26 October 2012

Something is Happening

When I was a student I got a job as a paralegal with a large commercial law firm which was acting for one of the parties in the Tricontinental Royal Commission. My job largely consisted of ferrying documents and files to and fro, and lots and lots of photocopying. Occasionally I had to go up to the Royal Commission and hand a brief to one of the barristers there. One day, after being in the Royal Commission, I got in the lift with a very senior male member of counsel. The lift stopped at a floor and a woman got in, realised that the lift was going down and not up, and in a slightly flustered way exited the lift at the next stop. It's the sort of thing I have done many many times. This esteemed barrister, probably then in his 50's, turned to me and said 'That's why we keep them barefoot and pregnant.'
The smile froze on my face. I had expected a genial comment of the sort that you share with strangers in a lift - 'Don't you hate it when that happens?', or 'She's not having a good day'. He obviously registered my shock and said, in a frankly vicious tone 'Oh, she doesn't find that comment amusing' talking to me about me in the third person. I hurriedly got out of the lift, still shocked that he would make that comment, but too gutless, too intimidated by his 'standing' and too vulnerable to say anything to him.

It has stayed with me, that incident, for more than 20 years. It represented a tiny little window into a world in which I would always be excluded by virtue of my gender. A world in which such a comment was perfectly acceptable.

Much has been written about Julia Gillard's misogyny speech and everything I would say has been said better by others. Today I read Tracy Spicer's open letter in The Age and felt that perhaps something is happening here. Perhaps what Gillard's speech did was open the door to a conversation that needs to happen, to start a public dialogue. The comments on Spicer's piece are depressing and predictable and yet still I have hope. If women, all women, but especially women in public life and in positions of authority, talk honestly about their experiences then perhaps we will really see change. As a young woman I didn't want misogyny to exist. I thought it was something from another era. But it's alive and well and it thrives on our silence. Let's keep talking.


  1. I really hope the conversation keeps going. I just read Tracy's letter. It's appalling the stuff she went through, but it's not unfamiliar to any of us really. I don't like her 'tiny dick' reference one bit though - it's the same kind of accusation that the misogynists throw.

    I've been stirred up by Julia Guillard's speech myself. I think you're right. I'd kind of given up on speaking out but now - I'm all fired up again. Her speech made me noticed how utterly sick and tired I am of it!

  2. Well said.
    Your story of the trip in the lift is really shocking, and I expect that I would have been speechless too.

    The men of my generation, (I'm 38) that I deal with, seem to be much more enlightened, but I get the feeling that the generations that follow me may have swung back further the other way again. I wonder about whether this has anything to do with widespread access to internet porn, and how that shapes young men's attitudes to women.

    When I was at Uni, studying in a very male dominated course (Industrial design) we had a fill-in-lecturer once for our "electronics" subject. The lecturer explained a tricky concept concerning a certain type of electronic circuit, and then said..."Now I will repeat it again for the ladies". Almost every head in the room swiveled my way, because everyone knew that I would not let that pass, (it was a small course, we all knew each other very well). I can't remember exactly what I said, but I don't think anyone was annoyed with me for speaking up.

    While some of the male students thought it was kind of funny, the heartening fact was that they were universally shocked that someone had actually said it. They were not used to overt sexism, (but probably didn't notice all the subtle sexism that the women in the course had directed at them either).

    The lecturer was a foreigner, and I suspect he came from a culture that really endorsed thoughts like that. He genuinely seemed surprised that it was not received well, and that the men in room were not universally in agreement.

    I think I have always been a feminist, but in some ways, the older I get, and the more reading I do, the more angry I get.

    I too hope that the conversation keeps going.

    1. I think that many times, in these situations, I've laughed along because OF COURSE it's all a joke, EVERYONE knows that women are at least as smart and capable. But I'm not laughing any more. Everyone doesn't know that, I've discovered. Those jokes are not always done in an ironic, 'can you believe people used to think that way?' manner. And even if they are, it's something I am now prepared to no longer have a sense of humour about. Good on you for speaking up.

  3. This is an exciting time to be a woman who is engaged with politics! There is something palpable, there's a conversation...at long last!

    Your story is astonishing, notwithstanding how many times you hear stories like that. Unbelievable.