By Elizabeth Flux
On a recent visit to my parents’ house I found myself looking through a bunch of my school reports from early childhood. I skipped past the praise for mastering simple arithmetic and spelling, noted my teacher’s acknowledgement of my fierce (and possibly too intense) competitiveness when it came to the class reading chart, and shrugged off my mediocre marks for art. Then I got to the Physical Education report. “Elizabeth is making good progress” the teacher had begun “but I grow increasingly concerned at her inability to hop.”
My ears turned red in indignation for my four year old self. How very dare she I thought. What use is hopping in the real world anyway I countered to no one in particular, quashing the words “calculus” and “matrices” as they tried to fight their way to the surface. I’ve never been anything remotely resembling an athlete – my school sporting contributions included “using sports day as an opportunity to get ahead on homework” and “defiantly walking the 400 metre run because I was unfit and resented being forced to participate against my will” – but to see myself be criticised for it in black and white letters cut deep.
Now that I’m an adult and a writer, I don’t get school reports to critique my work and my worth. Instead I get emails from editors, comments on articles and, from time to time, tweets from husbands, furious that I’d suggest something so outrageous as maybe wife-taking-man’s-name shouldn’t be done as a mere default.
We all have an ego, and we all take pride in our work; to have someone either constructively (or, in some cases, maliciously) pick away at the idea that everything we put out into the world is perfect has the potential to really hurt. It’s strange; it’s as though when we receive praise we don’t really believe it; only when someone says something negative do we think we are finally hearing the truth.
As a woman, as a feminist, as a writer and as a (sigh) millennial, criticism is constantly coming at me from all directions. The internet is ever-present: it doesn’t go home at 5pm, it doesn’t take holidays, and so along with this reality comes the potential for criticism anytime, anywhere. If I internalised all of it, I’d essentially become a human shell used only for the purposes of transporting hurtful words from bed to the couch to the fridge and then back to bed.
So, I’ve patched together a way to deal.
- Triage: all criticism is going to sting a little bit at the beginning. Let yourself feel that – but do it privately.
- Don’t respond with emotion: don’t ever send an email or respond when you’re in the initial phase of dealing with feedback because at this point emotion has the upper hand over rationality and will most likely lead you to say or write things that you’ll still be cringing over in eight years’ time.
- Take a step back: enter a mental fortress of solitude where emotion is not allowed, and everything is all very literal and rational and analyse if you have received constructive or non-constructive criticism.
- If it’s constructive: constructive criticism comes from editors or someone pointing out a flaw in your argument or insensitivity in your wording. Take the lesson on board, and see how you might use it to avoid a similar situation in the future.
- If it’s the second malicious or non-constructive criticism: you have two ways to go about it, depending on how Art of War you’re feeling. The first is, simply, nothing. Don’t engage. I have a theory that trolls and bullies are fuelled by the validation they feel when people respond to their angry button mashing; take this away and they sag and wither miserably, like every flower I’ve ever tried to plant ever, no matter how well I follow the instructions.
- Or…the second option is to respond, however I say this with the caveat of having a goal in mind. Don’t respond simply for catharsis or to punish. Respond, constructively. “Goal” is a nebulous term. Your goal could be to discourage them from putting further vitriol out into the world. It could be to try and bring them around to your point of view. Again, if you decide to go down this route, first go back to the Fortress of Solitude and see what works for you.
I remember, at the age of seven, standing in the playground and stopping suddenly and thinking: this is it. I know everything. There is nothing more to learn. I then headed back to class and learned that The Middle Ages existed. Oh and there was at least 9 years left of school to take in. Realising that you can never really reach the end of the rainbow is frustrating. Having someone else point out the ways you can improve just compounds this feeling. But there is no point in allowing criticism to leave you hopping mad – especially if you have an inability to hop.
Elizabeth Flux is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the former editor of Voiceworks.
