Rearranging the Furniture

One of many reasons I love the global Women’s Movement is that we Americans—citizens of the so-called indispensable country—can learn so much from it.

Just a day or so ago I read about an interesting new problem facing women in Australia, specifically in the Australian state of Queensland, known for its conservatism. Feminists in Queensland have tried and failed for decades to do away with an 1899 criminal code that makes having an abortion punishable with prison time, and yet another attempt is being made this week. But the situation has changed. The Queensland Parliament has an impressive level of female representation: the premier (head of government) is a woman: Annastacia Palaszczuk of the Labour Party, the first woman in Australia to be elected to two terms. Her deputy is a woman, and so is half of her cabinet. In another first, a woman, Deb Frecklington, also leads the opposition, the Liberal National Party. Although Australia nationally still has a male political culture, state and territory legislatures have moved along toward gender equity. Tasmania’s government became one of the first with a majority female cabinet. Victoria’s Parliament is nearly 40 percent women. But the Queensland test is a first, where pro-choice advocates must deal with female leaders on both sides of abortion policy.

The discourse seems more civilized, however, than what we endure in the United States. For example, the opposition leader has stated that while she is not personally in favor of overthrowing the ban on abortion, she will allow her members to vote without party discipline, as a matter of conscience. It’s difficult to imagine one of the hard right’s token women taking such a position if she held power here. Furthermore, the law as it stands is rarely prosecuted, and allows for limited exceptions, as when a woman’s physical or mental health is threatened—so this gets used to dilute arguments for change. Nevertheless, there are rare instances when the authorities investigate, as when in 2009 a 19-year-old faced criminal charges after officials claimed she used medication smuggled from Ukraine to induce miscarriage. Largely, however, the arguments on both sides are pretty much the same as here—religious stands, “traditional” and cultural “norms,” etc. Except that this time women lead both sides.

I know, I can hear you mutter, “That’s a consummation devoutly to be wished!” I agree, we should only have such problems! Well, with record numbers of women running for office, hopefully we soon will. Meanwhile, such a problem resurfaces the debate about whether women are “a people” or not. Every time women rise up together in great numbers, there are always some female voices of doom snarking, ”But not all women!” and “Brett Kavanaugh never tried to rape me,” and of course, “But I’ve known (fill in the blank) Bill/ Donald/Harvey/Mario/ Charlie/ Louis on and on for years and he’s always behaved like a gentleman to me!”

All of which is perfectly irrelevant. If I rob your house that doesn’t mean I’ve robbed every house on the street. As for the argument “But suburban white women voted for Trump”—yes, they voted with their husbands, defending their relatively privileged status. But guess what? After two years of Trumpism, all polls and surveys show that they’re turning from Trump and hubby and joining the gender gap.

At times, even some strong activists take the bait of such arguments and fall into despair, as if it requires the participation of every single female human being on the planet to make feminism the powerful global political force it already is, and the even greater one into which it’s growing. So there are the Marsha Blackburns and Dana Loeschs and Ann Coulters, so what? There were some Jewish Kapos in the Nazi concentration camps. There were enslaved plantation house servants in the American South who would have nothing to do with enslaved field workers. There have always been collaborators who from fear or greed sided with the powerful, scrambling to lick up crumbs. So there are a few rare #MeToo cases where the woman was the perpetrator—that’s hardly surprising, but it’s supposed to delegitimize the literally millions of cases where the survivor was victimized by a man or multiple men? Oh please.

Still, the anti-feminist women recite their slogan, “You don’t speak for all women because you don’t speak for me!

“Chill out, sister,” I say, “I’m not trying to speak for you; the men in your life are already doing that.”

In the ethereal realms of academic “gender scholarship,” there is a name for the “all women are one people” argument. It’s called essentialism, the concept that there’s an essential mystical bonding between women that triumphs no matter the politics. Some otherwise well-meaning people who see feminist theory as abstract from daily activism have termed me, for example, an essentialist. I’m not. I’m not in thrall to a damp-eyed vision of each Womb-one as part of a we-are-all-together tide wafting toward some ideal Atlantis of Wymmin. What I do think is that the shared experience of being born female, growing up female, and living one’s entire life female in a patriarchy leaves its marks on each woman, although the experience of that experience may take different forms. I also believe that openly acknowledging those many complex different forms but not letting them paralyze us moves us closer to a recognition of those marks on each of us. And that in turn moves us closer to an emphasis on our similarities, across boundaries of race, class, age, ability, sexuality, and nationality. That emphasis, in fact, is what has built this global movement.

For instance, the increased presence of women in the Queensland Parliament has already brought about a shift in the work culture—including more family-friendly in-session hours, breaking from the tradition of frequent long nights followed by early mornings. (Men in all parties were offended by this change, before they realized they liked it.) Next door to Australia, New Zealand’s young Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern brings her baby with her to New York and right onto the General Assembly floor of the United Nations. Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth has nursed her newborn daughter in one of the Senate cloakrooms. There are tampon machines now in the women’s restrooms of the House of Representatives. Small advances? I don’t think so.

This process rearranges all the furniture: structure, procedures, definitions, space assignment, time allotment, emotions, priorities, communications, consciousness. A profound rearrangement occurs when the hidden reality where women exist finally becomes visible in what has been the exclusively male public sphere.

So the debate in Queensland will reflect levels of nuance and comprehension that one in a male dominated legislature would not. Political positions can and will be robustly defended, but the experience of a different reality from that of most men—and the insistence that laws recognize that other reality—opens up worlds. When the Queensland Parliament was considering domestic violence legislation, at least one member described abuse she had faced in deeply personal terms. “It certainly does shift to the debate,” said Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington, wryly.

So the next time you encounter a woman defending a sexist man, just continue to confront him, don’t bother attacking his hostage shield. The next time someone sneers You don’t speak for me, smile, shrug, and say, “Apparently, neither do you.” But if you have the patience, engage her, because we’re sure as hell none of us born feminist. If I’m an essentialist it’s only in believing that no human soul enjoys being caged, that every woman deep at her core suspects how angry she is, and that it’s only a matter of time and circumstance as to when and how much she can dare let herself know that she knows it and can articulate it, much less act on it.

I’ve witnessed that process hundreds of times. I’ve witnessed it in myself.

That’s why, although I’ll save my support for those who are open to this consciousness, I’ll leave the door slightly ajar––so that if Kellyanne Conway appears, weeping with the shock of having finally got it, I can welcome her in.