I was brought up at the edge of feminism. From the inside of my bubble that was ruled by a mysogonisitic, egocentric capitalist bully (aka as a typical Aussie bloke of the 1970s), I was aware I was being shouted at by a load of women who had been woken up by the second wave of feminists in the 1960s. Still regarded as a bunch of hairy lesbians who couldn’t get a man by many, their messages to me were strident and evalengical. Girls can do anything! You can get divorced if you’re unhappy! You can get a job even if you’re married and have kids. Get educated and you can break free from the patriarchy.
I wasn’t sure what the patriarchy was when I was young but I had a feeling it might be to do with being oppressed and controlled by men. THAT I got. My life and everyone in it was controlled by one person: Dad. He made sure it was very clear that he was the king of the castle and we were there to do his bidding. A source of pride was that he wasn’t under the thumb of his wife and he didn’t have to send her out to work like some of the other weaker men out there. I made enough to look after my family and your mum gets to stay home and look after you, he said. We were told we were lucky and maybe we were.
I didn’t feel lucky all the time though, especially when girls and women had to do all the work that wasn’t about us being able to stay at home to do all the work.
We had to do everything. My Dad, who was ironically brought up by a budding ‘women’s libber’ in the 40s and 50s, had firm ideas about how things should be done. His shoes had to be cleaned by me. Shirts ironed and meals cooked. House cleaned, of course. Anything to do with child care, which meant looking after children unless it was a family outing, was women’s and girls work.
I could see that it was a crock of shit and like the troublesome and moody child that I was, I seethed with resentment.
I listened more for the voices from the crazy lessers who couldn’t get a man. Ironically, there were quite a few coming from the little prison dad had sent me to because I needed straightening out with some good old fashioned conservative values: a Catholic girls school.
These women – nuns to be precise – were definitely still oppressed by the patriarchy, I could see. You couldn’t make a move without some bloke above them in then church wearing a frock and necklace calling the shots but as every clever woman knows, once the guys think they’re in charge and believe all the good ideas are theirs, it’s time to get on with what you want to do. They believed i shaping young women to be strong and educated. They gave us a voice they we may not have had at home. They pushed us to become leaders. It was a bit of secret Women’s Libber academy, even if the priests said we had to wear creepy bloomers while playing girls-only sports. I wonder how the fathers would have felt about that as he made his generous donations…
But besides the nuns telling me I could break free, I also had a keen sense of injustice that was on high alert since I was born. Was surrounded by it. I couldn’t make a bloody move, think a thought or do anything other than smile, be acquiescent and helpful and kind without being labelled moody and defiant.
I was only allowed to be a good girl, and I wasn’t, according to the patriarchal system that bred me. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I wasn’t fully woke or secretly reading German Greer as a girl. I was still a product of my environment with all the beliefs of a privileged white girl. I believed it was okay to think calling indigenous Australians Abos or when European migrants were called wogs, or when African Americans were called niggers. I thought it was funny when disabled people were mocked and looked down on as a burden of society. Seriously, this was normal back in the 70s when it was okay to call people retardant and spaZzos and they all went to different schools and it was a viable option to give up a deformed child for adoption. Who wanted to deal with that?
I thought it was okay to be rude to people who were deemed lesser than me. I was shown it was okay to get incredibly drunk, fall done and do embarrassing and mortifying things all in the name of having a good time. And then do it all over again. I was shown it was okay to beat the living daylights out your kids if they were out of control. I was shown that I should expect to be told what clothes to wear, how to wear my hair, as. What friends I should have and who I should vote for when I got older. I was taught that teachers were actually communists because they were on the edge of the crowd of libbers and lefties. I was taught that universities were hotbeds of communism and should be avoided at all costs. But most of all I was taught to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told. I didn’t, which meant my life was never going to be easy.
I left the Captain’s ship when I was 15: unbelievably young when I look back as a mother. But back then it wasn’t unheard of and was relatively easy to get a job and a flat, so I escaped and made my own way. I thought I might have escaped male dominance but it was still so entrenched in society that I could barely grasp how little power I actually had. At work, the men had all the good jobs and got paid more and told us what to do. I was placed in a gaggle of women who ran things and did all the work and told that was it was okay to be sexually harassed by men three times my age. Don’t wear low cut tops when you have boobs like that, I was scolded, of course it was my fault. I needed to stay safe and wear a sack. I didn’t see why I had to do to fend off creepy or (and young) guys.
I was taught that it was okay for men to get away with getting to work late, hungover and shaky, joking about what legends they were for sinking a ton of puss the night before, but the women had to work like demons to get everything done so we could join the boys at the pub after work.
I was taught that in order to be truly happy, I had to have a man. Marriage and kids were still the ultimate goal, but having a boyfriend was how you made your mark. You nabbed yourself a bloke – good girl! Going to uni was becoming far more coveted in the 80s by many women but still seen as a bit of jokey indulgence by many. I’ll never forget the light in my dads eyes getting darker when I told him I was going to study aged 19. Watch out for those lefties who will try and indoctrinate you, he warned. Challenge them, he challenged me.
He was right. Everything changed when I started reading for a degree. I was exposed to knowledge and belief systems that I didn’t know existed. I learnt that actually, other people thought being a woman meant I was routinely discriminated against in every setting of my life. I learnt that if I got married, had kids and relied on a man to support me I would be exposed to more physical, mental and financial violence and abuse than I would if I stayed on my own. I learnt that I would probably have to work harder and longer at my workplace for less money and struggle to be recognised for any talent or skills I had. I learnt that if I had children, I would be financially disadvantaged and have to take the lions share of the workload.
It was all a bit dire really.
Marriage and weddings never did it for me, even as a little girl. I never fell for the shite wedding fantasy crap that others seemed to love. Maybe I was scarred by my parent’s turbulent marriage, or maybe I had a past life nuptial disaster, or perhaps I carried the generational trauma of countless of my female ancestors being controlled and abused by their menfolk. What we the reason, consciously and unconsciously, I felt a dread at the thought of getting married and being owned by someone. Fuck. That.
But in a in blur of Merlot and sea of lust, I agreed to marry a beloved boyfriend when I was in my mid-20s. Immediately upon sobering up, I regretted it. I said I would only do that in a red dress and keep my own name. He disagreed vehemently and we didn’t last long after that. Can’t keep hold of a man, I swear I heard someone muttering. Thank fuck for that, I thought.
But besides relief at the odd lucky escape of getting out of shitty relationships, not much planning was involved. Children? I loved them and was convinced I would be a mother one day. Beyond that inner knowing, I knew nothing.
The trajectory for that part of my life was decided when I discovered I was pregnant aged 29. It was definitely an oops moment but I was ecstatic to be a mum, however it looked. I’ve always been a bit brave and a bit stupid (the two can go hand in hand) and I earnestly tried to convince the father that we should try and play happy families. Initially, he could t believe his luck when he realised behind the hard-partying career girl he found a bit hard to handle was a domestic goddess
Madonna seemed to have having a great time getting away with being sexy and strong. I decided to strut.