On International Women’s Day and role models

This is a transcript of a talk I gave at the National Portrait Gallery on 8 March 2015, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations. The recording of the talk will be available on Soundcloud soon, and will be added here.

Thank you all for being here today.

I would like to start by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we meet on today, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present.

For those who don’t know me, I am a writer, editor and communications worker. In my day job, I work in communications for YWCA Canberra – a feminist not-for-profit and a pioneering women’s organisation that I am very proud to represent.

I am also the editor of Feminartsy, an online feminist arts and literature journal I founded last year, after spending the previous four years editing Lip Magazine, another feminist mag that I was involved with for over a decade.

Today is International Women’s Day. It’s a day of both happiness and melancholy. On one hand, we celebrate the achievements of women across the world – and the progress that we have made globally for gender equality in some areas. For example, we know that maternal mortality rates are slowly decreasing, as better access to healthcare and education around pregnancy and childbirth is made available in developing countries. In my view, one preventable death from childbirth is too many – but progress is progress, and it should be celebrated.

We have also made global progress in women’s political participation (though that’s clearly not reflected in our own national politics), and there have been some great strides towards gender equality in female primary school enrolment on average across the world. Of course, averages are often misleading, and female enrolment rates drop in secondary and tertiary school levels, but again – some progress should be acknowledged.

But it’s still a day of sadness in many ways – the fact that we even have an International Women’s Day demonstrates that gender equality is not the norm, and that there is still a lot of work to be done.

In particular, the recent events in Canberra involving the death of a young woman at the hands of her former partner have shaken the community, and shown that we must take action now to end violence against women. We should acknowledge that there are women who are unsafe, and unable to live free from violence, even in our community here.

I wanted to make that point because I feel it’s important that we create some balance between celebration and sobriety on this day. I think it’s the kind of day that can be derailed from its true meaning – which is to highlight the ongoing need for society to value and support women to gain access to the same rights and opportunities as men.

On a more positive note, however, I am very honoured to be speaking here today – in one of our nation’s eminent arts institutions, the National Portrait Gallery. The Portrait Gallery does so much to support women artists, and to share their stories to Australian and international audiences – so it feels fitting for me to talk today about those stories, and the impact they have on individuals.

I’m going to talk today about role models. Or at least, the idea we have of role models, and what we interpret a role model to symbolise.

When we talk about gender equality and about empowering women, the word ‘role model’ often comes up. And it comes up in many ways.

We get outraged when a popular young actress is caught drink driving, because she’s meant to be a ‘role model’ for all those girls who ‘look up to’ her, and what will those girls think, and how will this influence their future?

Or, we talk about how great it is that there are solid young role models like Malala Yousafzai out there, to inspire the next generation of change-makers.

In both of these cases, we’re making certain assumptions about how a role model impacts on the people who might look up to them.

For a start, we’re suggesting that young women passively appreciate the attributes of high profile women, and assume a level of connection to them as ‘role models’ without necessarily critically assessing their behaviour.

We also assume that the influence can be both good and bad as a result of this passive engagement – that when a role model is good, their influence will be good, but when they’re bad, their influence will be bad.

And, we assume that the specific attributes of role models are important – their manner, their personalities, how they speak, what they choose to do on the weekend. As if every action they take will be documented by their admirers and somehow replicated.

I see this demonstrated in how often high profile women are expected to comment on topics entirely out of their area of expertise – as if their opinions on absolutely everything reflect their suitability for the position of ‘female role model’.

In fact, an example of this is how often female celebrities are asked if they’re ‘feminists’. For example, Katy Perry – the pop singer – said in an interview ‘I am not a feminist, but I believe in the strength of women’. It’s a statement that personally irks me, but I won’t bore you with that particular diatribe.

Whenever this kind of thing happens, there’s ripples of commentary in feminist circles. We get tired of women distancing themselves from the word feminism – we find it upsetting, and frustrating and misleading – and some of us might be moved to say that Perry is a sub-par role model to young women if she doesn’t identify as a feminist or passionately decry gender inequality.

But Katy Perry’s strengths as a role model lie in her actual talent and skill – as a singer, as a dancer, as a businesswoman. She is not engaged in feminism, and that continues to frustrate me on a different level, but it has nothing to do with her capacity to inspire young women who might want to enter the entertainment industry.

I’m getting to the crux of my argument, and that is this – female role models should not have to be everything to everyone. And, of course, they can’t be.

Growing up in Australia as a migrant, I was always very conscious of the fact that there were very few public figures who looked like me. We don’t give the same sort of high profile and cultural appreciation to culturally and linguistically diverse women in Australia – regardless of their status or achievements in their field – as we do to white Australians. And of course, the situation is much worse when we look at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.

