We have a tribe of nieces and nephews. Occasionally, like on International Women’s Day, I mellow out and tell the girls a tale or two of life at the barricades in the 1970s, when I was a placard waving, young radical feminist.
Respectfully, they don’t say ‘whatevs’ or ‘*amazeballs’ or ‘were you a man-hater’, yet I’d like to get across to them a picture of how things were so skewed against us women and girls.
In my world, women were second-class citizens. I wanted a seat at the front of the bus. I wanted to be taken seriously as a cadet reporter, not patted on the bum and given the women’s pages to write.
My editors were men of their times, niggly with prostate problems and crook livers. Picture a busy newsroom in 1978. Over the chattering wires came a new study finding women and men had different brains. Apparently there were more nerve connections between the two hemispheres in female brains. I wrote up the story about why women might be better at multi-tasking. The editor rejigged the piece and published it under the headline: ‘Men more specialized’!
An accident that reportedly killed “three people and a woman”, said it all: Men were the default humans.
When my boss came on to me at 16, there was not yet the phrase ‘sexual harassment’ with which to frame a complaint. My mother suggested a hatpin would do the trick! I actually got depressed and had a breakdown.
A single mum got no help from the government—the bones of 800 babies and children recently found in a septic tank in an Irish convent speak to society’s view of pregnant unmarried girls.
I was paid less than the man who sat next to me because he was a man.
Once I interviewed one of Sydney’s richest self-made women and she told me she couldn’t get a bank loan in the 1960s without her husband’s signature on the application. She married a guy even though she was gay.
I worked briefly in Entomology and met Claire, an outstanding scientist, a world expert on beetles, who couldn’t go down to Antarctica because there were no women’s toilets. I know her suicide wasn’t because of sexism, but she was always battling the men at work. It can’t have helped.
If you were a public servant like a teacher and you got married, you lost your job.
In rape trials it was openly put to mainly male jurors that a woman ‘asked for it’ by the way she dressed. I was a young court reporter who saw a lot of rapists walk free and this poster was on my wall at home:
Black eyes and broken bones within marriage were nobody’s business. And in Church we were told women were carnal or maternal, but not fit for ministry, and I think back on how many priests were defiling the collar they wore like a disguise.
I wrote one of the first major reports on child sexual abuse in Australia in 1982 and was pooh-poohed for exaggerating the problem when, we now know, it couldn’t be over-stated. I tried for five years to get a film made about an incestuous father and was told the script was “too worthy”, yet today child sex abuse is the default plot in crime stories!
In 1975 the UN said women did two-thirds of the world’s work and owned 1% of its wealth . Frankly, I’d say to my nieces and nephews, any young woman worth her salt was ok with being a feminist in the 1970s. “Get your laws off our bodies” we demanded of the mainly male polity (still mainly male today with just one woman in our Federal cabinet).
In Australia in the 1970s, women weren’t allowed to drink in the public bars of hotels; some chained themselves inside and the laws changed. We won the right to swill it down and we certainly weren’t going to be told ladies didn’t smoke. We smoked our heads off.
A lot has changed. But . . . but . . . just this week a study has found hurricanes with female names kill almost twice as many people as ‘male’ hurricanes because people are less likely to take female storms seriously, so fewer take precautions or hide in shelters!
In the 1970s we formed ‘consciousness raising groups’, read American and French radical thinkers and drank and smoked long into the night, talking about biology versus destiny.
Ironically, my own destiny appears to be in my biology, as a new study has found even emphysema is not an equal opportunity disease.
Not long ago, Copd was considered a man’s disease.
Today, more women than men have Copd. The trend started in the 1960s, when marketing campaigns like the famous Virginia Slims ‘You’ve come a long way, baby’ ad made smoking socially acceptable for women. (See my post ‘An Open Letter to Big Tobacco’). Women in their millions embraced the habit.
“Given the lag time in lung disease, we’re probably just starting to see the apogee of the trends in cigarette smoking,” says Dr Dawn DeMeo, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and pulmonologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Researchers are discovering that women’s lungs may be even more vulnerable than men’s to the toxic effects of smoke. For every cigarette smoked, women seem to develop more severe lung disease at an earlier age.
So, I have a genetic and gendered vulnerability to lung disease, and I say to any of my beloved nieces and nephews who might be sneaking cigarettes, this is not a piece of fruit toast.
*PS I know nobody says amazeballs.
Love, Aunty Barb.
This is for you: Maree, Michael, David, Isis, Ayla, Sarah-Rachael, Gabrielle, Anna, Julian, Jake, Bronte, Lucy, Michael, Matthew, Emily, Harrison, Oliver, and Jessica.