What All About Women – Sunday’s festival of talks, workshops and music at the Sydney Opera House – got right this year, more so than ever, is that it offered a platform for women who’ve been traditionally excluded from feminism to speak on their own terms about the complex impact of a movement that started with the Suffragettes 100 years ago and is now rocking the foundations with #metoo, Women’s March and the very concept of what it means to be female.
At the centre of every conversation we listened to and engaged with was ‘intersectionality’: a term coined by activists in the 1990s to highlight how issues of race, class, ableism and sexism play into and overlap with issues of discrimination and disadvantage. Now, as much as ever, it’s important for us to remember that we cannot talk about equality for the sexes without addressing the complex ways society creates disadvantage for all people – and especially for women who identify within multiple groups of disadvantage.
They made space for more women at the table
The Disability and Intersectionality Panel, chaired by journalist Van Badham, featured Samantha Connor, a disability advocate and NDIS campaigner; Kath Duncan, a writer, performer and advocate of disability pride; and Katharine Annear, an artist, writer and academic. Connor shared a shocking statistic that 90 per cent of women with intellectual disabilities experience sexual violence at some point in their lives. She also pointed out that general barriers to access and stories of abuse were not always gendered and that it is important to include those experiences in the conversation, too.
Annear, who spoke of being protective of her life’s story (“I’m not there to be Exhibit A”), said it was her responsibility as a privileged, educated white woman to make space for others at the table. She said, “If you’re an activist, it’s incumbent on you to reach out to those excluded by the movement, and bring them along the journey. You can’t empower people – instead it’s about creating spaces in our own movements [for people to empower themselves].”
They included more genderqueer and non binary speakers
At Trans Like Me – a trans, genderqueer, non-binary panel featuring musician, author CN Lester, musician Eddie Ayres, comedian Jordan Raskopoulos and chair Sally Goldner, presenter of 3CR’s ‘Out of the Pan’ – CN Lester needed no permission to sit at the table. They said “We don’t need your permission to be in this space. Feminism is something you do; it’s not a clubhouse.”
Feminism has traditionally ignored trans people and CN rightfully called for spaces like All About Women to look at every example of misogyny, including those that impact boys and men. Jordan Raskopoulos, who said, “I am a person of unique experience; how many people can compare if it hurts more to be hit in the balls or the tits?” made the most encompassing statement of the day: “All children suffer under the patriarchy.” Jordan said she recognises male privilege in her past but that we shouldn’t use shame as a motivator – “If you have privilege, be responsible for dismantling structures.”
So, how should feminism (or indeed the world) adapt to be more inclusive of genderqueer and non-binary folk? Classical musician Eddie Ayres, who began transitioning while on a motorcycle trip through Pakistan after 49 years living in a female body, said “I’m a stronger feminist now I’m a man”. He’d abolish single gender schools so we’re not repeating patterns of learned binary behaviour. Jordan Raskopoulos said language was a privilege and we should learn to play with it.
They questioned the white (gaze) elephant in the room
Language, labels and the white gaze were themes in the live recording of podcast Pretty for an Aboriginal, hosted by Nakkiah Lui and Miranda Tapsell, featuring special guest actor and budding director Shari Sebbens. They raised the question: do you think it’s important to announce your heritage? And, whether announcing your heritage as a Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, in Nakkiah Lui’s case, was only doing so in response to whiteness. To counter, every member of the audience was asked to announce their heritage before asking any questions.
Marvel’s Black Panther was applauded for being unapologetically black and for introducing the word ‘coloniser’ as a greeting. “Could we make ‘coloniser’ happen in Australia?” says Lui. “What about white fragility?” Sebbens spoke of her quest to make Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi her mentor but also of the power of decolonising our storytelling. Tapsell recalled how she cried when she learnt the violent story of the real Pocahontas, shattering her hopes the interracial love story were true. “I was lied to,” said Miranda. “Don’t give us the lie,” added Sebbens, it gets more exposure than the truth and it’s myth-making.