So for years, I struggled to think of women I thought of as role models, because for some reason I felt like the connection was weak unless I could relate to them more closely – unless they looked like me, or we had some shared experiences. I felt like I couldn’t look to female journalists like Ita Buttrose or Anne Summers because I assumed a disconnect – their specific qualities and specific experiences would never be similar to mine, so how could I look up to them? I felt like my admiration was that of a fan, not of someone who saw them as role models.

But when I started researching for this talk, and looking through the Portrait Gallery’s collection, I started thinking about this idea of commonality, or relate-ability.

I had been so focussed on being similar to the women I look up to, that I failed to interrogate why it is that I look up to them in the first place.

And when I thought about it further, I realised that of course, I look up to these women for the things they have achieved, or the commitment they demonstrate to a cause – not necessarily to them as a person.

deborah

Deborah Mailman by Evert Ploeg

I looked at the iconic portrait of Deborah Mailman and realised that despite not being an actress, or a performer, or an aboriginal woman, I think of Deborah Mailman as a role model.

I think of 2001, when Mailman appeared alongside other Indigenous Australian women in Black Chicks Talking, a doco by Leah Purcell, where she spoke candidly about her aboriginal heritage. It must have been challenging to speak so openly about a topic we rarely discuss in this country.

And, as I know from experience, it’s especially hard to talk about your identity, when people will inevitably take that as you speaking on behalf of everyone from your cultural group.

I write a lot about what it’s like to be an Indian-Australian. I have a blog where I discuss issues like casual racism, or explore some of the cultural conundrums that I’ve faced as someone who straddles the gap between two cultures.

Over the past two years, however, I have almost completely stopped blogging about these issues – partly because my family have expressed that they would prefer for me not to blog about our common history. And also, I stopped blogging because whenever I used my blog to point out a time when someone had been casually (and often benevolently) racist to me, other Australians would inevitably tell me that I either misunderstood the incident, or I was being overly sensitive.

Having my experiences as a non-white woman consistently dismissed or denigrated became a burden that I couldn’t stand carrying anymore.

These aren’t easy conversations to have, and they’re definitely not easy topics to bring into the public sphere. I look at my experiences, and have to magnify them by 1,000 to understand what it would be like to be an Indigenous Australian woman, courageously and willingly discussing her experiences and heritage in the face of culture that at best ignores Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and at worst systemically disadvantages and oppresses them.

So to me, Deborah Mailman is a role model in courage and speaking out – in telling the difficult stories because they need to be told. We don’t have a shared history, but her courage makes it easier for the rest of us to tell our stories.

Even more importantly, Mailman creates a space for other Indigenous Australian women to tell their stories, and opens up much needed dialogue.

She’s a role model for all Australians, really, women or not.

I know the importance of someone taking the first step in sharing their story – I know how much power there is in a shared experience.

When I was writing my blog, I used to get emails regularly from Indians in Australia, America, Canada, the UK – even someone from Brazil once. All of them would say the same thing – ‘thank you so much for writing. I didn’t know that anyone went through these things, or felt the same way I do.’

Sometimes they would go further, and tell me in desperation about a cultural issue they were experiencing – strict parents, a secret girlfriend, a change of career that was frowned upon. One time someone told me they found me by googling ‘disappointing your parents’, which was a highpoint.

What this said to me, though, is that isolation is an incredibly disempowering and suffocating feeling. And just knowing that someone else knew how they felt made my fellow Indian-migrants feel more connected, and less alone.

That’s the true power of a role model – to connect people to a feeling of hope.

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Dora Byrne by Richard von Marientreu

I saw this portrait of Dora Byrne online, and I was immediately taken by how elegant she looks here.

When I see portraits like this, I often refuse to seek further context before I dismiss the subject as someone completely disengaged from any commonality with me.

I find it almost alienating, to see an image like this of what I imagine to be a past Australia that was unwelcoming to people like me.

But then I read about Dora, and realised that she was a pretty amazing woman, and that we have some surprising things in common.

For a start, both of us grew up in Albury, NSW. Dora’s family owned a farming property nearby in the early 1900s. I migrated to Albury with my family from Fiji in 1992.

Dora was also a philanthropist – she was one of the founders of the Black and White Committee of the Royal Blind Society of NSW (now Vision Australia).The Committee hosts events and fundraisers that support the Children’s Services Development Fund of Vision Australia. It’s an important cause, and is a key example of how those who have a lot can do some tangible good with it.

Dora was tenacious – she was the mastermind behind the inaugural White Ball (which is now the Black and White Ball) and had a good head for PR, devising a strategy to drum up pre-event support by showcasing the gowns that would be worn on the day in advance.

When I read this, I immediately saw how Dora’s actions have influenced my own career. In my work for YWCA Canberra, community fundraising plays a large part. And Dora’s strategy to engage the public through themes, memes, and events links closely with the strategies we use in our organisation, but that are also considered effective in the community fundraising sphere more generally.

