Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Tracey Spicer with Anne Summers at Warringah Library

Last night I went to Warringah Library to see Tracey Spicer talk to Anne Summers about her new biography Unfettered and Alive. I've been an admirer of Anne Summers since I was in my 20s and working in the Women's Refuge Movement of NSW, for which she was partially responsible for establishing through founding the first women's refuge in Glebe called Elsie

When I walked in the room my first thought was the same thought I have in most places in this geographical area where I've lived for the last decade, but also in this type of gathering of white feminism - it's a thing. Everyone was white. Myself included of course. I pass as white, mostly. I avoid the scrutiny that people of colour face that attracts erasure, racism, victimisation and incarceration, but I'm not fair enough to pass as a 'real' Aussie for some people, because I'm not Anglo.

I looked around trying not to look too conspicuous, to see if I could spot some diversity - there was a smattering. I was born and have lived in Australia most of my life, but my background is Maltese, and if you don't know me, it's hard to tell if I'm European or Middle Eastern. I interpret all frowns in my direction as suspicion, so I work hard to adjust my standing bitch face and smile, even though I enjoy my SBF as my neutral face. It's comfortable. I made the assessment that most people were white and past middle age, mostly women, some men, and a few young people.

I looked up at the projection of the cover of the book on the wall and instantly thought to myself 'oh look that's white too, with blonde writing'...

Image via: Allen and Unwin
Then Tracey and Anne walked in and I thought 'Barbies'. That's my childish reference, what we all grew up with as the ideal girl; tall, thin, blonde, in a pants suit. I do respect both women immensely, but they don't reflect myself back. I read Tracey Spicer's book The Good Girl Stripped Bare and enjoyed it, but I couldn't relate to a lot of it. She had the Barbie life I would never have as a child of migrants. As removed as her life experience is from mine, I found some commonalities about her experiences in the workplace, but mine were not in elite news rooms or like Anne, in academia or offices of government. My experiences were in take away shops, factories, offices and the public service. It's hard to relate to someone when their life, while being portrayed as ordinary, is actually kind of extraordinary to someone from my own background - migrant and working class.

Anne and Tracey talked about a number of issues and experiences that Anne has covered in her book. They discussed the gender pay gap and the necessity for equal pay to be legislated, like in countries such as Iceland. Anne said it's no use leaving this issue in the hands of tribunals like Fair Work. It doesn't work. It complicates the matter and makes equality not only too difficult to access, but too complex to establish in the workplace. While I've never really worked on a professional basis, so was never really comparing my wage to my male counterparts, I've certainly experienced sexism in the workplace. They wouldn't let me get my forklift driver's licence in the factory I worked at with my dad while I was at Uni and I've worked with more incompetent and mediocre men who excelled while their female counterparts worked twice as hard for half the recognition, than I can count. My refuge experience was my link to Anne. I only spent three years there, because the pay was terrible compared to the risk and stress I was experiencing. Some types of work are simply not valued because they are considered feminine and are largely occupied by women - nursing, teaching, community support, early childhood, aged care. That influences the pay gap too.

I worked in a refuge named Bonnie in the western suburbs of Sydney, after graduating from my Arts degree at Sydney Uni, where I spent three invisible years, floating through the old buildings and gargoyles, not really making any friends, overwhelmed by the social pace, barely able to raise my voice above a husky whisper. Bonnie was established around the same time as Elsie. Folklore among the three generations of women I worked with was that Bonnie may have preceded Elsie but the attention was always focused on the city refuge not the one out in the sticks. The demographic was different too and may have contributed to Bonnie's obscurity. In the 1970s and 80s the western suburbs became home to a large number of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees following the exodus of people at the end of the Vietnam war, but the western suburbs were and still are largely populated by migrants from all over the globe.

Customs Officer Frank Dalton holding a Vietnamese refugee child, Xye Than Hueon the deck of the Tu Do in Darwin, November, 1977. Courtesy National Library of Australia - Image via: Migration Heritage NSW (site no longer active)

It was the 90s and I worked with women in their 60s who'd been there in the 70s when the refuge was established. There were also the baby boomers who secured funding, assets and corporatisation and me and my peers who began the process of digitising our newly created systems including policies, procedures, values and mission statements. The refuge is still in operation today as an advanced network of support services, thanks to the tireless work of the women who insisted on networking with the community and running the organisation efficiently whilst maintaining its independence. Elsie was taken over by St Vincent De Paul, (religious organisations tend to be preferenced for funding these days) in 2014 and while it still operates today, it can be argued that it lost its feminist principles by having to adhere to the NSW government's Going Home Staying Home policy, a problematic concept for women experiencing domestic violence and those supporting them to leave an abusive relationship. 

