From demanding equal voting rights to championing women’s voices on social media, feminism has taken many shapes and forms over the years. But is it still relevant? And are today’s strategies effective?
In the lead-up to our next Bold Thinking lecture – Embracing the F-word: has feminism had its day? – Dr Beatrice Alba and Professor Jenny Graves share their thoughts on feminism.
The pair work in different fields of science: Beatrice’s interests focus on evolutionary psychology while Jenny’s expertise lies in genetics. Yet their research shares a common thread: understanding the biological differences between men and women.
How do you think feminism has evolved through the ages?
Beatrice: My inkling is feminism as a political movement has only occurred in our recent history. And by recent, I mean since the emergence of large-scale civilisation at the earliest. Conflict between the sexes goes far back in our evolutionary past, even well before the emergence of our species.
I think the oppression of women by men can partly be explained by this evolutionary process, but this sexual conflict is an arms race, and women have certainly evolved counter-strategies to resist male domination.
Our conscious reflection and rational thought should be our guide to the kind of society we want to have, not the law of the jungle.
Jenny: When I first met feminism, it was sort of the Germaine Greer side of feminism. I read and admired her works, but I just wasn’t there at all. I guess I’ve never really been an angry feminist. I’ve been a feminist in terms of wanting equity in all things – including going off to have a beer at 10 pm!
I’ve been involved in women in science committees for 40 years and they’ve been frustrating. They’ve always been about studying the problem endlessly and writing reports, and honestly, nothing changed for a long time. We know what the problems are. I don’t think we need any more reports or studies. We just need to do something practical about them.
Most men I know would like to change things, they just don’t know how. So I think it’s our job to tell them.
Do you think hashtag activism and digital feminism have a place, or do we need to dig deeper to spark social change?
Beatrice: Absolutely. Hashtag activism and digital feminism are very powerful methods for raising awareness, challenging norms and attitudes and cultivating new ones. Social media has given a voice to marginalised groups who previously weren’t represented by conventional media, likely because conventional media was (and still is) dominated by men.
Early research on the movement suggests there are significant benefits for women who engage in hashtag activism and digital feminism, such as increasing a sense of solidarity and visibility.
Jenny: I’m uncomfortable with angry feminism. I’m not sure how effective it is, and I think there are people targeted who perhaps are not deserving of it.
My kind of feminism is really about trying to solve very practical problems – it’s about trying to make things possible for women to continue a science career.
I think we’re at the very beginning of a third wave of feminism, which is about real equality at a practical level. But I’m not sure that’s going to happen until men start demanding equal rights to love, take care of and guide their children. If they start saying, ‘hey, why can’t I have a day off a week too?’ – I think that’s when we will win gender equity.
Beatrice, what inspires your research into the biological and psychological differences between men and women?
Beatrice: People often assume culture is the explanation for sex differences, but these explanations are often unsatisfactory. They don’t tell us why culture is the way it is in the first place. Evolutionary theory can explain why many cultural norms arise, because culture comes from our brains and our brains are built by evolution.
If we can understand why we are the way we are, it’s easier to become liberated from the constraints of our automatic and unconscious thoughts that get in the way of social justice.
Jenny, your recent Conversation article highlights evidence which shows the genetic differences between men and women are actually far greater than previously thought. How do you think this will play into the conversation about gender equality?
Jenny: I’ve always felt distanced from a brand of feminism that insists men and women must be biologically equal. It’s quite clear to me they’re not, and my work shows this.
Recent work found there are 6,500 genes that are differently active in men and women, which is a shock to me – I would have said maybe a few hundred. But there are 6,500! We’ve only got 20,000. So a third of our genome is different. And I find that absolutely incredible.
Of course, everyone says, ‘yes, but these differences could be socialisation’. I think they’re partly that, but I think they’re partly genetic as well. I really have no time for the sort of feminism that insists men and women are absolutely the same, apart from their genitalia. It’s just silly. I think it’s time to forget about that and say, ‘well, you know, we’re different, so what?’
Why should men and women be treated differently just because we have different genes?
Do you think true gender equality is possible?
Beatrice: I have no doubt it’s possible. I do think that because gender inequality is a product of human nature, we will have to work quite hard to combat it. We’ve already come quite far in the last century and a half, which certainly gives me hope. The real question is, can we achieve gender equality before climate change kills us all?
Jenny: I don’t see why not. I would say equity rather than equality. Equality means biological equality, and we know that’s not the case. Equity means equality of opportunity. It doesn’t mean we have to have 50 per cent of engineers and biologists be women. I just want there to be equality of opportunity so any woman who wants to be an engineer doesn’t have to think twice about it.
Want to hear more? Head to La Trobe’s Bold Thinking Series: Embracing the F-word: has feminism had its day?