Three new books consider the challenges of gender bias with longstanding anger but also with a degree of optimism, writes Christine Jackman
First, a confession. With these three books, all written by women for women about overcoming personal and collective struggles, I felt not fistpumping solidarity but jaded reticence. Worse, what sprang to mind unprompted was a scene from Sex and the City, the HBO hit that began as an irreverent romp about four independent and sexually adventurous friends in 1990s New York before gradually disintegrating into a tired and predictable formula: happiness = 1 boyfriend + 3 credit cards x unlimited designer labels.
In this scene, the girls are chatting over brunch after a big night on the town. Nursing a cruel hangover but no new romantic prospects, the Upper East Side princess Charlotte exclaims petulantly: “I’ve been dating since I was 15! I’m exhausted! Where is he?!”
Such are my feelings on equality. Consider this: when I took on the freshly minted news round of “women’s affairs” at a metropolitan newspaper, Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela were the presidents of the US, Russia and South Africa. Naomi Wolf had just followed her bestselling The Beauty Myth with Fire with Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, and US first lady Hillary Clinton was about to shock the world by travelling to Beijing to declare: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.” Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience & Hope Edited by Jane Caro Foreword by Tanya Pilbersek UQP, 264pp, $29.95 Not Just Lucky: Why Women Do the Work But Don’t Take the Credit By Jamila Rizvi Viking, 336pp, $35 Women Leading By Christine Nixon and Amanda Sinclair MUP, 244pp, $32.99
More than two decades have passed and, like Charlotte, I’m exhausted. Is it too much to ask: when can women stop fretting over this equality stuff and live happily ever after? Well, yes, princess, it is. It is because today, among full-time workers, Australian women earn 84 per cent of a man’s pay on average — a gender pay gap of 16 per cent. And because a working man is five times more likely than a working woman to have someone at home looking after the kids. And because in lat year’s US presidential race between the aforementioned former first lady and a self-confessed “pussy-grabber”, the latter re- ceived 80 more electoral college votes — and the keys to the White House.
Of course, statistics only tell part of the story. Numbers, even big ones, are often easier to ignore than the voices and shared experiences of our sisters, mothers, daughters and girlfriends.
Experiences such as this: “I’ve had death threats, rape threats. I’ve been assaulted walking home at night. I receive a fair bit of cyberhate. And I’m certainly not the first woman to find my idea, or my joke, considered brilliant — when it’s repeated by a bloke!”
That is how federal Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek introduces Unbreak- able, a compilation of essays edited by Sydney writer and broadcaster Jane Caro, whose stated aim is to shine a light on hitherto hidden abuse and so help “place the blame … squarely on the shoulders of those who use their power to exploit and damage others”.
As many of the contributing writers remind us, women are often silenced because a system or institution has normalised, ignored or even endorsed outrageous assaults. If this sounds too extreme, too feminazi, consider Catherine Fox’s account of having an ageing doctor sweep back the curtains of her public hospital cubicle to conduct an internal examination on her, with
Christine Nixon with Victoria’s then police minister Bob Cameron in 2008