Conservative women have historically been trailblazers, but there are no conservative feminist icons. This should tell you something about who is playing gatekeeper on feminism and how the movement is being used.
A new ABC series presented by Annabel Crabb has become the latest catalyst for this discussion. Ms Represented is billed by the ABC as a “raw and honest account of politics from a female perspective”. The documentary has sparked a debate over what the female perspective is – or, more accurately, whose female perspective is heard.
Women often struggle to be heard in male-dominated environments. Former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop dubs the phenomenon of men appropriating an idea raised first by a woman and claiming it as their own as “gender deafness”.
Edith Cowan, the first woman to be elected to an Australian parliament in 1921, on behalf of the conservative Nationalist Party in Western Australia, most likely experienced something of the sort too. And she might feel that today’s feminists are guilty of a version of this deafness themselves. If gender deafness is not hearing what women have to say until it is said by men, then conservative deafness is not recognising feminism until it is articulated in progressive terms.
Cowan and other conservatives are included in Ms Represented but they are transformed into honorary progressives, as though their politics played no part in their extraordinary achievements. This is particularly galling because so many of feminism’s firsts belong to conservative women. Of the 10 first women in Federal Parliament, eight were conservatives. The first two women to hold cabinet positions were conservatives. As Annabel Crabb notes in her documentary, Nancy Buttfield was the first woman to drink in the Member’s Bar at Parliament House, where the deals were done. She too was a conservative. Conservative women were there first, arguing for female franchise and obtaining it, but if their names are not erased from history, often their politics is, while progressives go on to claim the achievements as their own.
Meanwhile, conservative women feel that feminism has become a tool which progressives twist out of shape and use to bludgeon political rivals. This is the accusation levelled against Ms Represented by conservative MP Nicolle Flint, whose position as outgoing Member for Boothby in South Australia frees her to speak more openly than she previously might have. In a column in The Australian, she charges that Ms Represented “seems more like an excuse to attack the Liberal Party and Liberal men” than a show about women in Australian politics.
It is true that Labor men are not singled out for criticism in the documentary in the way Liberal and National Party men are. It has angered many Liberals that John Howard, the longest-serving prime minister since Menzies, is implied to have somehow wangled his way into Parliament because of his gender rather than on merit. No such charge is levelled against a Labor man. Also, the Liberal Party women who agreed to appear in the series – among them Julia Banks, Amanda Vanstone and Julie Bishop – are critical of conservative Liberal Party men, while the Labor women who participated are not specifically critical of Labor men.
As a result, accusations of bias are again being levelled against the ABC from the conservative side of politics. As I have pointed out before, criticism of the ABC is a sort of conservative bonding ritual, but the accusations are not entirely unfounded.
There is undoubtedly unconscious bias in the construction of a narrative that downplays both the politics of the conservative women who broke ground and the sexism of some Labor men. Then there is also the fact that most of the conservative women who were invited to participate declined. They may have had excellent reasons not to appear, but this reluctance to participate in the discussion on gender has the effect of ceding the airtime to others with less conservative attitudes – you can’t blame the documentary makers for that.
Unfortunately, refusing to participate has allowed an assumption to take hold that feminism can only be done one way: the activist way. This is just wrong. Agree or disagree with their ideas, conservative women continue to make an important contribution to the cause of women’s equality. They insist on presenting themselves foremost as professionals, rather than as women. That might sound like a cop-out, except that in showing up as people they have achieved a raft of feminist firsts.
Indeed, many would argue that leading with their gender would take the cause of feminism backwards, not forwards. As the late journalist and columnist Adele Horin once said to me, after starting her career writing for the women’s section of a paper in Western Australia, it felt regressive when women’s writing got relegated to a special women’s interest section on feminism. Women should be in the main pages and the mainstream. The next step forward for women professionally is not to be remarkable for their gender at all.
That could well mean conservative women and their politics continue to be overlooked by the feminist “movement”. If so, it will tell us more about how myopically feminism is defined than about conservative women. Any feminists worth their salt should want to celebrate the great trailblazers. Regardless, conservative women will continue to be what they have long been: if not feminist icons, then often extraordinary people who change the world.
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