Equality

I have been hesitant to call myself a feminist, because I don’t fight for women’s rights – I fight for everyone’s rights. I want equality. Most of all, what I want is to end segregation. To consider people for who they are, not what gender, race, or class they happen to be.

In a startling display of equality, the Federal government recently announced a paid parental leave scheme. NOT a maternity leave scheme. Either parent can take the leave, or they can share it between them. Well hallelujah! Official recognition of mothers and fathers as equal parents. Now we just have to hope that society catches up sometime in the next century or so.
This is just one battle in the war against gender myths. There are so many of them, like the myth that there are “male jobs” and “female jobs”. My eldest daughter goes to a primary school without a single male teacher. But it’s ok – the contractors who come in to teach sport are guys. My youngest daughter goes to a child care centre with no male carers. But it’s ok, the contractor who comes in to run the sports program is a guy. Apparently men are allowed to interact with little kids when sport is involved.

Engineers are men. Computer scientists are men. Teachers are women. So who teaches engineering and computer science? Ooh, don’t go there. Next question please!
I have a PhD in computer science, and the men in my department always asked me why we didn’t have more female students. I didn’t know, because whatever it was that was keeping the girls away clearly hadn’t worked on me. But I think I’ve worked it out now. It’s our gender myths that are constraining us, tying us down, and robbing us all (not just the girls) of choices. And the biggest myth of all is the worst: Men and women can’t be friends.
This has always struck me as bizarre, but I put it down to my own weirdness. After all, at those parties with the girls in one room and the guys in the other, I was always in the wrong room. But now I think it is worse than that. It’s not just a problem for those of us in the wrong room. It’s a problem for our whole society. How can we understand the opposite sex if we never communicate with them outside the high stakes of sexual relationships?

Why would you close yourself off to the perspective and potential of half the human race? If we are fundamentally different then we complement each other, fill in the gaps and provide a different set of skills, thoughts and feelings. If we are fundamentally the same then there is nothing to keep us apart! Either way, we can all benefit from getting the communication going. The myth that we are separate species, that we are so different we need separate activities, separate parties, separate sports, is absolutely corrosive. If men and women can’t be friends, can’t be equals who respect each other and interact in every facet of our lives, then we can never progress beyond the sort of behaviour shown by Matthew Johns, that is apparently standard among rugby league players. We will never achieve true equality in the workplace, where men can work with small children without arousing suspicion. Where a woman can be CEO of a big company without causing comment. Where a woman can front the nightly news on a commercial television channel (hah! as if!).

If you buy into the dominant myth, heterosexual couples can wind up barely seeing their partners socially. Those rare parties to which you are both invited will have separate rooms for men and women. Too often, the simpler route of poker nights for men, tupperware parties for women is the road most taken. Yet we have the most to offer each other when we consider our similarities. When we participate in a world where we both belong, where we can freely follow our talents and preferences, regardless of whether they are typically male or typically female.

A friend of mine never used to play with dolls, until other little girls came over. Then she would show interest in the dolls as a way to fit in. As soon as the girls left, she would be out the door and climbing the nearest tree, leaving the dolls far behind. In a way, we’re all trapped trying to play with dolls to belong. The guys who are good with little kids, the girls who are good with machines. The guys who wear pink, the girls who never wear makeup or high heels. The mums who go back to work full time. The dads who stay home to look after the kids. We all feel like misfits.
We have a photo of our daughter, when she was 3, wearing a fairy dress and playing with a bulldozer. I think that sums it up perfectly. Wear the fairy dress. Play with the bulldozer. If you don’t like dolls, don’t play with them! Smash the gender myths!

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Giving women a voice

There was an excellent article in The Age recently by Olympic Rower Kimberley Crow, about women in sport, and societal attitudes towards women in general. It suggests that society needs to give women a voice, and listen to what they have to say. Which is clearly true – everyone should have a voice, and sufficient respect to have their voices heard (with the obvious exception of John Wincing Howard – if we never hear from him again, it would be much too soon). But it begs the question – how is that going to happen?

I contend that the media does not present female sports stars with the same enthusiasm or frequency as male sports stars because women’s sport does not sell papers, or advertising time. With, as Crow notes, the exception of pretty tennis stars in very short skirts. The deeper question, then, is why doesn’t it sell papers, and how can we change that?

At the risk of leaping to delusions, I suspect that the problem lies deep within segregation. Men on one sporting field, women on another. Where women play a “man’s sport”, they play it separately. What reason is there for separating, for example, women from men in cricket? Where strength is less of an issue than style and skill? Ok, the average woman may not be able to bowl a ball with the same strength or speed as the average man, and elite female athletes, performing at the limit of their endurance, may hit some limits sooner than elite males. But in games of skill and style, where strength is not the determining factor, why not mix the teams?