I was keen to hear about the establishment of Elsie, how local women squatted in a disused house and turned it into a safe haven for battered women and wanted to ask Anne about the value of grassroots movements today. She talked a little bit about 'hitting the barricades' again and using social media as a tool for activism and I would have loved her to elaborate. I was too shy to speak up, still the intimidated migrant in a room full of Anglos.

Tracey and Anne mentioned briefly the factionalism that can happen in feminism, almost as though women are all individuals with different backgrounds, experiences, thoughts and lives. Go figure! This idea that women can't disagree or experience the world from opposing views and ideologies is one of the problems that keeps us subjugated and all lumped in together as 'other'. Men can be valued as individuals, but as a women's movement, we've often had to homogenise to maintain our solidarity, which almost always reverts back to white and middle class. They briefly touched on this with discussion about Anne's experience working with Gloria Steinem on Ms. Magazine in New York and the disagreements they had which she elaborates on in her book. But more than that it was palpable in the room that discussion about women being different to one another and having different needs, agendas and disadvantages was only going to remain on the surface. What white women tend to do is hold onto their perceived superiority at all costs, for the good of unity they say, by erasing the intersectional needs of marginalised women. We need a balance of both. We need to refrain from attacking each other, but reverse racism isn't a thing. When you're white, your skin colour isn't the thing that marginalises you and yes, we still need affirmative action. Anne talked about being criticised as being Anglo and commented that it wasn't something she could help or change about herself, but she could be vigilantly aware of her given identity, (at least as much as non-white women are) and white women need to learn the art of stepping aside. They need to stop stealing the work and achievements of women of colour and passing it off as their own, give them credit when it's due and by using their privilege help non-white women to be self-determining and independent so that they can strengthen their own communities. And they need to let them disagree with their brand of feminism, which doesn't always serve everybody equally. For more on this, start following Ruby Hamad on Twitter and her experience as a journalist who is constantly ignored when she writes something, only to have her work plagiarised, discredited and celebrated as the work of someone else. I see it all the time, particularly at work. They'll talk to you when they need something, but it's really hard to break the white barrier! That invisible wall that not only denies you credit where it's due, but I've witnessed and experienced the existence of women of colour literally being ignored, being othered by white women, the same way men other women generally.

The discussion was interesting, anecdotal and covered many issues including abortion and how important it is to achieve reproductive rights in the form of safe, legal and accessible abortion, and to keep talking openly about our experiences, all good introductions to the content of her book. Check out the Shout Your Abortion movement. 

I was a bit distracted to be honest, missing some of the content because I wanted to pay more attention to the audience's responses. Like, nobody booed like I wanted to stand up and do when Tony Abbott was mentioned, of course not, it's his town. People wriggled in their seats a bit though, it was hard to tell what the feeling was as it is definitely shifting. Anne didn't defend or criticise any politician too much or unfairly. She talked about both sides of government on merit and spoke fondly and honestly about Julia Gillard and her horrendous experiences as our first female PM, even mentioning that her speech in Parliament directed at Tony about sexism is still talked about globally to this day. 

My interest was piqued when discussion turned to childcare. I have three kids under five in daycare two days a week and it costs us an arm and a leg. It has meant that I could only return to work two days a week and as a result my career prospects and superannuation have suffered the most. Anne talked about the childcare rebate and the change in culture that has seen childcare places and their funding go from in the thousands to in the millions over the last decade or so. She talked about the Liberal government's push to privatise everything, including childcare and the impact this will have not only on cost for families, but on women, their agency, their place in the workforce and public life and children's learning.

Anne argued that she has always noticed that Australians have a particular kind of disdain for women without children - a distrust or judgement that she herself has suffered alongside women like Julia Gillard. She also said however, that on one hand we exalt the value of mothers, but then punish them by expecting they withdraw from life to care for their young children (and the aged too by the way). Anne has always advocated for childcare to be absorbed into the education system. In many countries this already happens (including Malta), making childcare, like primary and high school free, paid for by the taxes of the population to benefit everyone equally. It pushes the quality of the service to higher standards, ensures qualified providers and promotes access across the board. How awesome would it be if childcare was of excellent quality and free! The trouble is there is an attitude that is growing in Australia that public services are not an entitlement. I work in public health and I have heard it from staff and clinicians alike that the public get the service they pay for (in other words, if it's free it's crap), and use this idea to deny or give sub-par service. I find it concerning that people don't understand the importance of public service, in particular public health. I challenge them to consider the situation in countries like the US where people go bankrupt when faced with unexpected health crises or ordinary health events like childbirth, unless they have expensive health insurance that not everyone can access or afford. I am tempted to tell them that if they don't believe in public health, they should cut up their Medicare card immediately and go and work in a shoe shop! It's the same with education. I wholeheartedly agree with Anne's notion that childcare is an important aspect of a child's education. It's not baby sitting. My kids get the attention, activities, learning and specialised guidance that only a trained early childhood educator can provide. As much as I love and care for them, the daycare staff do it better in some respects and it enhances their development. It also benefits them to see me happy and working, living the same kind of life that my partner is entitled to and the family benefits financially as well. I send my kids to daycare so that I can work and have a break and a life, yes, but I also send them for the same reasons I will send them to school. They need it and it's good for them. That is why it is the norm now. The majority of children attend daycare because its importance has become incredibly obvious. In my childhood it wasn't as prevalent. 

