Am I A Feminist? by Michaela McGuire


Michaela McGuire

I have spent most of my life avoiding thinking about whether or not I am a feminist. My earliest ideas about my place in the world as a young lady were informed by my high school’s mission statement. “Women in time to come will do much,” we were told. These words were emblazoned around the school on glossy pamphlets, on stained glass windows, underneath hallway art and in the diaries that we carried to Home Economics class. It was here, after flooding the kitchen, baking cupcakes that were consistently too dry and, finally, sewing through my own finger that I was told with great seriousness, “Your husband is going to need to be very tolerant.”

And so, full of teenage spite, I arced up, dedicated a year to topping that class and then having proved a point that makes even less sense in hindsight, promptly forgot about the entire thing. I went to university where feminists were known to me as the women I saw around campus who didn’t shave their armpits, or wear bras, or read anything except for terrifyingly dense texts about this movement I understood nothing about. I avoided these women in the same spirit that I avoided the philosophy students who did not wear shoes or nutrition students who only wore track pants. Having had no greater injustice inflicted upon me than having been told that my place was in the kitchen, but only if that kitchen was supervised at all times, feminism was something I thought did not apply to me.

In subsequent years I have been called a sexist because I co-curate an event that celebrates women. I have also been told by a woman that this same event degrades females because it raises money for neglected animals. I had, I was informed, entirely missed “the importance of genuinely celebrating women’s voices.”

This was the reason, I realised, that feminism, at least as I had encountered it, does not seem relevant to me. It has rules. Qualifiers. Hundred-year-old mottos that I am meant to apply to my own life. Celebrating women’s voices is an admirable pursuit, but not if this celebration assists in the care of abandoned animals. Women in time may well come to do much, but only if these women know how to correctly use a sewing machine. Or, presumably, if they have very tolerant husbands.

Michaela McGuire co-curates and hosts Women of Letters. Her first book, Apply Within: Stories of career sabotage, was published by MUP last year.

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17 September 2010


There are 14 comments so far

14 comments so far:

Oh Michaela, why so shy? Of course you're a raving femmo. Don't let the rules hold you back from embracing the tag - surely one of the first rules of any good feminist is to break the rules. Even those laid out by 'the sisterhood' - which as we should surely embrace is varied and many-ruled...

17 September at 11:47AM

It is a pretty sad world in which an intelligent, successful and independent woman spends most her life avoiding the mere question of whether or not she is a feminist, let alone the declaration that indeed she is one. This alone is very real proof that feminism is just as relevant as ever, and even if we don't all agree on its nuances, its goals and objectives are, or at least should be, unifying.

17 September at 01:05PM

I can understand your frustration, Michaela, I refuse to put myself in categories like feminist, but not because I don't agree that equality is essential. Mostly because of the "us" and "them" thing that goes on. Somehow, in some circumstances, you become typecast (not that this doesn't work for some, Greer has dealt with it admirably), I don't really like being labelled (ooh look out ;)). How would a good feminist break the rules? I'd like to know the answer to that. Looking forward to the Fem Has Failed event too.

17 September at 01:10PM

This kinda bothers me, and I'm usually a total fan of Michaela's.

For starters, I think maybe Michaela is relying a bit on stereotypes to pad out her "real-life" experience, and that just renders the whole thing moot.

As an example, I can't believe that your home ec teacher really said your husband would have to be tolerant. I am about the same age as you, and I went to a girls' school and home ec was always taught as a class for valuable life skills, rather than matrimonial skills.

After all, it is useful to learn how to cook and sew - and it's not an anti-feminist thing to do so.

And the no-bra, hairy armpitted feminists? Really? The no-bra thing died out years ago - this is such a tired cliche, and a total relic of the 70s. If you're not just being hyperbolic for effect, I have a feeling that your observation is the result of confirmation bias.

Nikita, I agree - to an extent. Few people want to be associated with a group that is commonly derided as being man-hating or divisive or whatever. But it's only by women like you identifying as feminist that the stereotypes will change. We need to atop thinking that feminism is a complete descriptor, and that it's an either/or proposition. It should be acceptable for feminists to hold a whole range of views on topics - the "good feminist" rule is ridiculous.

