Vida Goldstein is probably not a familiar name to many Australians. But at the turn of the 20th century, she was recognised internationally for her pioneering work as a suffragette. The brave and persistent lobbying of Vida, and others like her, led to Australian women gaining the vote in federal elections in 1902. By comparison, this was not achieved in the US until 1920, and the UK in 1928. If we ignore our trans-Tasman rivals (New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893), then we must conclude that Australia has led the world in providing legally-enshrined protections for gender equality. But when identified in isolation, this laudable element of our history is misleading, for the status of women in Australia is in reality far more precarious.
I was reminded of this truth last month, when a female friend became the victim of an act of sexual harassment. The incident happened as she was walking to work at 7.45 am on a Sunday morning, when a man pulled up alongside her in his car and asked for directions. When my friend turned to show him the route, she realised he was sitting in his car masturbating. My friend responded by quickly calling the police and passing on the man’s details, including his car registration. The matter is now subject to an official police investigation.
We all know that this behaviour is unacceptable. What struck me about this scenario though, was not so much the incident itself, but the contrasting reactions from the people I recounted it to. My own reaction, which aligned with a number of my friends, was of disgust, outrage and to some extent anger. I couldn’t conceptualise the type of individual who would think this activity was okay, let alone a turn on. However for some of my other friends, the immediate response was to laugh, as after all, it was just some dirty tradie whacking himself off in his car. Sure, it was gross, but fundamentally it’s pretty trivial, right?
In stark comparison to both of these responses though, were the reactions of my other female friends. To them, the situation evoked entrenched emotions of fear and panic. Associating this situation with those emotions demonstrated the key difference between the status of men and women in Australian society. From my perspective, as a six-foot-four male, I have never been, and probably will never be, in a situation where I would feel threatened by a man exposing himself in this context. My immediate response would be indignation, not fear. I have no personal understanding of how this situation could result in the feelings of nausea and fear that my friend expressed to me.
The poet and novelist, Margaret Atwood, neatly sum up these gendered emotional responses, writing–
“The greatest fear men have of women is that they will laugh at them. The greatest fear women have of men, is that they will murder them.”
From a young age, men are taught to embrace their gender’s dominance over others. We are instructed to play with swords and guns, while media representations of masculinity reinforce the stereotype that violence equals bravery. It is little wonder then that my female friends reacted so negatively when I told them the story. Women are afraid of what men may do to them.
We exist in a society where the most disturbing crimes of sexual assault and rape are linked with subtle forms gender discrimination. Our underlying prejudices facilitate a culture where violence against women is accepted. Sex crimes specifically targeting women are not uncommon in our country. On average, one woman per week is murdered by her partner, and many more are the victims of domestic assaults. After turning 15, women have a one in five probability of being sexually assaulted. These violations are not weeds springing from the otherwise solid ground of gender equality; they emerge from the charred soil of discrimination. They are indicative of a torn social fabric, where such actions are not exclusive to outliers. The male gaze blinds us from seeing how monumental such ‘trivial’ infringements can feel to a woman.
It is because of these realities that I worry about my female friends. I worry when they walk home from work alone, I worry when they are out on Chapel St until the early morning and I worry about them catching the last train home. I worry because too many of my own friends have been harassed, abused, assaulted and, in one tragic circumstance, murdered, for me to ignore the reality of our situation; that we live in a society where women are not safe. A society where women fear for their safety is a society where women are not respected. If we are to embrace the society of mutual trust and respect that Vida Goldstein, and other early feminists envisioned, then this must change.
For those of us not exposing ourselves to women from cars, there are practical steps that we can all take now that will facilitate this transition. It starts in our day-to-day interactions. Social psychology research has also shown that women are more likely to be interrupted when speaking, because of socially constructed gender differences in how we use language. By being more aware of the patriarchy that looms over our interactions, we take a step towards giving women the voice they currently lack in Australia. Other changes we can make immediately include first, pulling ourselves up, and second, calling out our friends when they make sexist remarks such as rape jokes or kitchen gags. Finally, we can help to empower women by valuing them for their personalities and ideas, and rejecting their objectification. This means lending support by not ‘liking’, even ironically, social media pages that objectify women, such as Facebook’s ‘Hotties of Melbourne Uni’, or the Instagram account of Dan Bilzerian.
It is the moral obligation of men to stand not merely in silent solidarity with our female counterparts, but to loudly speak up. Without strong male voices, the chords of the craven resonate more loudly. As students of Melbourne Law School, we are in uniquely privileged positions. Graduates of our institution have progressed to become High Court judges, politicians, business leaders and notable public servants. Those of us in positions of authority have a responsibility to use that power in a way that will leave the world a better place than when we entered it. I hope that when the current crop of law students graduate, we will use our positions to empower the women around us, and achieve a more equitable society, where women don’t have to feel afraid.
In the decades after we graduate, our responsibility is likely to be even greater. That means if you’re a manager, hire female staff, and ensure that there is equal pay for equal work. As a teacher, ensure that the voices of female students are heard equally with those of the boys. As citizens, we must continue to support the rights of women to reproductive freedom, and finally, as partners, we must share household and parenting responsibilities.
Ultimately, gender equality is good not just for women, but for men too. The ripple effects of discrimination impact on our relationships with the people we care deeply about; our friends, partners, sisters, mothers, daughters and grandmothers. Fulfilling relationships are constructed when there is a common intensity of emotions and trust. Where one party is withholding themselves, out of fear of the others capacity for harm, then the relationship is undermined. To avoid these destructive emotional pitfalls men, and women, must actively seek to construct a society where women can feel valued and empowered.
Our aforementioned trailblazer, Vida Goldstein (who was a pacifist as well as a feminist), once said–
“History will proclaim you false if you are silent now. Come out and be separate from all that makes for war.”
These poignant words ring true today. Men have the power to speak out against sexism. We can be more empathetic, we can be more open-minded, and we can certainly be more vigilant. Together, we can make a powerful and positive difference.