In Australia we have seen years of cuts and neglect for public education. Private schools are given precedence without a shred of evidence that students perform any better, in fact the opposite is true. I was interested in the response of the demographic in Warringah last night given there are so many private schools in the area and while the public schools are fantastic, because they are supported by privileged communities (through corporate and small business sponsorship, no less) and do better than public schools in other parts of Sydney, they are still overshadowed by the prevalence of the private schools, particularly those marred by religious indoctrination, which in my opinion has no place in education or public life. But we know all this, surely, and the opposite is happening. When we privatise education and make it expensive and exclusive to access quality schools, we risk dumbing down the population and ending up with someone like Trump in charge - we're not far off. The same happens when we privatise public services. The quality diminishes when the goal is profit not service provision. Public service should be the benchmark for private industry to aspire to, not the other way around. Better still, we should encourage community style organisations and co-operatives that are relevant to the communities and people using them. I kept thinking to myself, I hope Jane Caro runs as an Independent and with her wealth of knowledge about and advocacy for public education, I hope she wins and makes changes in Warringah! I hope the audience remember that next time they vote.

Finally, I want to address a question by one of the audience members. An older man asked Anne what she believed the genesis of violence, particularly against women was. She'd talked about her knowledge of domestic violence and the reasons why she'd established Elsie, and mentioned the 61 women that have been killed this year already, 8 up on last year and only 40 odd weeks into the year. These are some very confronting numbers and there is no presser from the PM about this kind of terrorism. The audience member lamented about the prevalence of violent images in our media, film, television, video games and social media and how desensitised young people are, as though violence is a new phenomenon in Australia. I wanted to answer the question. I wanted to say that we live on a continent that was colonised violently and that same violence continues today. We have not faced that history properly as a country. Tokenistic government apologies achieve nothing when First Nations children are still being removed disproportionately from their families, at greater numbers than the first stolen generations and when child protection legislation is about to change to force adoptions within two years, with no provision for extended family to have any input and to make these rash decisions largely outside the courts. Add to that mix the establishment of a My Health Record with the necessity to opt out (I believe the cut off date has been extended to January 2019) and the risks FN people in particular face of being monitored and judged based on prior health experiences in child protection matters is terrifying. Tokenistic acknowledgements of country as was performed in passing at the beginning of the night are meaningless when there is not enough visibility of FN culture in our mainstream. And not just in this area. Throughout Sydney and Australia I'm sure, we use a lot of FN culture - place names, animal names, concepts without allowing leadership and acknowledging origin and ownership. We don't have treaties. It's blatant erasure, complicity and continuation of colonial violence.

As a country we still haven't reconciled our past. We haven't owned it properly and until we do, violence is an acceptable means to an end. We also need to address toxic masculinity, the notion that aggression, conquest, exploitation and destruction - human traits which are masculine and not necessarily exclusively present in men, that these traits are superior and desirable to feminine traits, again prevalent in both sexes that are deemed inferior: nurture, kindness, creativity, humanity, honesty, integrity.

I also wanted to point out that while it is a concern that people, particularly young people, become desensitised to violence, we can't allow violence to be cloaked in secrecy and remain in the shadows. The world changed when the Vietnam war was televised. It was no longer the words of surviving soldiers, journalists and historians we relied on to imagine the details, we could watch it with our own eyes on TV. Same now with the democratisation of information via social media. We get to witness wars, atrocities, violence, corrupt governments and militaries, and violent crime in real time on our phones. Yes it desensitises us to some extent, but what if it also allows us to confront it head on and nurture the desire to stop it. Check out the #ThisISMyLane hashtag on Twitter where doctors in the US are answering the NRAs appalling comments to stay out of the gun debate by sharing pictures of gun trauma they deal with daily. The images are confronting, but necessary.

It was a really valuable night and got me thinking about so many things. Sometimes we forget that the purpose of feminism is to change lenses and see/move through the world with a feminine gaze and that gaze is diverse. Feminism isn't about aspiring to conform to a masculine world, by becoming the tyrants we abhor. It's about deconstructing and dismantling the patriarchal, and in our case, colonial systems that oppress us and damage people regardless of their gendered bodies and sexuality. The questions we need to start asking within the feminist movement must include the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender and lived experience. We need feminism to lead us away from white supremacy, the cost of which is not only our humanity and our planet, but our future.