On Feminism, Intelligent Mothers and Exemplary Elocution

When I was in my early twenties, a man I didn’t know very well told me I was only a feminist because I had nothing else to complain about.  At the time, I was enraged by his reductive assessment of my complex, multi-faceted, deeply privileged self.  How could he tell I wasn’t poor?  Physically brutalised?  Sexually violated?  In an abusive relationship?  Mentally ill?  Disabled?  Sad?  Angry?  Lonely?  He took one look at my shiny Anglo hair and listened for one minute to my nicely-elocuted speech and decided I was some uppity private school girl who’d had female emancipation indoctrinated into her by an expensive education and an intelligent mother.  Well, yep, he got that much right.  I even read A Room of One’s Own when I was eleven, and precociously decided it had changed my life.  But, but, but.  I knew truckloads of uppity private school girls who had not a feminist bone in their nicely coiffed, nicely clothed, well-washed bodies.  And that was the essence of my offence.  That in making his generalised, dismissive comment about me, he didn’t take into account that I’d made a choice, that I noticed things, that I had a compassionate imagination, damn it.

My mother left school when she was fourteen years old.  She was, by all accounts (including her own, it must be said), the smartest kid in the class.  She skipped a grade as a little girl and liked doing geeky things like playing libraries and asking too many questions.  Her father was an alcoholic WWII veteran and her mother had bouts of mental illness, and she needed to support the family.  Her younger sister was younger, so she escaped that particular pressure at that particular time.  They lived in regional areas or outlying parts of Melbourne.  There was a lot of violence and a lot of moving around. There were a lot of other relatives, a lot of whom were also alcoholics and/or mentally ill.  There was the occasional kind nun, intense female friendship or cute local boy who provided the hope.  But for a sensitive girl with aspirations to live an interesting life, it was a difficult upbringing.  Suffice to say, she got out.  And partly because she had full time jobs as a teenager, an excuse to leave the household every day: an opportunity to meet different kinds of people and to impress some of them.  I have always been able to well imagine the men clamouring around her, how the nubile working-class girl with the innate elegance must have delighted the well-educated, middle-class men she worked for, how they must have fancied the idea of showing her the world (what they considered to be the world, of course, not realising for a moment that there was also a great deal she could’ve shown them).  I loved hearing about the ways my mum managed to juggle all these blokes.  The one who played the piano at the local dance.  The one who chased her for months whose name she couldn’t even remember anymore.  The posh, depressed one. The worldly one who preferred more worldly women.  The arsehole who fancied himself more than any girl.  The boss who liked her no-bullshit attitude.  My dad.

My dad ‘secured her’ after just five weeks, with a drunken rendition of a Beatles song forming part of his proposal.  He saw that she could be anything; no matter what happened, she would adapt and survive. She wanted her own family, she wanted to break a cycle, and she was determined not to marry another violent alcoholic.  Accepting my dad’s proposal was the acceptance of a decent, kind man who would become, she was sure of it, a decent, kind father.  She was right.   They both were.  And they’ve both grown exponentially since they were married.  She began a university course when I was three years old, almost twenty years after she’d been forced to leave school.  She got into her course with a short essay on George Eliot, a very unfashionable choice at the time, but one, to me, that reeks of a bookish womanhood that makes me want to cheer.  I will never forget her graduation ceremony when I was nine years old.  I will never forget watching her receive her degree in her academic regalia.  I will never forget hearing Roberta Sykes make the speech.

So when some bastard – that would’ve been my mum’s assessment of the guy who declared my feminism my only possible victimhood – implied I had no idea about struggle or class or disadvantage, I was pissed off. Many, many  things have happened to me, and happened around me, some by the time of that conversation, and some since. It’s not my fault (boo hoo) that my parents chose to send me to a private secondary school (a type of place neither had experienced themselves) where I just happened to spend many hours doing, among a smorgasbord of exemplary extra-curricular activities, years of prissy Voice & Speech classes that ensured my articulate presentation skills and well-rounded vowels (and, it must be noted, access to an array of poetry).

That one fact doesn’t negate every other human variable in the formation of a political identity. Sure, it might make you an entitled prick with an unimpeachable belief in meritocracy.  Or it might make you a lazy, apathetic wanker.  Or it might make you a boring, superficial princess.  Or it might not.  You might be Voice & Speeched to the eyeballs and still be an open-minded, rabidly left-wing, socialist-at-heart, feminist.

I am a feminist because the fact of my womanhood has dictated my life choices; it is not incidental.  I am a feminist because I am under no illusions that an education ensures sexual equality (although it certainly does help a bit).  I am a feminist because I have been misjudged and dismissed constantly because of my appearance in a way that men are not. I am a feminist because I believe women and men of every kind, in every place, should be respected and valued for all aspects of themselves, not just the bits that conform helpfully to gender stereotypes.  I am a feminist because the experience of men, and the recounting of that experience, is still considered the universal experience, while the experiences of women are womanly, feminine, other. I am a feminist because it makes complete sense to me.

And I am a feminist because I was indoctrinated by my intelligent mother.  Who could have been a victim and is not.  Too bloody right.

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