On the way home in the train this week I noticed a poster advertising a local university. The headline caught my attention.
Brilliance has no sexual orientation. Opportunity doesn’t discriminate.
It probably made more of an impact on me than it otherwise might have because I’d just been to see Suffragette, so my mind was still full of the extraordinary accomplishments of the women it portrayed so vividly.
The combination of the film and the poster brought The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, to mind. I read this book almost two decades ago and was powerfully affected by it. The story is set in a not-implausible near future dystopia in which a puritan theocracy holds sway. This scenario, in which women are stripped of all power, highlights the relative ease with which the rights and freedoms we tend to accept without thought can be taken from us.
These rights and freedoms, for which generations of women fought doggedly, now appear to have always-already existed. Most young women I speak to have little interest in how these rights and freedoms were won – and even seem to find it implausible that our society has ever been anything other than the way it is today. As for the possibility of those rights and freedoms being eroded or lost… that’s not a conversation they seem to want to have. Apparently it’s ‘so last century’.
Perhaps seeing Suffragette could shift that point of view, at least somewhat. The portrayal of the determination and spirit of ordinary women striving for a better world was both engrossing and humbling, and the absolute silence in the cinema when the film ended was very telling.
A few key points regarding women’s suffrage that have direct bearing on my past: In South Africa, the land of my birth, white women were awarded the vote in 1930. My mum would have been about 13 years old at the time. It took a further 64 years before black women gained the same rights. Here in Australia, my chosen home, women gained the right to vote at a national level in 1902. This excluded aboriginal women, who were allowed to vote from 1962 onwards – but were only were granted full citizenship in 1967.
This window into the past shows some interesting parallels – and it also shows how far my homelands, past and present, have come. Complacency is dangerous, however. I think it’s often all too easy to accept a way of life when it favours us, without giving thought to how that way of life might have come about – or whether we would have the strength of character to fight the good fight to gain it or to keep it.
It’s also appears disturbingly easy to not pay attention to shifts in our society until they coalesce and we are no longer heading where we thought we were. Around the world there is a perception that women’s rights are being gradually eroded or sidelined. Equal pay and non-discriminatory hiring practices continue to elude us, despite having the vote and notionally being equal under the law. But most disturbing are endemic sexual assault and the never-ending arguments as to who has rights over women’s reproductive capacity.
Are we paying enough attention to these things?
To quote The Handmaid’s Tale: Ordinary… is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary.
Is this what we want? For mysogyny to be ordinary?
The links between the history of women’s suffrage, a patriarchal system that is self-perpetuating, shifts in social attitudes, the ease with which freedoms are accepted and can therefore be eroded – along the possible attendant consequences – are clear. What all this tells me is that a poster advocating that opportunity doesn’t discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation is, quite simply, misleading.
So take responsibility – and play a part, however small, when it comes to awareness of key issues in our society, paying particular attention to emancipation and to feminist solidarity..