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Feminist. A dirty word?

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

‘Feminist’ has been a problematic label in country Australia.

Traditionally, it challenges ideals of femininity and conjures images of uncomfortable, in-your-face rage. This perhaps doesn’t sit well with the propriety and reticence of the country woman.

If thinking of yourself as a feminist has ever made you shake your head and think, “What’s there to complain about? A woman can do anything she wants nowadays.”? You are not alone.


Standing on the shoulders of second wave feminists in Australia, those of us born in the 1970’s and 80’s, priviliged and white could be forgiven for thinking the job was done. The idea of the angry woman screaming for legal and social equality from her male counterpart felt obsolete.

We won. Right?

The avalanche of misogyny that descended upon Australia’s first woman prime minister smashed into me like a car crash. Vitriol crawling over newspaper pages like cockroaches from drains. I was shocked and incensed, perhaps I shouldn’t have been.

I can’t remember exactly when I realised I was a feminist, but watching how Julia Gillard was mocked, belittled and vilified as prime minister, solely for being a woman, was something I couldn’t move on from. If this was what the most powerful woman in Australia had to cop, where did that leave the rest of us?

Mona collaborator Emily from Leeton, NSW shared her feminist story when the Mona team met her for the first time at an outreach meeting. I remember how confident she came across, she was an engineer by trade. She was precise and articulate and it resonated with me when she shared that her path to feminism had not been a clear one.

Here is her story in her own words…

I am a child of the 70’s.

I grew up thinking I could do anything, that the world was my oyster and that any opportunity I wanted I could have.

I’m not sure when I first heard the term ‘feminist’ but I know I saw it as a negative label. To me they were angry, bra-burning women and I thought their work was done. The doors had been opened and we had been ‘let in’. Our presence was going to be enough to change the world.

I would make statements about women being equal, deserving the same pay and opportunities as men, but then finish it off with the statement, ‘but I’m not a feminist’.

I enjoyed school. It was an environment that I thrived in and where I was rewarded for my efforts. My best subjects were Maths and Physics, and during our final exams I was encouraged to apply for a Scholarship at Wollongong University to study Civil Engineering. This was a program established to encourage women into engineering.

University was the first place where I felt I didn’t fit in. I was one of three women in a class of about sixty students and I remember trying to be one of the boys and the boys really repelling against that. But when I was myself, I didn’t fit in either.

Once I was working, I had experiences that I either dismissed or tolerated. Being told by my boss that I was a liability to the business because I could have children, being sexually harassed at work on more than one occasion, being asked to come into a meeting as the Engineering Manager but then once I got there being asked to take notes and treated like the secretary.

"I think it comes back to that learnt behaviour of not making a fuss, don’t make a scene, don’t be emotional. Just play it cool."

When I refused the advances of a male colleague, I was the one excluded from the project team. Being wolf whistled as I walked through the factory and on worksites. Early in my career it was ‘normal’ to see pornographic posters in the workshops and I didn’t question it.

I thought if I am in this “man’s world” then I need to tolerate this stuff.

I think it comes back to that learnt behaviour of not making a fuss, don’t make a scene,

don’t be emotional. Just play it cool.

I was working in male dominated spaces of construction and manufacturing, so I assumed that explained my experiences. And that somehow, they were isolated.

When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister, I felt like ‘we’ had made it. It was such an exciting achievement for Australia and Australian women. But then with shock, I witnessed her treatment.

The focus on what she was wearing, that fact that she had chosen to not have children and was ‘barren’. Alan Jones’ disgusting comments about drowning her and finishing with the Liberal Party fundraiser ‘menu’. I had this growing rage inside me.

It grew from surprise to disbelief to anger. And I thought “oh my gosh, we haven’t made it at all”. In fact, we were so far from where I thought we were it was really devastating. It was at that point I realised: "I am a feminist”.

It ignited this fire in me and removed my blinkers and I started to see all the places where women were not equal to men. Clearly the feminist’s work wasn’t finished!

It has been nearly 10 years since and I am still finding my voice.

When I reflect on my career, the feelings of not fitting in, being ignored, overlooked or too soft, I saw at the time as being associated with parts of my personality, rather than directly related to my gender.

Now I see that I entered a workplace environment that wasn’t evolved to support women fully. But I am tired of trying to change who I am to fit in.

So, with the benefit of nearly being 50, I finally have the confidence to be authentic to me, to value my femininity and stop trying to fit in by being more masculine. I know what I bring to the table is valuable.

The world will be a better place when there are more softer skills in the places where decisions are made.

Is it by design or by accident that generations of women in Australia have been made to believe that gender activism was something now unnecessary and perhaps extreme for the times?

That the fight for equality was now over because women could now have the ‘opportunity’ to work in whatever field they wanted?

To be a feminist in Australia today is necessary, and not just for achieving parity in board rooms and parliament.

  • The fastest growing population of homeless people in Australia is women over 65 years of age.

  • First nations women in Australia die ten years younger than non-indigenous women.

  • Domestic and gender based violence.

  • Women will retire with almost $100 000 less than men and are far more reliant on the age pension than men.

  • Discrimination of LGBTQI people and their safety and health outcomes.

  • The astronomical cost of childcare in this country.

  • The targeted erosion of worker rights disproportionately affecting women-dominated sectors.

  • The incarceration of women and children who have come to Australia seeking asylum.

Do you identify with Emily's story? How would you describe your relationship to Feminism? Share your story with the Mona team by commenting below or catching us on our Facebook or Instagram.

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