Feminism and diversity at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival

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This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival included the Feminist Writers Festival in its program. The theme of the festival was ‘Place, identity and belonging’, and feminism shared the stage with a diverse range of topics including sexual identity, immigration, and multiculturalism. I decided to go along to see ‘Feminism: Then and Now’, a discussion of past and present feminism from the viewpoints of two Australian feminists, pioneering activist Anne Summers and young-gun, Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

Having briefly met Summers as a festival volunteer, I had enjoyed her sharp wit and no-nonsense banter.  Summers first came to public attention with the 1975 book, Damned Whores, and Gods Police, which has recently been reprinted. Blonde-haired and blue-eyed she was born into a strict Catholic family in the country town Deniliquin. Summers was very much a symbol of her time. She marched in protest against the Vietnam War, was at the forefront of the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and went on to form the Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) in Australia. She influenced a generation of women and advocated for women’s rights in the era of fellow Australian feminist trailblazer Germaine Greer. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, Summers worked as a journalist and served as a politic advisor in the Prime Minister’s office. In 1989 she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for her services to journalism and to women. Now aged in her early seventies, Summers is still in demand as a speaker and commentator.

At only 25-year-old, Yassmin Abdel-Magied is already an influential voice of young Australian women. A Muslim Australian, she proudly wears her hajib and candidly discusses her experiences as a Muslim migrant and feminist. Born to Sudanese and Egyptian parents, her family immigrated to Brisbane when she was a child. As a teen she started the group, Youth without Borders, to advocate for Australian youth. A qualified mechanical engineer, she was on break from her regular job on an off-shore oil rig. The video of Abdel-Magied’s TEDx talk, What does my headscarf mean to you? , went viral with over one and a half million views. Following on from the success of her talk she published her first book, Who Do You Think I Am? A precocious embodiment of diversity, Abdel-Magied represents the face of new age feminism.

Summers and Abdel-Magied are women with big, bold personalities. Thankfully, they also shared a fantastic camaraderie, bouncing off each other’s ideas with insightful reflections and humour. Summers spoke of her experiences as a political advisor, and how good work can be reversed at the whim of a political party. It was eye opening to hear of how her years of women’s advocacy work was unraveled almost overnight when former Prime Minister, John Howard came into office. Summers to this day has not forgiven him for his actions.

However, diversity and inclusion in feminism were prevailing topics of discussion. Abdel-Magied discussed the issue of intersectionality, the varying factors that affect a woman at the same time such as race, low income, religion and sexual identity. And she spoke of her struggle being perceived as both a Muslim and a feminist. Overall, there seemed to be a general enthusiasm between both speakers to share and learn from their respective experiences.

It wasn’t long before the issue of ‘white feminism’ was brought up by an audience member. According to UCLA’s Femme Magazine, white feminism describes the belief system of privileged straight, white middle-class women who fail to recognise intersectionality.  I had begun to wonder if the issue of white feminism was building strength in Australia, and was interested to see where Summers and Abdel-Magied stood on the issue. In her response, Abdel-Magied stated that she didn’t subscribe to white feminism because it was divisive. Summers seemed too indignant to give a full response. Admittedly, I felt a sense of relief from their replies. The white feminism moniker proliferates feminist media in the United States, especially in the social media realm. There are various blogs and articles written about the matter and informational videos explaining why all women should know about white feminism. One blogger developed a Venn diagram to demonstrate the varying degrees of white feminism. Apparently, you don’t have to be white or female to be a white feminist, you just have to think like one. As a woman of Maori heritage, racism and classism are issues that affect my experiences as a woman. However, as I waded through the various arguments, I couldn’t help but feel that this was an issue tied up in the deeply entrenched racial and social problems of the United States. The name itself, white feminism, implies that all white women subscribe to a privileged mindset, but in an age where the world functions on a global level, privilege has many forms.

A backlash against traditional feminism also appears to be a trend among new age feminists. Gloria Steinem was recently heavily criticised for being a white feminist, because of her perceived failure to fully acknowledge intersectional issues, in particular, race and transgender issues, affecting women. Like Summers, Steinem, also a journalist, was a pioneering feminist activist of her era who demonstrated against the Vietnam War. She was also heavily involved in the American civil rights movement. There’s a feeling of preciousness when new age feminists argue that Steinem, Summers, and feminists of their generation are no longer relevant to the cause, considering many of the privileges and freedom of choice women have today, are a direct result of the activism of our feminist pioneers.

Summers and Yassmin Abdel-Magied, represented two feminists from different backgrounds, experiences, and generations who were able to discuss and share their experiences with open minds. If similar discussions are able to get started among our richly diverse feminist community, perhaps feminism will be able to evolve into a new and inclusive identity, where everyone feels they belong.

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