: Griffith REVIEW 40: Women & Power

Griffith REVIEW 40: Women & Power

Rachael Field

womenpowerEdited by Julianne Schultz; April 2013; paperback; $27.95

Griffith Review is increasingly known as an Australian literary journal that punches above its weight. Under the editorial guidance of founding editor Julianne Schultz, the Review offers an engaging mix of essays, memoir, reportage, short fiction and poetry on contemporary issues of concern and interest. Phillip Adams has said that the Review is ‘pretty much setting the agenda’, and The Weekend Australian claims it to be ‘essential reading’.

Edition 40 on Women & Power is no exception. With contributions by almost 30 thoughtful, provocative and insightful writers, such as Anne Summers, Chris Wallace, Mary Delahunty, Jo Chandler, Mischa Merz, Julie Kearney, Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Mandy Beaumont, the work recognises that, as a result of the gender revolution, women now fulfil roles and offices across society that a century ago would have been unthinkable, while also questioning the true breadth and depth of the extent of women’s empowerment in contemporary society.

At the time it was released earlier this year, the work’s exploration of the persistently unsettled issue of women and power was offered in a particularly pertinent political context — one that no longer exists. Australia had a female Prime Minister who was subject to relentless questioning on her capacity to fulfil the top political role — largely, she claims, because she was a woman. Mary Delahunty writes that Julia Gillard’s ‘misogyny speech’, in which she explicitly named the leader of the Opposition’s misogyny, caused an ‘emotional tsunami’ in Australian society with the cri de coeur: ‘I will not be lectured by this man … I will not.’ [p 29] And yet it was a ‘shift in Australian civic sensitivity’ that the press gallery missed. Why? Because ‘women may be accepted as equal partners in politics, but not yet equal partners in power.’ [p 30]

Undoubtedly, the events and debates of Australian politics in 2012 and 2013 have brought the juxtaposition of gender equality and inequality sharply into view. The diverse perspectives in Women & Power’s consideration of women’s access to, and experience of, power — both in public and private spheres — attest to the continuing strength of debate around the role of women, and how much the gender revolution has achieved. Jane Goodall, for example, recognises the perhaps surprisingly contentious nature of dress codes and the ways in which they define power roles: ‘that at some level, the cut of the Prime Minister’s jacket does matter, and that to get it wrong signals a lack of one of the many competencies required in the role.’ [p 32] Jo Chandler’s reportage considers the continuing barriers to equality and political representation for women in Papua New Guinea [p 66]; and Mischa Merz explores power for women in sport and how too much success works against them: ‘Sport is a useful prism through which to view the rest of society.’ [p 156] In response to the edition, ANU’s Gender Institute, the National Library of Australia and the Sydney Writers’ Festival all hosted forums to showcase its content and perspectives.

The works in this edition of the Griffith Review also recognise a level of weariness or irritation with the continuing debate about men and women. In her essay ‘Standing up to P’, Chris Wallace writes of a species ‘QP’ which is made up of two groups of roughly the same number, ‘Q’ and ‘P’, because ‘were the words “women” and “men” used instead of Q and P, most men and many women would have stopped reading within moments.’

[p 11] Certainly many of the same questions seem to relentlessly arise, even if in new and diverse contexts. In Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s memoir of her time as a 21-year-old Muslim woman working on remote oil rigs, for example, she comments: ‘I find I am constantly asking myself the question: Does one adopt and accept the mannerisms of the rig to “fit in”, and become “one of the boys”, not causing waves by accepting the status quo? Or should I, and other women stick to our guns and demand change …?’ [p 112] For this reason it can be reassuring to look to our role models, as Kristina Olsson does in her piece on some of Australia’s influential women. [p 55]

Women & Power illustrates that as weary as some may be at the mention of gender inequality, the reality is that the feminist agenda still has a long way to go. That is, while many women are now tertiary educated, and do now have more control over their economic fate, and while some are rising to powerful political and corporate positions, the persistence of the inequality of women and the continuing impediments to their exercise of power, cannot be ignored. What might take us forward? Chris Wallace’s comment resonated with me: ‘We have to have a strategy to win the war, not just tactics leading to the odd battle won here or there, no matter how good those wins might be. … We have to identify and welcome the men who show solidarity with the cause and get them, too, to see the bigger picture.’ [p 17] If our progress has stalled working essentially alone, perhaps the most significant new meta-strategy that feminists can adopt is to harness the energy of those men who support us.

As Julianne Schultz says in her introduction to the work:

Not all women are generous, considerate or capable. Nor are all men. This is not a game in which if cats win, all dogs must die, but one in which the potential sum of the parts is much greater than the whole. Early in a trans¬formative new century we need to hold our nerve, and transcend the ‘witch, liar, troll’ backlash. [p 8]

RACHAEL FIELD teaches law at QUT Law School.

(2013) 38(4) AltLJ 284
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