They criticised the relevance of a once all-white movement
In a sold-out Concert Hall talk called Suffragettes to Social Media, Barbara Caine, Anne Summers, Rebecca Walker and Nakkiah Lui unpacked the historical layers of feminism in western society – from the almost Instagram-ready media management of the Pankhurst family wearing Selfridge’s designed costumes to march in Westminster to to the zine-making third wave of who denounced the term feminism in favour of inclusion for all women.
Formidable Anne Summers AO, who recalled her political advisory role to former PM Paul Keating, her Ms. magazine days and the enduring publication Damned Whores and God’s Police, said women “didn’t know who we were or what we could become” in the second wave of feminism but the bitter lesson of that time is that “We didn’t realise what we’d achieved would not be permanent.” Here we are in 2018 still discussing reproductive rights, pay parity and the right for women to be safe from violence.
Rebecca Walker, artist, writer and activist, said that during the 1990s there was a counter culture response to the Women’s Lib movement in the ’60s and ’70s, to George Bush who was also felling laws for reproductive rights in the US and for the silencing of queer community voices following the AIDS epidemic. Third wave feminism was about choosing language that would welcome women of colour to the movement, to men who’d been alienated instead of being considered as allies. “I’m telling you, we were losing you,” she says.
But is feminism any more inclusive, or equal now? Representing the now – the fourth wave emerging with the age of social media – was Nakkiah Lui who gave an emotive speech that started by saying she’s not a cis, white, middle class man and “I don’t want to be”. Lui shared a photograph of her mother, who never referred to herself as a feminist – until a few years ago. Why? Lui explains that, sure, it’s great to have Women’s Lib in the ’60s but that in the same decade Aboriginal women were being forcibly sterilised; it’s great to be featured as an Aboriginal woman in the latest issue of Vogue, but that this is still an exception, not the rule.
“Our feminism is about empowering community. It’s not a true success if it doesn’t include our most vulnerable. That means listening to these women,” Lui says, pointing to an image of Aboriginal activists in her home town, Mount Druitt.
They didn’t shy from controversy
Rounding out the evening, Vanity Fair contributing editor Fran Lebowitz did not disappoint when it came to acerbic takedowns and skeptical observations in Who’s afraid of Fran Lebowitz?. Chair Josh Zepps didn’t stand a chance. Our favourite quotes were: “I liked being on television – it made me feel American”; “I write so slowly I could write with my own blood without hurting myself”; “I should be rewarded with pollution credits [for not having children]”; “Immigrants make the culture; tourists ruin it.”
The most on-topic comments came from Lebowitz during the audience Q&A in which the speaker was more generous but also entertainingly scathing. When asked about Trump, she responded with “I’d rather I was president and he were here answering questions about it,” but also “the president of the United States affects the whole world. We think about it every day.” For the #metoo movement: “It’s good to get people out – all these top jobs are now open,” but also, “women aren’t better people, [but] they’re not raping their assistants.” And on gun control: “The country is divided. Racism is at the heart of this.”
They took direct action
The sixth All About Women set out to discuss the year that’s been – Trump, #metoo – but also to move the conversation forward to intersectionality and disadvantage so that feminism becomes more inclusive. We think it succeeded. But with great power comes great responsibility, and after each conversation about access or representation came a glance around the room to check our surroundings. Is the festival attracting enough women from lower economic or academic circumstance? Is there a microphone accessible for a woman using a wheelchair? Are there enough non-binary facilities?
Major plus points go to the organisers for ensuring there were Auslan interpreters for some talks, as well as live captioning screens. Ushers were quick to respond to differently abled visitors and speakers. Male toilets were made unisex in the main festival hub, even if just for the day. Welcome to Country acknowledged by speakers and Q&A audience members. Could it improve? Sure. Are they listening? Absolutely.
One of the first calls for celebration ahead of 2019’s event is that curator Edwina Throsby has promised this will be the final year All About Women takes place on the same weekend as Mardi Gras. To that, we raise a glittery salute to more inclusive girl power.