By Amy Gray
Advance reviews for Rebecca Solnit’s upcoming book ‘Mother of All Questions’ are appearing in the press and, as the writer responsible for the portmanteau ‘mansplain’, many are eager to discover how she feels about her choice to not become a mother.
Remaining childless by choice is considered an almost radical notion. It’s the declaration that the clichéd ‘having it all’ can mean having what you want, not what society expects. Rejecting any expectation of motherhood also forces us to look at gender and realise people and their choices are more than their biology.
But there’s another notion to consider, removed from the media attention surrounding Solnit and her excellent work. It’s almost as radical as the choice to not have children.
It’s recognising that motherhood is also a feminist issue. Not only is it an issue, it’s a huge one.
Having written about the politics and feminism of motherhood for many years, I’ve been struck by the almost determined refusal by many feminists to engage with or elevate the topic.
Perhaps this is due to the current media environment. The demand for fast and cheap journalism relies on freelance writers. This often prices older women out of the market, due to the fact they often have higher costs (i.e. kids) than younger writers that can’t be managed through shared accommodation, parents or part time jobs.
When you have a mostly youthful and childfree group of writers trying to churn out feminist articles as quickly as possible, they will write about their world – a media cycle of popular culture and identity politics. This rarely covers motherhood.
Even niche parenting imprints don’t devote themselves to indepth feminist discussion. When it does appear, it’s softened with first person life lesson stories easily packaged between celebrity mums and lunchboxes. It’s another resistance to explore the visceral politics of motherhood.
This creates a cycle where younger writers drive the main feminist conversations, conversations that do not include motherhood, which makes readers think that motherhood is not a feminist issue. This was seen at the recent Feminist Writers Festival, which received complaints from festivalgoers that too much of their programming covered motherhood.
In the original essay that sparked her book, the Mother of All Questions, examines Solnit childlessness but her piece is really about finding happiness in your life without apology, happiness away from society’s demands and in tune with personal desire and trauma. It’s a worthy topic yet the use of motherhood as a Trojan horse for the discussion scatters casual assumptions about it as a topic.
The throwaway conclusions are like a broken clock: they’re right twice a day, thoroughly misleading for the rest. A case in point is the choice of books over babies in reference to herself and Virginia Woolf. It’s a common cry that one cannot make both art and babies because both require devoted labour. While this works as a personal choice, it fails to answer the real question: why is motherhood so onerous it’s an either/or choice?
She tells her readers at the end “There are many questions in life worth asking, but perhaps if we’re wise we can understand that not every question needs an answer”. But, this approach only works when you have enough privilege to avoid answering.
And there’s reason to resist answering the complexity of motherhood and giving it greater feminist focus in mainstream media, despite one reviewer describing it as a “ a subject that’s been written about to death in the feminist blogosphere”. Motherhood is not simply biology-meets-apologies-for-the-“mummy spam”-on-Facebook (sidenote: please stop apologising for taking up public space as a mother) and becoming a mother isn’t a signal you’re a privileged woman who no longer cares about life or the struggle towards personal fulfilment and equality.
If women feel the only way to make art is to avoid motherhood, we need to question why motherhood is such a burdensome bore unworthy of feminist discussion: motherhood is where sexism, stereotypes and internal sexism swirl into a poisoned chalice.
Motherhood doesn’t only usher in a baby: it often pits women against expanded financial, physical and emotional abuse in the home. It comes burdened with social pressure and dismissal, with expectations of how women must submit to the cares and advancement of others instead of their own. A woman faces heightened discrimination at work the minute she reveals she’s pregnant, risks being made redundant while on maternity leave and comes back to either reduced work or a complete block to her career or financial advancement while her superannuation suffers. And this doesn’t even take into account the financial and logistical pressures automatically delegated to her in order to find suitable childcare.
This is where we see the unexamined reaction against motherhood – women dismiss it as a feminist issue not because it is boring or irrelevant but because it is so overwhelming.