She was a pioneer in philanthropy and fundraising, and she also helped found a culture of giving that we can see reflected in the amount of donations Australians make today.

Dora Byrne did not have the kind of public profile that we expect from women who we designate as ‘role models’ today. Google her now, and you won’t find much.

But her legacy has impacted considerably on the community sector today, and the way that corporates and the wealthy engage in philanthropy. It might not be as sexy as Beyonce claiming feminism at the VMAs, but it definitely has a more tangible and lasting impact.

On the subject of Beyonce, let me just say this. Beyonce is a good example of how we conflate fame with some kind of overarching moral knowledge or superiority (when it suits us of course). Beyonce is a great businesswoman, sure, and she is a talented musician.

What she isn’t, is an authority on gender equality. However, since Beyonce (with the help of her marketing team) rebranded as a feminist icon, we’ve suddenly started to care what she says about gender.

It’s cool that Beyonce cares about feminism, and I’m certainly not saying that there’s some kind of guidelines around who can and can’t be a feminist icon. But let’s just say that when they got Brett Lee the cricketer, to do those ads for Weatbix a while ago, I didn’t suddenly think he was an expert on nutrition.

Anyway. Let’s just leave that to one side.

I guess what I’m getting at so far, in talking about Dora Byrne and Deborah Mailman, is that we are often being positively impacted by the legacy of women who we might not consider personal role models, but who have paved pathways and changed social norms for the better.

Which brings me to gratitude – what do we owe these women who have come before us?

Jessie Street by Jerrold H. Nathan

Jessie Street by Jerrold H. Nathan

I love this portrait of Jessie Street. Jessie was a big part of Australia’s political history, and specifically a key suffragette and feminist activist.

She played a significant role in securing the vote for women in Australia, and also campaigned strongly for the rights of Indigenous Australians. In fact, Jessie was a co-founder of the UN Commission on the Status of Women – the 59th sitting of which is actually happening next week, and my thoughts are with the YWCA Australia delegation that will be there, championing the views of Australian women with the rest of the World YWCA delegates.

Jessie Street is who we mean when we talk about all the women who fought before us so we could enjoy the rights we have today – like the right to vote, to stand for Parliament, and the nominal right to equal pay.

I say nominal because the reality is that with a workforce structured around capitalism and a patriarchal notion of what working looks like, women are unable to participate equally economically, and therefore, we have a gender pay gap that is actually increasing over the past several years.

It’s appalling isn’t it? In fact, there are so many obvious displays of gender inequality in Australia – like the fact that a third of Australian women will experience domestic violence, or that women are still dismally underrepresented in leadership positions – there are so many examples of our culture’s engrained under-valuing of women that it’s pretty hard to believe how many young women don’t identify as feminists.

Now, I can see some of you recoiling a little. I used the F word, and I know it’s not popular to say. But feminism is, simply put, about gender equality, and the emancipation of women from a system that limits our capacity to make individual choices that will achieve the same outcomes as men. It’s really not that controversial.

When I talk to other feminists about how we get more young women involved in the movement, we often end up saying things along the lines of ‘they don’t even get that they wouldn’t have any of the rights they have today if it wasn’t for feminism!’.

In a way, it pains me that women like Jessie Street pioneered women’s leadership in a time when it was unheard of, only to be cast off as an embarrassing and undignified relic by young women today.

Jessie is one of the invisible role models whose footsteps we follow in a ghostly, unaware fashion. She modelled the role of a woman who speaks out, who is heard, and who makes a difference, for the millions of Australian women who have come since her. She gets little recognition for it, but she was a pioneer, and an inspiration.

When we talk about young women shrugging off the importance of women like Jessie, we often use the word ‘grateful’. ‘They should be grateful to feminism,’ I have muttered in my more bitter moments. ‘Where’s the gratitude?’

It’s an uncomfortable topic, isn’t it?

I often feel gratitude as a weight around my neck. As an Indian migrant, I feel like I have double the amount of gratitude to display. If my parents hadn’t studied hard enough to get tertiary educations, and been tenacious enough to move here, my life would be very different right now.

In all likelihood, I would be married with either no tertiary education, or a degree in accounting or something else socially acceptable – not the gender studies and literature degree I have – and I would never have had the opportunities I have had to travel, to meet amazing people, to read wonderful books or to write as much as I have. I wouldn’t be me at all.

I am grateful to my parents for my upbringing, and I’m grateful to them for their decision to move to Australia. But being grateful doesn’t always sit right.

In many ways, the feeling of gratitude implies an unworthiness, or a guilt. I feel guilty for being in Australia all the time – I think of all the women and girls in Fiji and India who don’t have access to the opportunities or financial security and independence that I do, and I feel incredibly guilty.

