Q. Can men be feminists, or is it perhaps not a term men are entitled to appropriate?
A. I think it is possible that men by their own attitudes, actions and behaviour, can reflect feminist values, however I don’t know that this means that they can claim to be feminists. The feminist movement is something women own and champion, and for that reason I think it’s problematic; it risks reiterating centuries of patriarchal hegemony.
If men act accordingly by acknowledging, supporting and advocating for gender equality, as well as championing issues around empowerment, discrimination, objectification and oppression, then they can play a positive role in the feminist movement, but that does not necessarily grant them the opportunity to self-proclaim as ‘feminists’. Ultimately, women should decide if a man is entitled to do that.
Q. If asked publicly whether or not you call yourself a feminist, what would you say and why?
A. I would say that I am supportive of and an advocate for feminism. I grew up during the Women’s’ Liberation movement in the 1960’s and 70’s. Since an adolescent I have been exposed to, and involved in this public debate about feminism, and have always appreciated “the personal is political”. Consequently I hope that my relationships and how I have acted both personally and professionally have demonstrated this ongoing support. I have been very fortunate over my life to learn from a large number of strong independent women; in my own family, among my close friends, as well as work colleagues. All of these women continue to influence my own behaviour and attitudes by way of reflecting and sharing their values.
Q. What does it mean to be a male feminist?
I think what it means now in 2018 is very different to perhaps what it was as recently as ten or twenty years ago. Certainly there are the obvious things, being a decent person and ultimately believing in equality of all humans are steps in the right direction. However, for men aspiring to be unequivocally supportive of the feminist movement in 2018 requires a lot more than just believing in equality. For example: men have to willingly take on major caretaking responsibilities, be it for elderly parents or new babies, accept if they’re fathers-to-be that they very well could be the person in the family taking extended parental leave. They must also be prepared to call out sexist behaviour and most particularly campaign against oppression and violence against women.
I have four adult children and have been extremely fortunate to have a successful career as a politician; none of this would’ve been possible without the ongoing support and sacrifice of my partner, Elizabeth. I am seeing increasingly my younger male colleagues taking paternity leave, this is only a recent phenomenon, but I think it is encouraging.
It has meant teaching our children that a gendered society does not have to be the norm and encouraging them to develop the skills to challenge others, and to stand against misogynistic behaviour
In my lifetime, supporting feminist values has meant accepting my partner as an equal and never undermining her worth and integrity. Supporting Elizabeth to choose her own path and encouraging her to ensure her voice is heard, and to fight against discrimination with her. It has meant teaching our children that a gendered society does not have to be the norm and encouraging them to develop the skills to challenge others, and to stand against misogynistic behaviour.
It has also meant making sure that people I employ and work with are treated equally and on their merits. I have a 50/50 gender split in my office with flexible works hours to accommodate staff with young families. I have had the privilege over many years of employing, knowing, and working with a number of strong, assertive women role models from whom I have learnt a great deal.
Ultimately, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to listen
Ultimately, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to listen. Listening to women is critical. When I was the Minister responsible for Defence Personnel I had the privilege of being involved in a process culminating in the removal of gender discrimination across all employment categories in the Defence Forces through assistance of then Sexual Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick. This involved working with Defence leaders who saw the need for, and worked to end structural discrimination in the Australian Defence Force.
Q. In 2015 both the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader declared themselves ‘feminists. ’Is male feminism newly fashionable?
A. I wouldn’t describe it as fashionable, especially in light of the former Deputy Prime Minister’s recent behaviour. I think their statements reflect the change that has been happening over many decades. It is not acceptable or appropriate for men in leadership positions to be anything other than supportive of gender equality. Unfortunately, there are still misogynists who denigrate, objectify and oppress women. It is important that male leaders and role models in our community advocate and publicise their support for feminism and condemn unacceptable behaviours, most particularly those who engage in violence against women and children.
However, if there was ever any doubt that gender equality in 21st century Australia was an issue of the past, the recent Joyce saga has reminded us all that when men make poor choices, more often than not women pay the price.
Q. Why do you think a significant cohort of young women refuse to use the term ‘feminist’ about themselves, and yet ascribe to all the tenets of feminism?
A. I don’t feel that I am the right person to make an informed observation about this, it certainly confuses me. Strong connotations still exist around feminists being ‘difficult’, especially in male dominated industries – perhaps some young women don’t want to risk having that association. I would say education is very powerful, and can assist young women and men for that matter to understand the structural barriers that still face women today.
Q. Should all men, young men in particular, be encouraged to behave as feminists?
A. I think there should be universal acceptance of and belief in equality and anti-discrimination. However, as a society we have a particular responsibility to ensure that boys and young men understand what it is to behave respectfully towards women and girls, and how wrong it is to objectify, or in any way mistreat women. I am very concerned about the potential impact of social media sites on some young, ill-informed and immature young men, especially the ones that denigrate the mass exposure of women identifying sexual assaults, and which appeal to sexist and regressive behaviour. Young men might also be influenced by the gross behaviour of prominent men, such as the US President, or sports stars, who have boasted about their sexual exploits and assert their masculinity over women.
As a society we have a particular responsibility to ensure that boys and young men understand what it is to behave respectfully towards women and girls
We need to direct boys and young men to positive role models and leaders who have demonstrable respect for women and who advocate feminist values. They must be educated about what is appropriate behaviour towards women and girls. They need to understand what equality in treatment and opportunity really means. This is an ongoing challenge.