I’m not justifying motherhood, nor am I trying to win new converts – an ever exploding world population handles that. I don’t want to question women: I want to question motherhood, a form of feminine labour and exploitation as old as the world itself.
If that doesn’t make it a public question worth answering, what the hell is?
By Amy Gray
2016 was so tumultuous that we almost looked forward to 2017, despite it promising more of the same. 2017 certainly delivered on that promise, becoming a neck-snapping whiplash of woe, raising the stakes and stress levels in just two months.
Thankfully, for every action, there is a reaction and the world won’t disappoint, with massive protest movements, media awareness and activist responses. But it’s going to take a lot of energy to cope with the news, let alone our response as we live in an increasingly aggressive and scary world.
That’s where self-care comes in. We naturally know how to look after our body but often don’t, as well as neglecting other aspects, like our emotional wellbeing in the face of stress, discrimination and information overload.
Self-care is an explicitly feminist act, too, in a world that actively ignores women’s needs. The notion of feminine sacrifice is mythologised: the mother who tends to everyone else’s needs except her own, asking nothing in return for her work. Or black women who endure discrimination while expected to educate others. It’s almost as if conditioning women to ignore their needs is the perfect con – its easier to oppress a group if they’ve never been taught to realise they are important.
Audre Lorde, civil rights and feminist icon, knew the importance of self-care, saying “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.
Not only is self care going to get you through 2017, it’s going to let everyone know you will not take a back seat in the world.
Self-care may sound soft and fuzzy but can be hard to do – lack of time and money can make it hard to find the time and ability to care for yourself. Make do the best you can: find the cheapest healthy food you can source, find free and safe areas for exercise, encourage others to care for themselves and develop the awareness that your mental and physical health is your first priority.
But what does good-self care look like?
The first step is knowing what you need and making you the first priority in your life.
For women who have been trained to look after everyone but themselves, the ability to listen to your mind and body can be a challenge to develop but is crucial.
- Rest when your body feels fatigued instead of exhausted,
- Eat healthily when you’re hungry instead of starving, and
- Look after yourself daily instead of waiting until you’re overwhelmed.
Knowing what you need will help you realise we have different ways of meeting those needs, and different challenges in making that happen.
Feed your body
Self-care doesn’t get more basic than treating your body well.
- Eat regularly, sneak in plants, buy as many good ingredients your budget will allow, try new foods and hustle in a treat every now and then.
- Exercise according to your body’s ability and needs – a little every day (especially as you go about your business) can do wonders.
- Get as many hours of sleep as your body and schedule needs.
- Talk with your doctor about your health and make Medicare work for you, including getting a health care card if you qualify.
- Take sick leave! It’s one of the few times “entitlement” sounds good.
- Drink water
- Your body and mind do amazing things so make sure you love them
Rest your mind
In an age of information overload, 2017 is already overwhelming whether it’s everyday life or everyday politics.
Give yourself a time limit when it comes to news and social media to minimise stress. Filter the accounts and replies you see, turn off notifications on your phone and remember social media is a optional conversation, not an obliged performance.
When you feel stressed, take a step back and let your mind rest in quiet or reach out to a friend or medical professional.
Get your affairs in order
As boring as it sounds, yes, taking care of life admin is an act of self-care. That ignored homework or approaching deadline, that bill or tax return are sources for potential stress.
While it’s natural to want to avoid these tasks, the more we avoid the more we bring additional stress into our lives, which can affect our mental and physical health. It’s often spectacularly useless stress too, like avoiding making a difficult phone call only to realise how stress-free the actual conversation could be.
So yes, it may not be the most glamorous of advice but getting your affairs in order on a daily basis will bring you relief and improve your health. Plus, you’ll get stuff done – it’s a win-win.
Give it a break
This is where we get to the fun stuff – do what you love. Nothing refuels us like spending time with the people and hobbies we love. Find beauty in what you watch or read and express yourself free from social obligation.
Maintain your boundaries in relationships with others and the world.