And hand in hand with guilt comes indignation – I didn’t choose to be the lucky one, I often think. I couldn’t control it.

And I think that’s a similar feeling to what young women feel when confronted with feminism. ‘I didn’t choose to be born after feminism secured these rights for me. I can’t be grateful for something that I’ve always had.’

I think that’s why it can take something really big happening to confront people with the reality of gender inequality.

Julia Gillard by Peter Brew-Bevan

Julia Gillard by Peter Brew-Bevan

I don’t think I could have delivered a talk on International Women’s Day, especially one where I discuss role models, without mentioning Julia Gillard.

And how great is this portrait?

Julia Gillard is an obvious role model. And that’s not to say that she isn’t a good choice. By virtue of being the first female prime minister in Australia, she has modelled numerous skills and qualities that I’m sure many of us aspire to.

But outside of the specifics of her achievements, I see Gillard as a symbolic role model. She’s a symbol of women’s leadership – and of women, one day, being truly accepted as leaders.

And I choose to see Gillard as a symbolic role model more than a personal role model because I find it hard to always agree with her.

It was a Gillard government that moved to off-shore processing of refugees, and put single parents onto Newstart. When I think of these things, I find myself very conflicted.

How can I consider her a role model when many of her actions as PM were in direct conflict with my beliefs?

I used to struggle with this in particular because Gillard detractors used to love pointing out her policy flaws where they contradicted with general left-wing thought, precisely because of the cognitive dissonance it caused.

‘How can you support her when she’s pushing single mums onto the poverty line?’ they would say. ‘She’s not a real feminist icon.’

It would send me into turmoil. I wanted to be able to support Gillard wholeheartedly, without having to say a ‘but’ every time I explained my position on her.

That’s why I’ve come to think of her a symbolic role model. Because regardless of her individual policy decisions, she is a pioneer. She has displayed strength, courage, strategic thinking, a cool head in times of conflict, and a grace and dignity that I hope to one day possess.

My gripes with some of her actions are valid, but does that make her any less of an inspiration in the big picture?

It comes back to this idea of role models being perfect – there is no such thing as the perfect role model precisely because it’s our mistakes and failures that often lead to our biggest successes.

In talking about Julia Gillard, and Jessie Street in particular, I think it’s important to look at how change comes about in terms of gender equality. It doesn’t happen suddenly and in a rush – change is caused by slowly chipping away at each new hurdle and barrier, until the path is a little lighter and little more clear for the next person, and the one after that.

Women like Gillard and Street have in a way fought their way through the swamps of misogyny, gender stereotypes and the patriarchy so that women who come after them won’t have to.

When I think of the kind of role model I would like to be, this is the first thing I think of – I just want to make things a little easier for women who come after me.

My path is perhaps a little different from the mainstream, but very similar to other culturally and linguistically diverse women. The adversity I face often comes from within my cultural group, and the battles I have to fight are often very personal and very difficult as a result.

 

I won’t go into them in too much detail, but being an Indian woman who does things in the public eye like speaking about gender equality, or even just living outside of home before marriage, travelling alone, writing about our culture – these are all things that involve some boundary pushing.

When I was talking earlier about the emails I get from people who read my blog, I didn’t mention how uncomfortable I sometimes feel at the thought of these internet strangers looking to me as a role model.

I often say to my partner, ‘I feel like such a fraud. I’m not someone they should look up to, I’m a total mess. What do I know about anything?’

In fact, on Thursday night when I was awarded ACT Young Woman of the Year, my immediate reaction was to say to my friends and family, ‘I really shouldn’t have gotten this. Other women do way more than me, I feel like a total fake.’

This is a common experience, I’m sure – being looked up to, or being placed into the category of role model is an uncomfortable feeling.

In a way, you become a reflection of other people’s hopes and dreams, a vessel for them to structure their own goals around.

The readers who would contact me through my blog would often seek answers from me – as if I was an oracle who could tell them the ‘right thing to do’. And my response would always be ‘Only you can make the decisions’.

And that’s it, isn’t it – regardless of how great your role models are, you still have to actually live your life and make the right decisions. There is not way of making that easier.

So when I do think about being a role model, I think I want to be able to create spaces where people can share their stories and discover their own strengths. I want to celebrate the diversity in women’s experiences and their contributions, to break down the stereotypes we have of role models having particular qualities, or being somehow perfect.

I want to affirm young women in their own capabilities and their own experiences – we’re all worthy, regardless of how well-known, or well recognised we are.

It being International Women’s Day, I want to take a moment to acknowledge all of the amazing women in my life. My mother, my best friends, my teachers, my mentors, my colleagues, and of course, my role models.

It’s such a privilege to have the influence of so many inspiring women in my life.

Thank you for listening, and thank you to the Portrait Gallery for having me.

Image: Erica Hurrell

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