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All About Women 20211/3
Photograph: Sydney Opera House/Jacquie Manning
All About Women 20212/3
Photograph: Sydney Opera House/Prudence Upton
Crowds at All About Women 20213/3
Photograph: Sydney Opera House/Prudence Upton

5 takeaways from All About Women 2021

Our most memorable moments from the Sydney Opera House's annual feminist festival

By Alannah Maher and Divya Venkataraman

Should cultural festivals reflect the societal moment we find ourselves in, or act as a player in progressing a conversation forward? At the heart of the discussions that took place at the 2021 edition of the Sydney Opera House’s annual feminist event, All About Women, you could see the treadmarks of the previous year as well as signposts towards the future.

Many of the panellists appeared via video link this year, in a reflection of continuing travel restrictions at home and the ongoing health crisis abroad. In the wake of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter in 2020 and a growing awareness of trans rights in Australia and beyond, the festival's lineup was also more racially representative and gender-diverse than in previous years, with a host of tough topics up for discussion.

With the luck of timing, and some structural and capacity changes, the festival was one of the few local events that didn’t have to skip a 2020 or 2021 edition, or take the fully virtual route (although livestream tickets were available too). Compared to last year (you can read our 2020 takeaways here), there were less opportunities to mingle and fewer activities to engage with between talks, but there was still an sense of community, pods of white-haired ladies unpacking over a coffee or vino, pairs of friends and couples sharing the experience, and a stream of boldly patterned shift dresses and jumpsuits that said “I’m not dressing for the patriarchal gaze”.

Divya Venkataraman and Alannah Maher from the Time Out Sydney team dusted off the biodegradable glitter (well, as much as possible) from Sydney Mardi Gras celebrations the night before, masked up, and made their way down to the Opera House on Sunday, March 7, for a pick and mix of panels and discussions related to modern womanhood. Here are some of their key takeaways.

Koa Bech speaks at All About WomenPhotograph: SOH/Jacquie Manning

Not all women want to be CEOs. Some just want a fair price for meat. 

Through much of history, explained American writer and editor Koa Beck, the mainstream feminist project has blinkered itself by focussing on individual, white, middle-class aspirations. A woman is hailed a hero for rising through the ranks of a multinational; she is taught how to negotiate for even higher pay. Essentially, she learns to further herself within the system – instead of asking how it can be better for everyone. 

In her new book, White Feminism, Beck explores feminism’s modern, self-reflexive form: one which flattens feminism with performativity and bundles activism together with paying for a (trans-exclusionary) t-shirt that proclaims in bubble type that ‘The Future is Female’.  Appearing via videolink, Beck was informed and articulate – even up against questions which took affront with the idea of white feminism itself. With a twinkle in her eye, Beck responded: “If you have a lot of sensitivity about hearing a term such as ‘white feminism’, I would argue that my book is definitely for you.”

Not everyone wants to be a CEO, said Beck. Most women, particularly marginalised women, need basics first: food, shelter, living wages. Parity is important, sure – but are we just voting women onto boards who perpetuate the same systemic disadvantages that a white man could have? Representation matters – but to what end? 

To illustrate her point, Beck drew on important collective movements like consumer activism: for instance, a group of Jewish women in the 1900s protested inflated prices of meat (none of which was going back to workers) and succeeded in boycotting it through collective organising. Because that’s what they needed – reasonable living standards, not power suits and six-figure salaries. While Beck’s specifics are tied to American context where health and social welfare are, of course, more tenuous, the ideas hold true in Australia – as does the stark reality of lower-class women. DV

Chantell Martin, Tilly Lawless and Jules Kim speak at All About WomenPhotograph: SOH/Prudence Upton

Sex work does not exist on a binary of ‘empowering’ or ‘disempowering’

One sight that you might not have seen at a previous iteration of All About Women? Three out sex workers taking up space on an Opera House stage for an honest and open conversation about their work and its intersections with feminism. When one of the panel members, writer Tilly Lawless spoke to Time Out ahead of the event, she said: “I would like for sex workers to no longer be the 'other'. I would like if people could imagine sex workers as a mix of many different people with many different views.” 

The panel picked apart some of the mainstream narratives about why and how people get into the sex work industry, and challenged everyone in the audience to address their own internalised biases. The panel discussed how people broadly make assumptions that there are “empowered” sex workers like Lawless (university-educated, white) while women who are migrants or non-white are likely assumed “disempowered” and need to be “saved”. As Jules Kim, a Korean/Australian sex worker and the CEO of Scarlet Alliance, put it, the conception of rescue often has little to do with the actual needs of the people who are being “helped”. She went on to explain that society’s view of sex work is framed from a priviliged, white perspective, and does not exist on a binary with only two extremes. 