There’s a pressure to be available for everyone – friends, workers, children and random damn strangers on the street – but just because there is pressure doesn’t mean it’s a real need. You’re obliged to look after yourself so you can continue to live and thrive.
While you may feel guilt about this, remember you take up as much space as the next person and need to look after yourself. Once you realise that, things become clearer: you don’t need to justify why you’re not constantly available, start every conversation with an apology or even broadcast it in advance. Just be yourself and look after yourself – that it has to be said shows how important it truly is.
This is why Audre Lorde maintains self care is an act of political warfare: because women looking after themselves is truly radical.
So look after yourself first and then enter the fray as we take on 2017.
Amy Gray interviews Ruby Hamad
Ruby Hamad is QVWC’s keynote speaker for International Women’s Day. A prolific writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and SBS, she often appears on the Drum to give nuance and intelligence to the daily news.
Her intelligent writing offers an education into systems of oppression happening locally and abroad, from the food we eat, things we buy and races persecuted for their nationality and religion.
One thing is clear: Ruby will challenge current notions about feminism, our obligations and what true change could look like in her upcoming speech “Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and the Global South: When Feminism and Neoliberalism Collide”.
AG: You weren’t a fan of a recent H&M advertisment lauded for being ‘diverse’ while people ignored its history of exploiting women workers. Do you think people are being sold an empty feminism?
Ruby Hamad: Yes. Empowerment is about liberation and empowering you to take control but I think the way we sell empowerment is about making you feel good about what you’ve already chosen. That’s not liberation – the idea of liberation is to be free from that.
AG: Yet instead of liberation we’re assuming a simple battle between good or bad choices, or heroes and villains. Isn’t that dangerous?
RH: The problem with that is we don’t really interrogate or examine our choices. In fact, we’ve got feminism to the point where there are no bad choices anymore, whatever you do is [considered] a good choice.
We’ve taken choice from the feminist concept of abortion and the right to control your body and broadened choice to mean that anything you do or choose is feminism. That’s not the case, because those choices have consequences, not necessarily for us but for other people.
So if we’re choosing H&M clothing (or most clothes these days) we are directly perpetuating the exploitation of other women and people in sweatshops making those clothes. We’re still choosing the oppression of women in other parts of the world that we don’t see every day.
AG: it’s not just about we’re too obsessed with choice, it’s about interrogating our choices not just for ourselves but others and examining the impact of them.
RH: Yes! What I’ve seen is when you bring up sweatshops and people get quite upset, like ‘well, you’re now shaming women who don’t have the money to buy (non-sweatshop clothes), it’s not their fault what companies do in Bangladesh and in India’.
That’s where we’ve really dropped the ball because drawing attention to these practices does not mean we are shaming individual people for making that choice.
That goes for people across the board for anything. If we’re talking about why women are changing their names after marriage, each critique of society is taken as a rebuke against every single individual and it’s not. We can still say women have the right to get married but that doesn’t mean you can’t look at the history of marriage as a patriarchal institution.
AG: How does this tie in with that superficial view of feminism that wants the easy win (like an H&M ad) rather than ongoing work and critique?
RH: It’s a shallow victory; it’s representation over structural change. Representation is important and should reflect a challenge to exploitation but, at the moment, it just gets thrown up as a substitute.
[The H&M ad] is an advertisement; it’s not going to translate into more women in parliament or meaningful change. It should reflect changes across the board rather than a token that’s meant to keep us happy but not seek change.
AG: Is the problem that feminism is increasingly seen as an identity instead of an act of resistance against oppression?
RH: Yes, and I think this is the tension. Identity is important, identity politics are important but what we really have is that we’ve bought too much into the individual.
When we talk about systemic oppression that affects the individual – it affects us all as individuals – however, it is not aimed at individuals, it is aimed at groups.
Women’s oppression is aimed at all women. I don’t think that you really can address systemic oppression at an individual level because then you have to address every individual in every single conversation and every single issue and that’s impossible.
