Updated: Jan 30, 2022
My frustration is the silent kind that leaves me wondering whether I’m just a crazy emotional woman whose thoughts and feelings are all-in-my-head. But because it is the International Day of Women, I’m not going to think like that. Instead, I choose to show myself some respect and acknowledge that my thoughts and feelings are, in fact, real and valid.
Before I go further, I want to say that those people who have been involved in organising activities for the International Day of Women, particularly the young men, well done and congratulations. It is not my intention to denigrate the work you do. It is always better to stand up and act than sit back and accept the unacceptable. My hope is that my words will give you greater insight into what it is we should be striving for and that this insight will strengthen your ability to influence positive change. To the young women who have shared their stories around sexual abuse and assault and demanded change—Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins, Karyn Webber, Bri Lee and many, many more—I thank and applaud you for your generosity and courage. I hope that on this day of women, you receive the respect you deserve.
I am a woman. I am also a highly sensitive person who has a genuine concern about the way discrimination is addressed within our community. To me, what is said and done often feels insincere and my feelings simply cannot be calmed by a thoughtful person inviting me to breakfast.
I start by sharing a recent (very short) conversation I had with someone. This person said to me, ‘I hope that big black chick doesn’t win the Australian Open this year?’ He was, of course, referring to Serena Williams, one of the greatest women tennis players of all time and a woman who, to my knowledge, always treats others with respect.
‘Why not?’ I asked.
You might not believe the answer.
‘Have you seen the size of her butt?’ he said.
Here are two parables – The Bomb Shelter and The Mole’s Headlight—that I hope highlight my frustration.
The Bomb Shelter
When the bombs start exploding, all the people in the village run to the only safe place—the bomb shelter—but before they can get inside, they must be approved of by the gatekeeper.
‘I approve of women,’ says the gatekeeper proudly, letting Ann Brown enter. He lets Cora Dwang past. And Eunice Fu. But when Gloria Harper arrives, and the gatekeeper holds up his hand and says, ‘Stop. You cannot enter.’
‘Why not?’ asks Gloria
‘You talk too much,’ the gatekeeper says. ‘Go away. You are not welcome.’
Many women are permitted to enter the bomb shelter, but not all. It’s not that the gate keeper doesn’t approve of women. He does. He tells everyone who will listen how much he respects women. He is quite proud of that fact. Just not all women. He doesn’t approve of those who are too fat, too butch, too promiscuous, too hairy, too loud, too old, too outspoken, too tall, too emotional, too intelligent, too highly-strung, too freckly, too poor, too screwed-up, too judgmental or too arty farty.
Once the bombs start to fall, the women of the village quickly find themselves separated into two groups—those who have been approved of by the gatekeeper and those who have not. Obviously, the unacceptable women are now at a real disadvantage because they have bombs going off all around them. What you may not realize is that the acceptable women are also at a disadvantage because they are now under intense pressure to conform with the parameters set by the gatekeeper, otherwise, they too will end up back outside with the bombs.
We are all gatekeepers. We might say we don’t discriminate on the basis of sex, race, age, disability, religious beliefs or sexual orientation, but are we simply finding other ways to sort people into acceptable and unacceptable? If we choose not to respect a woman because she doesn’t fit with our parameters of what a woman should be like (and I have to say, these parameters are very, very narrow), we cannot claim to respect women. If we make judgement on the basis of a woman's appearance or age or lifestyle choices, we are discriminating against all women because whether we like it or not, all women are one day going to be a little bit too much of something.
The Mole’s Headlight
Maverick, the mole, wears a headlight on his head as he scurries about the tunnels of his underground fortress. He is a good, upstanding member of the mole community.
One day, one of the female moles gets raped. It is such an awful thing and hard to imagine that something so horrific could happen. One of Maverick’s friends thinks the raped mole probably deserved what she got because of the way she dresses but Maverick disagrees. He doesn’t think any mole deserves to be raped. He, himself, would never dream of acting in a sexually inappropriate way and decides to take a stand. He is proud of the way he shines his light on the issue of rape and sexual misconduct amongst moles. He says all female moles deserve to be treated with respect.
One of Maverick’s neighbours, Claudia, approaches him one day and says she feels disrespected because he has excluded her from the Easter committee, and didn’t ask if she would like to be part of the children’s book photo. Old Claudia is a bit too shaggy for Maverick’s liking, she smells, and she is kind of whiney. What has she got to complain about? No one has raped her. He rolls his eyes and turns his head away, leaving her in the dark.
I think we are all a bit like Maverick. We tend to shine our light in the places that make us feel emotionally safe. This is understandable. Maverick was comfortable shining his light on the rape situation because his behaviour was never in question. I’m not saying he did the wrong thing. He did the right thing. But when Claudia challenged him about the disrespectful way he treated her, his own behaviour was brought into question and this made him uncomfortable. Thus, he disregarded her feelings, assured himself that the fault was hers (too shaggy, too smelly, too whiney) and turned away. Of course, the consequence of him turning away was that Claudia felt even more disrespected and less inclined to support him in the future. His efforts to achieve respect for all female moles now seemed insincere to her. By being selective in how he demonstrated respect, Maverick unwittingly reduced his influence and power to make a difference.
If we are going to claim to respect women, we need to respect all women—otherwise, why not just say ‘I respect some women?’ If we want to make real change in the world, we have to start by genuinely respecting everyone. If we don’t, we will eventually lose the power to make any change at all?
Organisations and workplaces, if you want to celebrate the International Day of Women, include all the women in your organisation and offer them all the chance to contribute and participate. Don’t be selective. For example, we are putting together a video to celebrate the women in our workplace. Would you be interested in participating? We would love the opportunity to celebrate the International Day of Women and would appreciate your input. These are our ideas so far. What do you think? Why not sit down with a woman and ask about her lived experience of being female in today's world. I'm sure most women would rather have a voice than a piece of bacon. And if you hold a celebratory function, rather than choosing your female speakers yourself, why not offer the opportunity of speaking to the women in your community and allow them to choose. Surely one of the advantages of technology is that we can become more inclusive in what we do.
Imagine a time when respect for ourselves and others is the universal language. Discrimination would no longer exist. Neither would bullying or harassment. There would most likely no longer be an International Day of Women and I wouldn’t find myself having to swallow my frustration along with my breakfast.
Then…perhaps we could all celebrate freedom instead.
This magnificent artwork is called 'Wisdom in Flight' and was painted by Anna Battle. It is owned by Sue Dymond.