While sex workers are not currently covered by anti-discrimination laws in New South Wales, the state is one of only three jurisdictions in the world where sex work is decriminalised, and is held up as an example of best practice. Although the law reforms are hugely important, Chantell Martin, a transgender woman, former sex worker, and the transgender outreach officer at SWOP, reiterated that “stigma is deeply ingrained. It doesn’t automatically change with changes in law and policy”. It is up to all of us to confront our internalised prejudices and call out whorephobia when we hear it. AM

Flex Mami speaks at All About WomenPhotograph: SOH/Prudence Upton

No-one knows what those little sugar pills are for 

The blue pill, or the red pill… or the white pill? If there’s a pill any more shrouded in general cluelessness than the Pill, we’d like to see it. 

After a rough survey of her Instagram followers, Australia’s prodigious enfant terrible Flex Mami found that misinformation and confusion about the Pill was rife. Often, women find it inconvenient, difficult and have a litany of side-effects – but so many of us still take it. On Sunday evening, the podcaster, modern philosopher and all-round excellent human being took her ever-glowing self to the stage along with comedian Steph Tisdell and ex-Bachie star Abbie Chatfield, to discuss the history of the contraceptive pill for a live recording of her podcast, Flex’s Semi Factual History Lessons

Over the course of a meandering, hilarious conversation spanning whether men could be trusted to take birth control, Abbie Chatfield’s penchant for ‘raw-dogging’, and engineering epigenetics, we learned that there’s no real consensus on what those seven (inactive) sugar pills you find at the end of a packet of most birth control brands in Australia are for. Even Steph Tisdell’s brother, a doctor who was sitting in the audience, didn’t want to tell us. 

Bonus trivia point: did you know the Catholic Church had a meddling hand in engineering the way the pill works? To appease the Vatican, scientists in the late ’50s amended the original format of the pill (a 21-day cycle of active pills, which you would take on repeat) to a 28-day cycle which would mimic a women’s ‘natural’ cycle. It was easier to push through certain distribution approvals if you got the Church on board. Mind? Blown. DV

Kate Crawford speaks with Rae Johnston at All About WomenPhotograph: SOH/Prudence Upton

AI is the touchstone of all the important social and political issues

There was a lot of complex and daunting information to take away about the technology front and the future from How Smart is AI?, author (The Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence) and academic Kate Crawford’s talk hosted by STEM journalist and the host of tech podcast Queens of the Drone Age, Rae Johnston. Like the notion that artificial intelligence is the emerging extractive industry of now, similar to mining in the 18th century. And how this industry, which takes up more resources and has a bigger environmental footprint than we might expect, is kept purposefully opaque. 

One of Crawford’s most interesting points is that AI has the power to further marginalise vulnerable people. AI is being built into our futures, becoming integrated into processes like hiring and systems like policing and prisons; it touches on issues of climate justice, labour rights, data protection, and racial and gender inequality. She said: “If we look at systems for policing and systems that are used for rapid profit making, are they actually deepening inequality? And if so, we need some start asking those bigger questions about power, ultimately. It's about AI and power rather than about trying to tweak technical systems.” 

As Crawford explained, we need to consider the social side of AI – who is in the room when these AI developments are being created, who oversees it, and what seemingly innate biases might become enforced. For example, even the best facial recognition algorithms struggle to identify people of colour’s faces equally, leading to black women being misidentified. At Amazon, an AI recruiting tool was scrapped after it was discovered that it was discriminating against women and people of colour, in short, because it was drawing on the resumes of current employees, a majority of whom were white men, and maintaining that status quo. AM

Caitlin Moran speaks via video link at All About WomenPhotograph: SOH/Prudence Upton

Middle-aged women are the unsung emergency service 

It could have been the fact that it was one of the last talks of the day, or Caitlin Moran’s British sense of humour and her very down to earth style of feminism, but there was something electric in the air at the talk for More Than a Woman, where the author dropped in via video link to talk with Yumi Stynes about her latest book. In her breakthrough 2011 feminist memoir How to Be A Woman Moran frankly covered topics like masturbation, abusive relationships, and abortion. The world is a very different place for feminists in the media than it was when Moran first entered the spotlight, and her awareness of intersectional issues has evolved, as well as her personal life. More Than a Woman is pitched as a feminist guide to middle age, and in her talk, Moran explained that (for her at least) up until middle age your life is about figuring yourself out, and then suddenly, it becomes about everyone else’s problems. 

“I realised the luxury, if you will, that you have when you're younger is that most of the problems that you have are your problems. That’s to do with your identity, your sexuality, working out who you are… Suddenly, all your problems are other people's problems, like your children and your teenage children… it is your ageing parents that you are caring for. You're stuck between your children and your parents, and your friends’ failing marriages,” said Moran.

“Being a middle aged woman, you are the fifth emergency service, and you are the one that is going around and looking after everybody. Care work, looking after people who are in trouble, is still seen as a woman's job. We've got no monetary value in it, and it is absolutely presumed that the middle aged women will hold society together with their bare hands for absolutely no pay at all.” AM

Sisters doing it for themselves...


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