Over the weekend, I attended the F Conference, the first major feminist conference held in Australia in many years (no one seemed to agree just how many). It was enriching and inspiring. It was also confusing, perplexing and briefly infuriating. I consider myself a feminist but good grief, half the time I had no idea what these people were talking about. The conference seemed to divide between the older, second wave feminists active through the 1960s, 70s and 80s (who received a deserved round of applause in the opening session) and the fresh young feminists leading the charge now. I felt quite out of touch - someone in between age-wise, who considers herself a feminist but has mostly been in the corporate world for the past many years and has done something between very little and bugger all for the feminist movement.
So I spent much of the conference struggling to comprehend the language, the vocabulary, the nuances. There was the usual mix of panels and workshops that these events offer. The panels featured some well-known and not-so-known but fascinating and inspiring speakers, such as Catherine Lumby, Eva Cox, Anne Summers and Larissa Behrendt. In general, I found the ever so slightly older feminists ideas presented in a more accessible way. It was the younger feminists who left me rather bewildered - being so caught in nuance, so fearful of anything they say possibly giving offence to anyone, that left their words with little to offer a mainstream audience. The problem with some of these women is they operate in a closed system. They attend meetings with other feminists; read works by other feminists; then they write papers and blog posts on feminism which are read and commented on by other feminists.
There was some discussion on the weekend of the (ridiculous) idea that feminism is "dead", but I think the problem may not be one of relevance but accessibility. I was thinking of some friends of mine, lovely strong women, who haven't been to university, don't live in inner Sydney, don't read leftist works. Although the changes proposed at the feminist conference, and the work done by feminists past and present, is to their benefit, I'm not sure if they'd see any relevance in discussions of "the patriarchy and gender-neutral frameworks". How can feminism engage with these women? If feminism has an image problem it may well be of elitism rather than irrelevance. There was much anguished discussion of the history of feminism as a white movement, and how that can be remedied in the future. That is vital and all to the good. But feminism also needs to lose its status as an academic movement.
Much is being done to make feminism more inclusive of Indigenous Australians and women from more ethnically diverse backgrounds. The conference opened with a panel discussion of Indigenous women sharing their knowledge and how it applies to feminism. It was informative and inspiring. Sadly it wasn't all so uplifting. One panel featured a woman named Candy Bowers, a self described "Blasian" (Black and Asian) woman who is a poet, comedian, hip hop artist and co-ordinator for the Sydney Theatre company. At first I was really enjoying what she had to say about the lack of ethnic diversity in the Australian arts scene and growing up in Campbelltown. Then she stated "To Indigenous people I respect and admire you; to non-white people I support you; and to white people, I am here to challenge you". I felt my face grow red. How dare she suggest because I, or anyone else, am white, I am somehow complacent, or powerful, or wealthy? For a start I am Irish, and I think the Irish people can say a little something about oppression (my great-grandmother may have been arrested during the 1916 uprising -the family history is fuzzy). But even if I am not claiming any special status - which is often where the problems start - such sweeping assumptions as Ms Bowers made don't help anyone.
The workshops were more enjoyable. There was several mentions at the conference of modern feminism being consumed by the rise of raunch culture, so perhaps as a deliberate decision raunch culture was not a workshop topic. I can't otherwise fault the diversity of workshop topics, from Sex Work, Children's Services and Poverty, along with the more expected topics such as Domestic Violence, Consent, FGM and Plastic Surgery. Among others I attended a wonderful supportive discussion on home birth and birthrape - the unnecessary medicalisation of normal birth. All else being equal, an epidural automatically turns a low-risk into a high-risk birth yet it is presented as safe, and Nicola Roxon has made homebirth in Australia almost impossible to obtain (eerily similar to difficulties obtaining abortion in previous years- you have to go underground and it can be very expensive). I think I'll get involved with this, as well as with the ASU's Fair Pay case - but that is for another post!
Generally though, I left the conference with a sense of being unsure what to do with all this. There were times over the weekend when I felt like I had no voice, although I understand that with 400+ participants it would be fairly impossible to let everyone have a say. There were hopeful messages and things to grow on, but I truly believe feminism the movement (not just feminist principles) needs to reach out to women from all walks of life if it is to capture their passion.
I'll leave you here with some quotes from the weekend. These were scribbled in my notebook on the spot so may not be verbatim, but the spirit is there.
"You can't use one experience to paint the whole story" - Dixie Link Gordon
"Feminism - you think you don't need it, until youneed it; when you bang your head up against the patriarchy" - unrecorded
"Without the ability to be economically independent and control our fertility,we have nothing" - Anne Summers
"A woman is not sad, or lesser, or missing out, if she doesn't have children" - Anne Summers
"While women are excluded from positions of economic power in this country they will be excluded everywhere" - Elizabeth Broderick
"We think if we are nice to the bastards they will let us into their club" - Eva Cox, exhorting feminists not to play nice
"Grassroots work won't change the basic policies that are screwing women" - Eva Cox
"When women are taught to have orgasms, they are empowered to change the world" - Pat, an 89 year old feminist.
Who could argue?