17 September at 01:34PM

Scal - Thanks, you answered my question very well - it comes back to the whole in-fighting thing which I really haven't experienced, but have been intimidated by. I don't think I should be though. I like your open minded approach. :)

For a broad definition of feminism I would recommend Gloria Steinem's speech at Yale a few years ago (available on iTunes). I have to keep reminding myself of this one because it's great.

17 September at 02:00PM

Not surprised she doesn't know whether she is a feminist. She doesn't even know what feminism is.

18 September at 11:48AM

Feminism sure as fuck ain't women putting down other women, Louise.

18 September at 12:54PM

Hey Gene - I wouldn't have considered that a 'put down' as such. It is true that this piece hints at no particular knowledge about (or perspective on) feminism beyond its popular, negative (mis)representation. And that itself is not meant as a put down. It is simply my critical understanding of a piece of writing.

To be honest, I was disappointed to read this from McGuire. I guess it's meant to be written in her drily comic style (which I did really enjoy in her book). But while feminism in its social manifestations can be off-putting or scary to some - most often, though, when it is being mocked by its detractors in popular culture a la Two And A Half Men - I expected that somebody like McGuire would have been able to see the importance of a movement which has created the (more) comfortable environment in which she has grown up, rather than refusing to engage with it in any meaningful way.

In subsequent years I have been called a sexist because I co-curate an event that celebrates women. I have also been told by a woman that this same event degrades females because it raises money for neglected animals. I had, I was informed, entirely missed “the importance of genuinely celebrating women’s voices.”

It doesn't bode well - for McGuire or, I suppose, the purported feminists who made such claims - that the petty and misdirected slights of others against Women of Letters have managed to make an impression, nor that they have come to represent feminism for McGuire. Surely they're such dumb assertions that any reasonably informed person would shrug them off. Part of the problem feminism faces is mounting backlash and its attendant dismissive tone. It's important to acknowledge that, whatever you'd like to call it, there remains work to be done.

Let me ask you - do we all agree that women are still not regarded as equals worthy of equal pay, privilege, responsibility and safety? Do we agree that women should not (but still continue to) be blamed for their sexual assaults, and in stronger examples overseas, torture, stoning and death for minor crimes?

Everything has qualifiers, limits and rules - good will, generosity, social justice, liberalism, even love. That doesn't mean they're not for us. It is our ability as humans to engage with ideas - rather than dismiss them on account of bad examples - that suggests that we can progress toward better selves and societies.

Part of me wonders what McGuire's Letters co-conspirator Marieke Hardy would think of this - as someone who has proudly worn her brand of sassy feminism on her sleeve, a component of her broader politics. For mine, I'll still go to Women of Letters and read McGuire's deadpan writing elsewhere. The above text, though, imbues those pleasures with a strange tint.

In any case, I'm very glad this piece is here - and this discussion taking place - as it's an excellent starting point for the WC's forum on feminism.

Jonathan K
20 September at 10:48AM

There are a number of ways I could respond to all of this. I suppose I could write a list of the other things I’ve avoided thinking about. I could begin with my tax returns and finish with whatever is eating the basil in my backyard. A friend suggested editing down my original piece so that nobody would be offended. “My name is Michaela. Sometimes people ask me things that I may or may not contemplate before deciding my answer. END.”

When The Wheeler Centre called and asked if I would write something that circled around the ‘Has Feminism Failed?’ debate and would generate some discussion, I was in bed with a fever. Had they called and asked the next day, my answer may have been different. But here we all are, and I am glad for that.

What you have read above are simply the experiences of one simple woman. I do not pretend to have an informed, academic knowledge of feminism and I believe that this is more than apparent. I agree entirely that my experiences with feminism, in the brief moments that I have felt compelled to consider it, have been stereotypical and negative. And that is why I think it’s important to mention this. There are, I’m sure, many women who’ve never given much thought to everything that has been discussed here, and everything that will be discussed at the debate tomorrow. I think it is also worth acknowledging that the people who have not given much thought to feminism are unlikely to click on a link about the topic.

Scal, I’m sorry that you don’t believe that there are some university students in Queensland who don’t wear bras or shoes. As to my Home Ec teacher, I am glad that your experiences were different than mine. I assume that your Home Ec teacher also never told you that if you lived in rental houses then your chances of ever being happy would be greatly diminished, and for this I am glad.