I don’t have children and I never will, so I’m not going to be affected by attitudes to breastfeeding in public or the impact of getting pregnant will have on my career and relationships, but these are still feminist issues. But I don’t feel the need to be included in that because it doesn’t affect me as a person but it does affect me as a part of this group called women
Ruby’s keynote speech continues QVWC’s tradition of women challenging the status quo and moving feminism ahead with blistering intelligence. Last year’s keynote speaker Celeste Liddle made international news with her talk on feminism and Indigenous Australia and this year will be just as substantial and spectacular.
Book tickets to Ruby Hamad’s keynote International Women’s Day speech online: https://www.trybooking.com/book/event?eid=257214.
By Karen Woulfe
There’s been a lot of talk during the US Election about Americans potentially voting in their first female President Hillary Rodham Clinton (and avoiding certain apocalypse).
Similar excitement was shown (though more sedately) in Australia when Julia Gillard became the country’s first female Prime Minister. In the resulting fracas, Gillard’s leadership lasted three years under a constant barrage of challenges and sexist abuse from the coalition.
I’ve always found it a bit strange, particularly regarding this US Election, that a female candidate was such a big deal and unprecedented in countries that consider themselves ‘civilised’ and ‘modern’. Because, despite all of their alleged advances, the West is a bit behind when it comes to electing female leaders.
This was evident during a game of Trivial Pursuit with friends in Melbourne. When asked ‘which country had the first female Prime Minister?’ the only responses were, New Zealand and the UK. It seemed to me my friends were completely unaware on half the world’s female political leaders.
Might the West need to look further East?
Because here’s the answer to that Trivial Pursuit question, which I frustratingly knew but couldn’t answer: Sri Lanka. The country of my parents’ birth.
Way back on 21 July 1960, Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike, a 43-year old, widowed (her husband, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, then Prime Minister, had been assassinated the year before, by a Buddhist monk) mother of 3, became Sri Lanka’s and, the world’s, first female Prime Minister.
At the time of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s election, Hillary Diane Rodham would have been a child of just 12 years old. Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, hadn’t even been born yet.
But Sri Lanka had the world’s first female Prime Minister.
I began writing this during America’s election day, and by now we know that the country self-proclaimed as ‘Leader of the Free World’ is still unable to elect a female head-of-state, choosing instead an inconsistent, inexperienced, racist, misogynist reality TV star.
No such issue in Sri Lanka (Third World, eh?). Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike served her first term as Prime Minister until she lost elections at the end of 1964.
During her first term, she implemented a socialist agenda, bringing many sectors of the economy back under public control including banking, insurance, Catholic Church-owned schools and, oil companies. Though these actions ruffled a few foreign superpowers’ feathers (US & UK), she was expert at foreign relations, moving the country closer to agreements with India, China and the then Soviet Union.
This was just the beginning. In 1970, as leader of the United Front Coalition - a coalition consisting of the party founded by her late husband, the SLFP (Sri Lanka Freedom Party), the Marxist LSSP (Lanka Sama Samaja Party or, in English, Lanka Equal Society Party), and the Communists – she was again elected as Prime Minister with a large majority.
In 1972, Ceylon became Independent from the British (still not there, eh, Australia?) and was renamed ‘Sri Lanka’, allowing Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike to again create history, instituting a new Constitution for the now Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
While many of you may have heard Michelle Obama’s inspiring speeches in support of Hillary Clinton, thanking her for allowing the Obamas two young daughters (as well as any girl in the U.S.A.) to believe that they could one day become the American President, the US didn’t deliver on that future.
However, Sri Lanka’s first female Prime Minister delivered when her own daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga, usurped her mother’s position to become Prime Minister and, subsequently President in 1994. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was able to regain her position as Prime Minister but she was now subordinate to her own daughter – how’s that for leading by example?
So, do not despair feminists of the world. Although the US and Australia have not been particularly supportive of females in the top job, you might simply look to the Global South to see that, girls can and, in fact, do run the world.
