Beware the f word

SO let me get this straight.
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Australia’s first out and proud, openly feminist Prime Minister is a bloke.

Australia’s two most senior female government ministers aren’t comfortable calling themselves feminists, because it’s a term that “isn’t particularly useful these days”, or they don’t “associate with that movement” or “set of ideologies”.

Australia’s first female Prime Minister also wasn’t comfortable with the F word, until a former trainee priest/pollie/future Prime Minister accused her of misogyny and she unleashed a speech in Parliament that made her an icon for feminists around the world.

The former trainee priest/pollie/future Prime Minister liked the idea of being a feminist so much –despite deciding only one woman had the goods to make it to Cabinet –that he made himself Minister for Women and killed the carbon tax especially for thegals.

Last week an Australian of the Year got into strife for saying the term “guys” in the workplace could leave women feeling left out, and a gender-neutral word like “folks” was preferable if an employer wanted the best out of all staff.

And this week our proud feministPrime Minister talked about his childhood and got emotional in what was described as a move to court the women’s vote, presumably because women like that touchy-feely kind of stuff whileblokes watch the footy.

Welcome to Week 135, or maybe it’s 164, of the Neverending Federal Election Campaign, where men are men in touch with their feminine sides when it comes to public statements, but women are still dramatically unrepresented in Australian parliaments, and fromleadership roles incorporations, bureaucracies, churches, the media and other institutions.

But let’s get to my childhood.

I think I became a feminist when I was four. It was April, 1964, to be exact, some time after April 2, the day my brother was born.

Everything was fine until then.

I was the eldest of three daughters. Like our PM I had a father who adored his children. I received that adoration exclusively until I was 18 months old when my sister was born. It leaves a mark on a person.

Life as a toddler with two sisters who were happy to toddle and crawl in my wake (they were only two and one at the time) was wonderful. And then the first son appeared, and it was as if the sun had risen for the first time.

I don’t blame my brother for the sudden shift in attention from me to the only boy –now –but it’s fair to say I once did, for a couple of decades.

My brother –who was the only boy for years in a family of eight children, until our youngest two brothers were born in a final bid by our parents for some kind of gender equity –basked in the sunshine of being the only son, and so an epic struggle ensued.

The eldest girl and the eldest boy in our family spent the better part of 20 years trying to establish dominance, and from the age of four I railed against any situation where a male was revered simply because he was male.

I’m not saying it was pretty. I’m not saying I was right to push him off the garage roof or out of the big willow tree in the backyardfor failing to show respect;or for locking him out of the house; or hiding his toys; or engaging in the odd punch-up with him. No.

But the seeds of resentment were planted in me when my brother was referred to by my mother and other adults in the broader family as “the son and heir”, even if being “heir” in a family of11 children with abricklayer provider meant there wasn’t much chance of a castle and grand estate in the future.

But I’m with Australian of the Year David Morrison on the issue of words mattering when it comes to the unconscious messages that are sent to girls and women from gendered language, including “guys”.

The term “the son and heir” sent a subtle message to me and my sisters–that the three girls who preceded my brother suddenly didn’t count, simply because hewas born with external plumbing.

Former Prime Minister and cricket tragic John Howard was regularly quoted saying “thegreatest office anybody can aspireto is to be captain of the Australian cricket team”.

It always struck me that he referred to “anybody” but he was speaking about leading the male Australian cricket team. Half the population was excluded from that aspiration, and the other half was either unaware that it even mattered, or was aware and didn’t say anything about it.

Men are saying something about it now, and are copping a metaphorical beating for it, just as women have been attacked, derided, ridiculed and belittled for doing so in the past.

And this stuff matters.

I am often asked why I ended up being the journalist who wrote most about child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, and later other institutions, and why I’m still writing about it today, exactly 10 years since writing the first article.

It’s mainly because I’m a woman, and a middle-aged one at that, who grew up knowing two kinds of male authority –the nurturing, loving kind of my father that Malcolm Turnbull praised in his father this week –and the top down, “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of male authority across Australian society from the 1960s.

I write about child sexual abuse because it is the ultimate, horrific abuse of power exerted by that “Do as I say, not as I do” kind of male figure.

And as a woman I can spot abusive male powerfrom a kilometre away.

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