‘You know, I reckon you would have been a suffragette,’ my colleague tells me over lunch.
I beam. I commit the compliment to memory and revisit it with regularity over the next week.
A couple of years ago, despite the good natured tone my workmate used, I wouldn’t have considered it a compliment. I would have seen it as a reprimand, a gentle warning that I wasn’t acting in a professional manner.
I used to hide my politics at work. I would carefully curate my lunchtime conversations so not to offend anyone. It felt easier, even sensible, to stick to topics of little consequence. Ironically, work was my catalyst to becoming a feminist.
When I graduated university, I entered the healthcare sector, an industry that reflects the extreme gender segregation of Australia’s workforce. It would be years before I would learn from a Senate Inquiry that six out of ten Australian employees work in an industry that is dominated by one gender. But back when I started in my first professional role, wearing pants with pressed pleats and freshly polished shoes, it was immediately apparent to me that the concept of men’s and women’s work still existed. And frankly, it was thriving. Caring duties were carried out by women, whereas upper management consisted of predominantly men.
Up until that point I had felt like I had experienced equal, if not endless, opportunities. I had attended a co-ed school. My female classmates were fiercely intelligent. They spoke up with well-founded and articulate arguments in every subject. They held their own in debates and on the sporting fields. Hard work was rewarded regardless of gender. But this was a self-contained environment. When I moved into the world of work, I was repeatedly spoken over. Patients would defer to the man in the room, regardless of his level of training.
I was beginning to realise that I had been guided by a narrow compass of experience. A series of small but significant instances allowed me to realise, without a shadow of a doubt, that we live in a world constructed from sexist ideology. This was a slow process and one which I resisted. I tried to change myself. I was sure that if I just worked hard enough I could circumnavigate sexism.
I didn’t call myself a feminist until I was well into my mid-twenties. Comfort with associating myself with the ‘F’ word only came when I read the work of others. Here, I learned that my thoughts, feelings and experiences were in no way unique. With 50% of the population tirelessly trying to fix themselves in order to fit in, it was obvious that something was not working. I was confident that Australia’s social and economic policies only served to perpetuate inequality.
Despite this newfound certainty, I still didn’t publicly label myself a feminist. I continued to appease others with noncommittal conversation. Though only now it wasn’t because I was concerned that it would offend my colleagues, I was actually nervous there would be another feminist present – I was terrified of “doing feminism wrong”.
I was acutely aware that I didn’t have all the facts. I was slowly unlearning the violently edited version of history that was taught in my school syllabus. I was beginning to understand that feminism has a deep and complex history. I didn’t want to do a disservice to feminism by not being prepared to dismantle any sexist situation with an array of statistics and well-timed wit. So I stayed quiet. I thought that once I’d read all the feminist texts, I’d find my feminist voice. Years passed. I read the work of feminists from across a wide time span and still, I stayed quiet.
It has only been in the past twelve months that I have become a more vocal feminist. This past year I have become willing to put my thoughts and feelings on the record. This is in large part is thanks to Feminartsy. I was fortunate enough to be given a writer-in-residence fellowship. This provided me with an opportunity to write one article each month about feminism – an exceptionally broad assignment. The thought of fulfilling that obligation was initially overwhelming. I could barely articulate a feminist argument in person let alone formulate one for the page. I had sent the application off, certain that I wouldn’t get the fellowship. That night I wrote a diary entry. I neatly dot pointed my apprehensions. I also wrote down why I wanted it – I was hoping that this would be my chance to finally wrap my head around feminism. I would finally finish reading all of the feminist texts. After all, I didn’t want to humiliate myself.
When I found out that I got the fellowship I immediately started researching. I spent hours reading policy papers from both Australia and abroad, UN conventions, independent economic analysis and scientific research. I carried an incorruptible fear of doing feminism incorrectly. Then I had my first deadline. Suddenly, I had to transition from thinking to typing.
The American novelist and non-fiction writer Anne Lamott once wrote: ‘Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here’.
I realised I had to stop aiming for perfection. I met my first deadline and then the next and the next. Writing and rewriting has helped me find my feminist voice. Stringing together my thoughts into sentences has given shape to my feelings. With the guidance of the journal’s editors, I was gently encouraged to dive deeper and find the purpose of each piece.
I started to realise that I had considered feminism to be in a fixed state. But it isn’t and should never be static. Feminism is a dynamic response to institutionalised sexism. It needs to be as much about looking outwards as it is about looking inwards. You can’t do feminism alone. For true equality, no one must be left behind. This collaboration is essential to the success of feminism. Now, instead of being afraid of being found out that I don’t know everything about feminism, I take that as a good if not essential place to be. Acknowledging that you don’t and won’t ever know everything ensures that you keep listening to different voices and perspectives.
So each month I continued to dive deep into research, only now I am driven by an insatiable curiosity. I am flabbergasted by the influence the patriarchy has on society. Everything from how we design our kitchens to how we use the internet, elevates men at the expense of women. I learned about the history of sports bras and art. My thoughts on the page transpired into action, from performing small acts of defiance to deciding what to wear.
Even though my fellowship has come to an end, my journey as a feminist continues unabated.
Fiona Murphy is a writer, editor and broadcaster. She’s one of the creators of the podcast Literary Canon Ball, a book club celebrating under-represented writers. You can also catch Fiona reading the weekend news on Vision Australia Radio. This year she’s stepping outside her comfort zone and is developing a comedy routine with the support of Comedy Lab — an initiative set up by Women with Disabilities Victoria, the University of Melbourne and the Victorian College of the Arts. Fiona is currently working on a historical novel about animals big and small.