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REVIEW: Leaning out by Kristine Ziwica

By Jan Roberts

I have been pondering for some time, where the women’s movement has “gone wrong” and why what we thought would be a new life for women has stalled.

When the book Leaning Out: A fairer future for women at work in Australia by Kristine Ziwica was published recently, I was curious to see what this eminent, feminist journalist and writer had to say about the position of women in Australia in 2022.

Ziwica brings a unique perspective having spent time as a journalist and feminist writer in the US, Berlin, Britain and Australia. This enables her to understand and articulate the differences she perceives between the political cultures of these countries and how this has influenced the status of women and their work conditions.

The title immediately intrigued me, obviously a reference to the famous book Lean In, written by Sheryl Sandberg in 2013. Her message to women was, don’t wait to be noticed, promoted and rewarded, push yourself forward and just don’t take “no” for an answer. This message was taken up across the western world and became “the” mantra for many executive and professional women and a multi-million-dollar sideline industry.

This philosophy suited the neo-liberal economies of the West and became the face of feminism for several years. So here at last was a writer critiquing this viewpoint from an Australian perspective, and the title signaled she was not a fan of “leaning in”.

This is not a book with new trendy thinking. It is a serious analysis of women and work in Australia, post pandemic, where women were in alarming numbers ”leaning out” of paid work the result of which could have serious consequences for their already fragile economic security. It has a particular focus on the “care industries” where the majority of women work.

Women have had it! No more band aids, political tokenism or turning a blind eye to the exposed desperate situation many women face in their work places. What is needed, as Ziwica states in her Author’s Note, is a willingness “to tackle the deep structural issues that had long been ignored.” No more ”lean in feminism”, which basically benefits high-earning, white corporate women. Put bluntly, this is advocacy for one’s self, ignoring the structural barriers that hold women back. Somehow not only are women supposed to “lean in” but they also have to overcome their own oppression.

One of the standout qualities of this book is that Ziwica takes us on a journey through the various waves of feminism, from the first wave in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which emerged out of the push for the vote for women. The second wave took the world by storm in the 1960’s and 70’s, promising a new order where women’s rights and gender equality would be achieved. The 1980’s saw a distinct backlash against feminism, as the forces of the patriarchy gathered and blamed all the woes of the world on radical feminists. This was the beginning of feminism becoming the new F*** word.

Girl Power took to the world stage in the 1990’s, when the Spice Girl, Geri Halliwell, Ginger Spice, proclaimed, “We’re freshening up feminism for the ’90s.” Basically Girl Power was focused on swagger and confidence. Lipstick was back! From Girl Power, Lean In would be born. Neither addressed the crucial power structure in-balance, which existed between men and women; nor did they explore the hard issues of privilege, class and race. It was all down to the individual and in Australia this had a profound negative consequence for the vast majority of women.

Ziwica realised the urgency of reform as the pandemic laid bare the truth of women’s working conditions, low pay, lack of political clout and a unified voice. If women were to campaign and lobby for improved and fair conditions, it would require a collective mindset and women from all walks of life coming together to demand justice.

Is it possible for a “new” wave of feminism to emerge from the ashes? One that acknowledges that ultimately no one benefits from self-interest alone.

Ziwica builds on the momentum of the world-wide “#MeToo!” movement, which swept the globe in 2017 following the disclosure of serial sexual abuse and assault by Harvey Weinstein over a period of at least 30 years. Women began to share their stories. In their millions.

Australia had its own “MeToo” moment, following the naming of Grace Tame as the 2021 Australian of the Year. This event inspired a number of young women to speak out about their own experience as women in their schools, work and social lives, speaking the truth about sexual harassment, assault, bullying and being treated as second-class citizens.

The flame was lit and on the 4 March 2021, women around Australia in their thousands took to the streets, shouting “enough is enough”, demanding equality, justice, respect and safety. They were angry and indeed had had enough. And the rest is herstory.

Women used their vote in the federal election in May this year to remove the Morrison government. This was real change, with six independent “teal” women candidates, and a record number of women from Labor and the Greens being elected. The times are a-changing!

Leaning Out is articulate, personal, hopeful, well written and referenced, but more importantly presenting a new way to view feminism, with the potential to bring heart, momentum and unity of action to women across the many divides that have separated us over the decades since the second wave in the 1970’s.

Thank you Kristine!


About Jan Roberts

Jan is Mona Magazine's Crone/Wise woman and provides guidance and critique for the Mona team on feminism, organising and sisterhood. Jan has been a feminist all her life, even before she'd heard the word or understood what it meant, it was in her DNA! Born and raised in rural NSW, she was awarded a scholarship to attend Sydney University in 1969, where she trained as a secondary school teacher. Thus, began her activist life, which is still part of her life to this day. In the late 1970s she was part of a feminist group that established the Wagga Women’s Health Centre and changed her career path to work in this Centre.

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