Karen Woulfe is a Melbourne-based writer.
By Amy Gray
Our digital age is one of instant connectivity – but it comes with some issues.
One issue is time zones, which don’t exist online. This realisation arrives at 4am as my phone beeps, a friend in Dublin is messaging me because she just has to discuss Charlotte Wood’s “The Natural Way of Things” with someone. The book was so big and the conclusion so confusing to her that discussing the story with someone is the only way she’ll understand its themes.
The other issue you face with instant connectivity is the thoughtless add, like getting being added by friends to Facebook groups without consultation. It’s like to being dragged into a conversation without notice – someone adds you to a secret group on the social network to discuss some topic. I always end up lingering for a while, a churn of awkwardness: why am I here and how I can leave without making a scene?
I had the same uneasy response when someone added me to “Pantsuit Nation”.
Started as a secret Facebook group for people to show their support on election day for Hillary Clinton, the first rush of posts were jubilant. Women and children wearing pantsuits or tshirts emblazoned with HRC’s logo. They were certain her ascension was inevitable.
Until it wasn’t.
Palpable grief rolled through the group, which now has close to 4 million members. Overwhelming sadness and fear were the biggest themes, as people shared their shock.
The collective mourning was at odds with opinion editorials that angrily pointed fingers at a revolving single reason Clinton failed. It was the Black vote! No, it was Latinos! No, men! No, white women!
The group doesn’t focus on larger blame. They’re micro instead of macro, sharing stories of their scared children, ugly racist confrontations and interventions, and symbolic moments. At least one marriage has literally broken down with the reveal of a Trump voter.
Social media makes it easy to share our stories, especially in groups like Pantsuit Nation. We push stories out all the time with ourselves as the main character without considering what we’ve truly revealed. We might focus on stories presenting ourselves as a good parent, a good friend, a good ally or just a damn relatable person. When we write and edit our own stories, we build in all sorts of pretty filters to present us in our best light – like the people trying to show they are very concerned ally in Trump’s America.
These were the stories I initially read on Pantsuit Nation. A collective chest puffing of white Americans: white women sharing their ‘hero’ moments saving a woman of colour, men affirming they’re not like ‘those’ sexist men. The stories rang false, an unconscious rationalisation they were not to blame for Trump.
Reading further, however, showed different voices. People abused while shopping for food, waiting for medication for their kids or being told by scared family to hide any sign of dissent from a rising monoculture. Theirs is a genuine terror as they consider their safety within Trump’s America, which is just as fractured as before but emboldened by a jaunty red cap.
Feminists in the 70s knew the power of stories – women would gather to discuss their lives, their stories showing how they were oppressed. Others would listen, acknowledge their pain and help find a way to fight back.
While there is power in sharing a story, there is even more in listening to a story. Stories build empathy and awareness, the realisation that our lives are not always the default. Truly listening can broaden our view and give nuance to blunt understanding.
No matter our technology, we still need stories to show our fears and joys, stories that explain the world and make us feel less alone.
Stories are not gentle artifacts of a noble Left, they are political and can be savage. In an age where lies have been re-badged as “post-truth” or “not literal”, stories can be used to incite fear and aggression. They can literally take you to the presidency.
This is where the challenge lies. A story may move the reader, but it will do little but collect dust if it cannot alter them, compelling them to broader understanding and action.
Stories demand skills from their audience. People might assume basic literacy is required, but technology’s twists and turns requires greater literacy in critical thinking and media.
My friend couldn’t understand the ending of “The Natural Way of Things” because it didn’t directly reflect her experience. Placing the story within an Irish context, I pointed out author Charlotte Wood was brutally inspired by testimony of girls abused in institutions, comparing it to Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries. The ember grew. I asked my friend how many happy endings are available to women living under misogyny. She understood.
Perhaps then, it’s fitting stories are part of the fight against fascism, cruelty and oppression.
Pantsuit Nation is by invite only, so you’ll have to wait for a friend to drag you in.