Jonathan, I am sorry to have disappointed you. It will either comfort or horrify you to know that I’m equally uncomfortable labelling myself as a feminist as I am as identifying myself as a writer, a paralegal, an author, a “drily comic” voice or any other number of things. I included examples of the strange, conflicting, negative examples of feminism that I have encountered as a means of attempting to demonstrate that there is at least one woman in the world – and yes, I am the first to agree that this woman comes from a reasonably comfortable background – who has not engaged with feminism because their experiences with it have been strange and curious.

For whatever it is worth, I am also glad that this discussion has taken place and that the topic is being debated, by people far more informed than I, tomorrow night.

Michaela McGuire
21 September at 01:05PM

Michaela, it's not that I don't believe that people don't wear bras, it's just that that image is not exactly a representative image of feminism any more. Bringing it up these days just seems retrograde and lazy.

21 September at 02:51PM

Hooray! I'm delighted to be one of those nagging bitches with their total downer rules – ie, someone who asked Michaela why Women of Letters uses a rhetoric of celebrating women, but was instituted to raise funds for animals. Specifically, my question was, "Wouldn't a charity that helps women be a better fit?"

Basically, this article confirms what I suspected when I interviewed her: that Michaela really hasn't thought this stuff through very much.

Also, I have to say that I'm pretty disappointed in the way the Wheeler Centre has framed this debate. If you agree that women and men deserve the same dignity, respect and opportunities in life, you are a feminist. If you disagree with the idea that women should be denied these things, merely because they are women, you are a feminist. It's that simple, and it doesn't matter what else you disagree with about organised feminism.

I would argue that Michaela's privileged life, successful career and conviction in her own opinions are the fruits of feminism's past, hard-won successes. The fact that she has come to view these things as invisible, and to see them as her own successes alone, is indeed a triumph for feminism.

Mel Campbell
28 September at 11:36AM

Hang on, that seems a bit extreme Mel. And as far as I can tell, the Wheeler Centre has not really framed this debate in any particular way except to get a guest writer and to promote an event which debates the status of the struggle.

From your linked article:

Stuff like this continues to remind us of the importance of genuinely championing women’s voices. So The Enthusiast was more than a little disappointed to find that Women Of Letters was not, in fact, dreamed up to showcase the talents of women, but to raise money for animals – specifically, for Edgar’s Mission, a shelter for neglected and abused livestock. A pun-heavy article in The Age about the event has Marieke Hardy posing with two hogs and speaking about her veganism.

Wouldn’t a charity that helps women be a better fit? “No, not at all,” McGuire insists. “Women of Letters actually came about because we wanted to raise money for Edgar’s Mission. That was the impetus for putting on the event, and we thought it might be easier and a lot more fun to host a panel of brilliant women rather than a collective of farmyard animals. Hopefully our audience will agree.”

I do agree. I don't expect all Pakistan flood fundraisers to be wet t-shirt competitions. I would be mortified if all generic fundraiser gigs helped raise money for poorly dressed musicians. There has always been cross-pollination between causes. I think it's simplistic to suggest that because this raises money for animal welfare, this in any way likens women to animals. That's just silly.*

Hardy and perhaps McGuire (I don't know, but it is evident enough through Hardy's rambling and general public veganism) clearly believe in animal welfare, and maybe even consider it more urgently needing of fundraising than women's shelters and domestic violence counselling services and sexual education. That's their call, really.

However I do agree with your final point that yes, Michaela's ability not to engage properly with feminism is a luxury of our time and a product of previous battles won (or at least negotiated).

* Not intended as a sexist jibe

Jonathan K
30 September at 04:38PM

Feminism is not easily defined but I think Michaela is carrying the torch rather well. I'm not sure what her attitude towards men are though? The one time I did meet her she was so rude to my male acquaintance that I believe I heard him whisper "man-hater," sotto voce.

18 June at 11:10PM

Hi Mick

I can't believe how well you are doing and think that the little girl from tarragindi has done so well. Good for you. Anyhow I really need to talk to your Dad I have not heard from him for 6 months and its killing me. I know he has gone on with his life but if you could find it in your heart to pass on this message or either give me his mobile number that would be wonderful.

Thank you

04 July at 07:47PM

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