And even if the elite teams wind up de facto segregated, where strength truly is a factor, there is still no reason why suburban teams must be segregated. Oooh, but women might get hurt! Do women break more easily than men? Not as far as I know. And sport is not usually about deliberately injuring people. (Notwithstanding the old canard “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. Then it’s a sport.”)

Sure, people get hurt in the rough and tumble, the hurley burley of a fast paced and physical game. But do we not owe it to our male athletes to protect them from injury where possible? If women choose to play a very physical game, knowing the risks, why say no?

I am not a fragile flower needing protection. And any women who sets out to play rugby is unlikely to do so in a short skirt and high heels. Let’s desegregate. Get men and women interacting as contemporaries, equals, and partners. It is the very culture of segregation that leads to incidents such as the one that recently got Matthew Johns in such hot water. You can’t think “but what if this was a friend of mine?” when you are not used to thinking of women as friends. We are not two distinct species. There are few, if any, attributes other than bodily organs which are exclusive to one gender or the other.

Mix it up! No more segregation. It’s time for society to grow up.

The community hole

There is a hole in our lives where community should be.

We try to fill it with chocolate, new clothes, wide screen plasma tvs, email and facebook, but ultimately it is the gnawing, empty feeling that we get when we are not surrounded by people who know and value us.

Community used to be found in our neighbourhoods, but these days we drive in and out so fast that there is no time to connect with anyone on the street. Which isn’t a problem, because there is generally no-one on the street to connect with. They’re all in cars, or working 15 suburbs away. I sometimes walk my youngest daughter to childcare, and it is rare that we meet anyone on the street. Those we do see are usually wired in to their iPods or mobiles, with a determined lack of eye contact.

Community can occasionally be found in a workplace – but this is increasingly rare as workplaces squeeze the last drop of productive time out of their employees, and the free tea, coffee and biscuits that draw people to the tea room are the first things to be cut in the corporate fat-trimming (rather than actually trimming the fat, this is draining the lifeblood, but somehow the execs who are living off the fat don’t seem to see it that way).

Community is found outside my eldest daughter’s primary school, in the form of Marianna, the crossing guard. In Marianna, the title ‘lollypop lady’ never had a truer incarnation. She knows everyone, and within a few weeks of starting prep she has the life stories of the preppies and their parents at her fingertips. She watches over everyone with a benevolent eye, and kids who graduated from the primary school 10 years ago still come to visit and share their lives with her. She makes chocolates for everyone at Easter, with a special present for my youngest, who is allergic to dairy. She dresses as the Easter bunny and carries a basket of goodies. At Christmas she wears reindeer horns, and her smile and cheery greeting has mended many a broken heart, and rescued countless bad days from the rubbish heap.

When I published an article about breastfeeding my 2 year old, she happily reminisced about still breastfeeding when her son was 3. She sometimes asks me if my little one (who she refers to as her Angel) is still getting my milk, and is so thrilled to find the answer is yes. 30 years ago she copped a lot of flak for breastfeeding a 3 year old, but she was, and still is, perfectly able to tell the world where to get off – to robustly stand up for what she believes is right, and damn the torpedoes! She inspires those around her to do the same.

The unthinkable happened this week – there was no crossing guard on Wednesday afternoon. She had been there on Wednesday morning, but there was no sign of her in the afternoon. The school community was disturbed – people buzzed around the crossing like bees who have found an interloper in their hive, but no-one knew what had become of her.

Suddenly I realised that although I knew half her life story, and she probably knew all of mine, I didn’t even know her surname. I had no way of finding her and finding out what had happened – of making sure that she was ok, that she knew we were all worried about her.

I don’t know her surname, nor her address. She doesn’t know mine. But she is a dearly loved member of my community. Marianna – I hope you’re ok. Hundreds of hearts, big and small, are pining for you.

On the importance of names

The difficulty with summarizing a writer’s blog into a title and a quick tagline is that it risks being grandiose in the extreme – ‘Linda McIver Expounds!’ – or confining – ‘Linda McIver on parenting’. Or simply pedestrian. Occasionally you really score and manage both at once, which is a little like having tea and no tea.

It’s like being handed a card to sign and being struck dumb by the pressure of confined space and limited time, plus the 15 witty and erudite comments that came before you Here is your 2 cm of fame. Use them wisely, for you will be judged upon them (if only by yourself!).

I don’t think in headlines, or soundbites. I think in huge, long rambles which may, on a good day, contain grains of interest and the occasional crumb of humour. But you have to grovel around in yards of text to find them, like panning for … well, not even grains of gold. Perhaps atoms.

My particular obsessions as of this moment (subject to change without notice) are parenting, social justice (expect to read a lot about fair trade!), and climate change.

So here is my blog. I am an explorer, and I have tried not to constrain my realm of exploration. Please feel free to join me on my journey.