incorporating the family, community, and men: “Aboriginal women see it as responsibility and our place in the community, whereas white women believe it’s more of a rights issue.”
Sexual violence is never considered a standalone issue but as a symptom of inequality caused by colonialism. Indigenous Australians die from avoidable causes at three times the rate of non-Indigenous Australians and have shorter life expectancies. About 80% of Indigenous adults have weekly incomes below the national average earnings. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander adults make up around 2% of the population but 27% of the national prison population.
Nyungar woman and human rights lawyer Dr Hannah McGlade was the first speaker at the March4Justice in Western Australia.
“The local organisers were very respectful to Indigenous women,” she told Crikey, but she stressed Indigenous women had been fighting for feminism and equality for a long time — independent of white women.
“Society is paying a lot of attention here, but the problem here for Indigenous women is that violence has been normalised, excused and rendered invisible,” she said.
She said a national council on violence against Aboriginal women is an immediate necessity, as is an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
Inclusivity is key
Consulting with members of the community is crucial, disability advocate Carly Findlay tells Crikey, but that didn’t really happen during the March4Justice rallies. When she brought this to the organisers’ attention on social media, she got defensive responses.
“I acknowledge the events were put together in a short amount of time by volunteers, but we’ve done the work on access and inclusion so this info could have been sourced and implemented,” she said.
“[Organisers need to] constantly consult with and include disabled people in planning and activities. Though I feel we need to move beyond being consulted with — we’ve spent a long time doing this. Just include us.”
About 36% of women with a disability have experienced intimate partner violence, and 64% of Australians with disabilities experience physical, social, intimate partner violence or emotional abuse.
Fernando said this sort of behaviour showed white women gatekeeping issues and closing ranks.
“There’s a real ignorance of not wanting to really engage with our literature, whether it be academic literature or in the newspapers or in activism,” she said. “It’s not just a simple matter of inclusion. What I’m talking about is the power to shape the narrative and take control of it.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Do you feel included in the Me Too movement, or are you one of the many left behind? Write to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.
Next: What do we want the Me Too movement to achieve? Change, obviously. It must be more than just a mood board.